teaching tolerance to a troubled teen!
October 23, 2008 10:26 AM   Subscribe

How can someone help a teenage boy who has been showing some hateful, homophobic behavior recently?

My boyfriend's 14-year-old nephew has gotten in trouble at school twice recently, once for tagging school walls with 'yes on prop 8', and once for calling another kid 'fag' along with some other gross insults. He's also taken to drawing swastikas on himself under the (baffling! insane!) belief that nazis were only against homosexuality and were on the right track (and never mind the fact that he's definitely not white himself).

There's a whole bunch of backstory that I probably don't need to get into, but Nephew has lots of issues going on right now, and my boyfriend has often been put in the 'father' role by his sister, Nephew's (adopted) mom. She's asked him to talk to Nephew again about this, but he's just lost as she is.

No one can pinpoint any reason for his new obsession. Nephew has said that another boy in his class was hitting on him, but we have no idea if that's actually true (he has a history of not being very honest). He's also being raised in a religious house where homosexuality is considered wrong, but to the best of our knowledge, no one in his family is specifically hateful towards or intolerant of gay people.

What can he/we do to help? How do you help a teenage boy understand that being gay is Okay, or at the very least, that his behavior is ugly, hurtful, inappropriate, and unacceptable?
posted by logic vs love to Human Relations (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
This behavior is probably a symptom of some underlying problem, rather than a problem unto itself. I think if this obsession is as thoroughgoing as your description indicates he'd probably be best served by getting therapy.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 10:32 AM on October 23, 2008

It doesn’t sound like this kid actually hates gay people. I mean, yes, he’s saying and doing homophobic things, but that level of acting out and ugly behavior points to something else. Homosexuality is just a placeholder for something else, something he’s angry about or some hurt or… I have no idea. I just think you might do well to look at what’s behind it rather than looking for strategies to teach him that gay people are ok.

Or, on preview, what Inspector.Gadget said.
posted by Meg_Murry at 10:34 AM on October 23, 2008

Holocaust Museum? Volunteer ops. at shelters? Powerful ideas, like a Nazi ideology, are deeply attractive. They get disassociated from their end results all too easily.
posted by GilloD at 10:35 AM on October 23, 2008

Could nephew be feeling homosexual impulses himself and acting out against them is a way to prove to himself he's not gay?
posted by valadil at 10:36 AM on October 23, 2008 [5 favorites]

On the Nazi tip ... "Schindler's List" is probably a good reference.
posted by philip-random at 10:38 AM on October 23, 2008

You could point out that many/some people assume that anyone actively homophobic, is in the closet about themselves.
posted by nomisxid at 10:49 AM on October 23, 2008

Seconding Valadil. Kind of classic in that way. Whole lot of studies showing that the most homophobic people tend to be reacting to their own homosexual impulses they are ashamed of.
posted by gwenlister at 10:50 AM on October 23, 2008

Sounds to me like he's looking for maximum shock value, and doing a pretty good job and getting it. I'm with Inspector.Gadget and Meg_Murray -- I bet this isn't a homophobia problem, it's an angry rebellious fourteen-year-old boy problem.

Sensitivity training tends to backfire on kids that age. What's MOAR WORSE than hating on gay people, getting in trouble at school, AND Nazis? Laughing at the Very Serious Lecture Talk/Movie/Museum Visit.
posted by desuetude at 10:51 AM on October 23, 2008

Best answer: Should'a previewed. To nomisxid's point, if OP's boyfriend casually mentions that nephew's behavior is somewhat akin to wearing a big I'M GAY AND DENYING IT pin, he may cut it out. Unfortunate though it may be to validate his current intolerance by using it against him.
posted by desuetude at 10:56 AM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'd agree that you need a professional. Abuse, coming to terms with being gay, or a million other possible causes will likely get easier with treatment.
posted by originalname37 at 11:04 AM on October 23, 2008

Serious intervention is needed. Sounds like a skinhead in the making there. Where is he located and would there be someone consistent and reliable who could bring him to therapy on a regular basis?

Let me just put it as bluntly as possible - this won't be easy. At all. And it's long-term and commitment is needed to help him and the family member who are still in the picture.

I think someone who could actually be a good mentor/adviser would be Jason Carney. I just can't find any contact info for him. Maybe someone here can.
posted by watercarrier at 11:06 AM on October 23, 2008

Best answer: In addition to my first comment, I had some other thoughts as I was walking home, and I concur with some of the above posters about the homosexuality/homophobia link:

You describe your nephew as non-white, but he draws swastikas on himself and maintains that Nazis were only anti-gay. Race and ethnicity, at least as a visual thing, is in many case something that is difficult to conceal: contrast homosexuality, which, self-effected stereotypes (the lisp, etc. that set off people's gaydar) aside, is ordinarily not an obvious trait.

Here's what I'm getting at: the kid carries an immense amount of self-loathing. He can't conceal the fact that he's "ethnic", so he's given up on that, but he can conceal his worry that he might be gay, so he latches onto something that he can say is anti-gay but actually satisfies two (or more) elements of his self-loathing.

I'm not a psychiatrist, a psychologist, or even a particularly insightful person with regard to matters of the mind, but this is too obvious a connection to go unremarked, IMO. Oh, and flag this if it pisses you off overmuch: I gather it might be "insensitive" in part.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 11:09 AM on October 23, 2008

BTW this is Jason Carney doing what he does. I feel very strongly that he can help this boy.
posted by watercarrier at 11:18 AM on October 23, 2008

Response by poster: Thank you for the responses so far. He has been seeing a psychiatrist for ADD and other issues, but it's not really talk therapy, and I agree that something like that would be helpful. I'm loath to suggest to anyone in his family that he might be feeling homosexual impulses himself, but that was my first thought when I heard about this. Does anyone have any articles or anything on the link between homophobia and homosexuality?
posted by logic vs love at 11:25 AM on October 23, 2008

Watch "American History X" with him.

...and tell him he's acting like he's a repressed homo.
posted by notsnot at 11:49 AM on October 23, 2008

Best answer: Here's one. (PDF)

A bit more.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:50 AM on October 23, 2008

Inmy experience teenage boys use what adults would think of as ;gay slurs' all the time - it isn#t nice, but isn't unusual. The Nazi stuff, though, makes me agree with the posters suggesting therapy.
posted by mippy at 12:04 PM on October 23, 2008

I'm honestly just throwing this out there - the post both makes it sound like this came out of the clear blue sky ("No one can pinpoint any reason for his new obsession") but also that there may be other behavior problems here ("Nephew has lots of issues going on right now") but I sort of wonder in the back of my mind if Nephew has maybe been subjected to some same-sex sexual abuse (either recently or sometime in the past) and he's dealing with it through anger and acting out in the ways you describe.

I hate to be the person that points to that, but I do think its in the range of possible answers.
posted by anastasiav at 12:21 PM on October 23, 2008 [7 favorites]

I know it's generally a cop out, but get this kid into therapy asap. This isn't the sort of casual homophobia thrown around by teenage boys who lack confidence in their own sexuality and are generally ignorant about gay people in general. That's the sort of homophobia that can be cured with some knowledge and a reality check, what this kid is doing is far more disturbing and you really need professional help to get to the root of it.
posted by whoaali at 12:26 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I doubt he needs psychiatric counseling so much as he does a good, dependable, consistent male role model in his life. Someone he can spend time with and get to know and respect as an older male who knows what its like to live like a mature adult who is tolerant of those who may have different views/practices than himself. Its probably too delicate a situation that this older role model is himself a homosexual, it would probably just save a lot of headaches if you could find one that is not but that has a relatively normal view on the issues (whether its accepting or not of homosexuality as a practice - at least respecting other humans for who they are, etc.).

There's likely a big-brother program in his community you can get him involved with. It doesn't even need to be framed as a response to his behavior - it can just be a new person for him to hang out with. But I think it will work wonders, getting to know an adult who can shoot hoops or swing a bat but doesn't need to hate on others for their life choices.
posted by allkindsoftime at 12:26 PM on October 23, 2008

I'm surprised that no-one has brought up his circle of friends. Are any of his friends doing similar things? Has he recently started hanging out with new friends? It's possible that he's being recruited by some sort of extremist group, although it's also possible that he's imitating something he saw somewhere else. I am very suspicious of the swastika drawing on the arm - I'm wondering if/how he knows these are common skinhead tatoos. I think it's time to sit down and have a very serious talk about who he's hanging out with and what constitutes acceptable actions on his part. You may not be able to change his attitude - but someone needs to change his behavior now. If it were me (and I thank God it's not) I would ground him immediately until I got to the bottom of what was going on.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:31 PM on October 23, 2008

FWIW, I've known several guys who, despite not actually being racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic, flirted with Nazi bullshit to piss off their parents and school and seem badass when they were teenagers.

It may seem bizarre to be willing to say terribly hateful things and adopt such reviled associations without a smidgen of belief in those ideas, but actually, my friends said that this made it easier. To actually hold those beliefs was just incomprehensibly ridiculous to them; they understood the power of anger, but were too naive to understand true passionate hatred of Jews/gays/blacks/whatev.

Anyway, I mean this as hope that the kid may not actually be a skinhead-in-training.

As an aside, be careful to avoid the "therapy as punishment" or "therapy to find out why you're broken" insinuation. If he's already in a self-loathing place, this isn't going to help.
posted by desuetude at 12:59 PM on October 23, 2008

I would just say that sexual abuse is FAR more common than most people realize. It is something that is particularly difficult for males to talk about. It is easy for boys/men to feel ashamed about it, far more than females, who are seen as more likely targets of abuse. Your nephew may not have suffered abuse, or abuse might not be the root of these behaviors, but it seems like a possibility at least, and just as valid an explanation as any at this point.
posted by senorpuma at 1:35 PM on October 23, 2008

He has been seeing a psychiatrist for ADD and other issues, but it's not really talk therapy...

The way he is drawing swastikas on his body reminds me of the way people use crosses in a vampire movie; it sounds as if he could have developed an overwhelming fear of sexual assault and is using the swastikas as a charm to ward it off.

Methamphetamine abuse seems to give rise to and intensify all kinds of fears (spiders, snakes, gang paranoia, etc.), and I would be surprised if fear of sexual assault is not to be found on that list somewhere.

Most drugs used to treat ADD are forms of amphetamine or methylphenidate, and among the recognized side effects of these stimulant drugs are psychoses and irrational fears.

I suggest raising the issue of this behavior with his psychiatrist and asking if it could have something to do with any drugs he may be on.
posted by jamjam at 2:11 PM on October 23, 2008

One thing teenagers really don't like is to look stupid, so a part of addressing this problem might be to point out (in a straightforward and respectful way) that the messages he's trying to send out are not going to be received the way he intends them - swastikas on a person who isn't white? people are going to think he's stupid for using a symbol without knowing it's true meaning. Homophobic statements? People will assume that he's a repressed homosexual. This could segue nicely into actually asking what he's thinking. "I really don't know what you are trying to express with your actions, can you explain it to me?" Listening is always a good first step.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 2:40 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

I realize that it may be too much digging for you to feel comfortable about giving the info on the internet, but I'd really like to know more about the kid and his issues before I do something like tell him to watch American History X.
posted by klangklangston at 4:24 PM on October 23, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It definitely sounds like he is feeling insecure about his (budding) masculinity---perhaps someone is teasing him, or he is insecure about his position on a team, or he is worried about what he is feeling sexually. My guess is it will take getting to the bottom of whatever that is for him to really put this kind of aggression behind him. Obviously, to lesser degrees, there are men in our culture who never get there.

Is there a good school counselor available? If someone can, asking the other parents or a good teacher who they recommend could really help. (As we all know, not all counselors are created equal!)

That said, you wanted to know what your boyfriend can do. One possible way to broach it is to attack what is probably his rallying cry---"it's so gross!" Point out to him that there are a lot of people in this world we may not want to think about being intimate together. Our parents, ugly people, etc. If he is "grossed out", he can feel that way, but he needs to stuff it---we don't walk around telling everyone we meet how we would feel about them sleeping with x or y person. Someone being gay doesn't change that. Beyond that, he could point out to him that his hatred is a pretty big time waster. It won't stop people from doing what they like and they probably won't feel one bit worse about it. What it will mean is him dwelling endlessly on something he doesn't even like.

If it's possible for his mom to be on board, presenting a unified front that condemns these actions without getting excited about it/giving him attention over it is a good place to start as well. Correcting him when he says "fag" and punishing him, but calmly, will show him that he isn't being listened to or proving a point with all of this.
posted by lacedback at 10:12 PM on October 23, 2008 [2 favorites]

I just want to chime in and give my two cents:

- It sounds to me like he's trying to shock everyone because it gives him an identity and makes him feel noticed and therefore validated (in the mind of a 14-year-old). Perhaps, in his past, he never felt accepted, and his only way of coping with this is to relish in being an outsider? To be recognized, even if it is in a negative way? While I think he should be accountable for his actions and behavior, I think some well-placed positive reinforcement for his good qualities or accomplishments could do him some good as well.

- I also disagree about showing him any movies like Schindler's List. I say this because when I was in 9th grade, my teacher showed the class Schindler's List, and I distinctly remember several classmates laughing at and joking about the most horrifying scenes. I'd think the same thing would go for American History X and the like. Good movies, but not right for this situation.
posted by unassuminglocalgirl at 2:20 AM on October 24, 2008

my boyfriend has often been put in the 'father' role by his sister, Nephew's (adopted) mom. She's asked him to talk to Nephew again about this, but he's just lost as she is.

He's also being raised in a religious house where homosexuality is considered wrong, but to the best of our knowledge, no one in his family is specifically hateful towards or intolerant of gay people.

What can he/we do to help? How do you help a teenage boy understand that being gay is Okay...

Another thing: the mom has raised the kid to think being gay is wrong, but has put your boyfriend in a father figure role, to help get rid of his anti-gay behavior--and make him think being gay is ok? In addition to the above, at the very least he is getting a mixed message. Do you know how anti-gay his mother and his relatives outside of you and your boyfriend are? Is his mother on board with your trying to making him "understand that being gay is okay" or does she just want the swastika stuff to stop?
posted by Pax at 8:24 AM on October 24, 2008

14 is a horribly confusing age to be, you're trying to find self-identity and assert yourself, while basically powerless in every way. The behavior is, on the surface shocking and horrible, but I really think it be attributed to adolescent bs and isn't that uncommon.

I'd second the posters saying tolerance education may backfire, it also may alienate you from the kid. I'd suggest finding some activity/hobby/sport/interest you can share with the kid so he can focus his mind and energy on something positive. Basically give him something to be more into the the silly hate nonsense, and he'll come to realize how silly it is.
posted by oblio_one at 5:36 PM on October 24, 2008

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