In September 2010, six American teenagers took their own lives. All boys, all were driven to suicide by anti-gay bullying. The tragedies prompted syndicated columnist Dan Savage to produce a short video with his partner, Terry Miller, which they posted on YouTube to reassure young victims of bullying that no matter how hopeless or painful life seems now, you cannot give up. The video sparked a massive online movement called It Gets Better.
Since that first video, celebrities, politicians and everyday people have taken to the internet, posting their own stories and messages of hope for bullied teens. US President Barack Obama made a video, as did Lady Gaga. Today there are more than 30,000 videos with more than 40 million views worldwide.
The Pink Alliance, a coalition of sexual rights groups in Hong Kong, hopes to bring the same message of hope and acceptance to the city. Their campaign, I Am Me, will come online by the end of next month. As in the case of It Gets Better, everyone is welcome to post videos of hope and solidarity to the official I Am Me webpage and to a public forum on YouTube. One of the first videos will feature radio personality Brian Leung, the host of the radio programme We Are Family.
This comes as welcome relief to people like twenty-something Victor, who endured persistent bullying during his six years in secondary school in Hong Kong. His classmates taunted him constantly, calling him 'gay' or 'sissy'.
'Name-calling was the start; then they started throwing paper at me during lessons ... putting rubbish in my bags and locker ... They wrote different names on my table ... They would yell [names] through the [classroom] windows.'
During his first year of secondary school, Victor was attacked by a fellow student. Instead of making friends, he faced new levels of cruelty as the bullying continued.
'It was a nightmare ... They showed no mercy,' he says.
Despite Hong Kong's reputation as a world city, there is a widespread reluctance to publicly discuss sexuality, especially homosexuality.
The lack of public discussion is troubling for the I Am Me programme. The US campaign succeeded because quite a few celebrities, public figures and average people were willing to discuss their sexuality publicly, but that kind of openness may prove elusive in Hong Kong. Potential role models for sexual minorities are nearly non-existent here. Pop veteran Anthony Wong Yiu-ming, who recently 'came out' as a homosexual, is a rare exception.
The local lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community faces daunting challenges. Advocacy groups have few resources and no legislative support. The equal opportunities ordinance covers discrimination based only on sex, race, disability and family status. Same-sex couples do not share the legal rights and protections of heterosexual couples. And even though the Education Bureau has guidelines against discrimination based on sexual orientation in schools, these are not legally binding and are seldom enforced. There is only one social service here that addresses the issues of LGBT youths and their families, Project Touch of the Boys' & Girls' Clubs Association.
A recent survey conducted by Project Touch found that more than 80 per cent of LGBT youth respondents hide their sexual identities. Of those who have come out, more than 42 per cent experienced verbal bullying, and 13.5 per cent suffered physical harm or sexual harassment. Of all respondents, 60 per cent reported feeling lonely and helpless, and it is easy to see why: fewer than half of all students have received education about respecting people of different sexual orientations, and nearly a quarter reported hearing homophobic remarks from teachers themselves. Most disturbingly, 22 per cent of respondents reported having considered suicide.
Victor says he was driven to the edge of despair at school. When classmates discovered a blog of voice recordings that he had created, they added 'violent language and dirty words' and sang along in class. The bullies then created a blog copying Victor's, filling it with slurs and abuse. Victor went to the school office and broke down.
'I kept crying and crying. I kept asking them: 'I am a good boy in school. I follow the rules, try to help teachers, try to be a good friend to my classmates. Why do these kinds of things happen to me? [With] no help from the schools, no help from the teachers. And why do they [the bullies] break the rules, make the teachers mad, yell and be noisy. Why do they survive? Why are they the ones who are happy?'
'It's not my fault. I didn't do anything wrong to them. I didn't destroy everything for them, but they destroyed everything for me.'
At one point, Victor's situation became so desperate that even one of the bullies grew concerned that he might kill himself, 'but I'd had the thought of committing suicide for four or five years'.
Two themes that come up repeatedly in Victor's story are his feelings of powerlessness and injustice. He felt he had no one to turn to and his attempts to reach out to authority figures proved fruitless.
The Education Bureau has organised workshops, seminars and sharing sessions relating to anti-bullying and sex education. But activists say these do not focus enough on the special needs of sexual minorities.
Victor says he 'was being bullied for [my] entire school life. Sometimes [the bullying] would happen in front of teachers, and they did nothing.'
Activists and childcare professionals say bullying must be addressed regardless of your views on gay rights. Bullying crosses lines of class, race, gender and sexual orientation, and has long-term consequences for society.
According to Anna Nunez, head of counselling at Hong Kong International School, there is a clear link between childhood bullying and substance abuse, which, in turn, can lead to more serious crime.
Dr Barry Connell, a psychiatrist at Central Health Medical Practice, says such childhood behaviour can continue as people mature, leading to bullying in the workplace and at home. Rather than dismiss it as a rite of passage, he says the effects of bullying can be extraordinarily damaging and long lasting.
Victor enrolled in an associate degree course after he finished secondary school, but the damage from being bullied never left him. Eventually he dropped out: 'The feelings of being isolated, the bad feelings all came out, and I couldn't go to school.'
He eventually reached out to Project Touch; he was assigned a counsellor and later diagnosed with severe depression.
Today he is still struggling. 'Some of these memories affect me in different situations like making new friends. I don't know if they will hurt me. When I was small, I tried to trust everyone because I believed the world is good, [but the bullying] affected everything in my life.'
The Education Bureau has been giving more attention to the issue of bullying. Newly appointed principals are required to undergo a development programme, which discusses equal opportunities in education. The bureau has also organised anti-bullying activities. Still, it can only urge schools to take steps to prevent discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment.
If there is a lesson to be learned from the tragedies in the US, it is that anti-gay bullying needs attention on every level, as the consequences of bullying with potentially calamitous results for society.
C.Y. Chau, a social worker at Project Touch, says every person can help the cause by denouncing the use of homophobic language and all bullying. Pink Alliance chairman Reggie Ho adds society needs authority figures who will talk publicly about the seriousness of bullying and LGBT identity.
Now a music teacher, Victor tries to give his students support. 'In one class, I talked to them for almost half the lesson [about bullying]. Some cried and said they felt lonely and helpless. I told them: 'Tell yourself you are strong enough to survive. I will always be with you because in my time no one was with me'.'
Activists and victims agree that to bring real change, the government must pass binding ordinances against bullying and extend basic equality and protections to the LGBT community. But at least in the I Am Me campaign, youths at risk will have a channel to seek support and express themselves. It might even save their lives.