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What could possibly possess an adult to bully an eight-year-old child? Bully her parents, too? And their school’s administrators and teachers? Because the child in question identifies as female, despite having been born with male sex organs?

Surely not. Surely no adult, whether or not a parent themselves, would be so cruel, so heartless, so devoid of compassion and understanding to do such a thing. And yet that’s precisely what one mother and her husband have been doing to Isabella Burgos and her parents and siblings, and to the administrators and teachers at their primary school in Winnipeg’s Transcona neighbourhood. All because Isabella was born a boy.

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Bullying is a vile, pernicious behaviour all too common on playgrounds, in school classrooms and across various social media. Too often the bullying is dismissed as a rite of passage, or a “boys will be boys” phase that must be gone through. “It builds character,” say those who’ve never been bullied themselves.

Except it doesn’t build character. It isn’t a rite of passage. And it isn’t just between boys. Bullying is a behaviour that crosses age, gender and cultural lines. At its core it is abuse committed by someone more powerful towards someone less so.

In the last few years, Canada has seen a number of headline-grabbing incidents of such abuse; tragically, in every case, they ended with the teenaged victims, gay and straight, taking their own lives.

Think about that for a moment: Being so brutally, viciously, unendingly bullied by your peers, and feeling so alone, so isolated, so helpless to stop it you choose to end your own life.

But it need not be so. Bullying, after all, isn’t simply playground tom-foolery or Facebook nit-picking between kids; bullying is borne from the hate-filled crucible of prejudice, which is taught by bigoted parents, encouraged by political and religious zealots, rewarded by those gutless teachers and principals who sit idly by while it occurs on their watch by those in their care.

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So why would a grown woman bully an eight-year-old girl? If bullying between children is despicable, surely bullying by an adult towards a child is even more heinous. But what sort of prejudice would drive an adult to bully a child simply because that child, born a boy, identifies as a girl? What could possibly foment such hatred?

Religion.

Yes, what else but religion is so utterly obsessed with sex, sexuality, gender and identity. What else but religion could possibly castigate someone for seeing themselves as something other than that which “God” ordained them to be. What else but religion could possibly convince an otherwise rational, thinking adult to spew hateful, knuckle-dragging epithets against a child, her parents, her siblings, her teachers. No, there’s no other possible explanation for the bullying Isabella Burgos has endured but religion.

Which makes this particular case all the more disgusting. Because it makes plain just how destructive, debilitating, deliberately cruel religion can be. For one of the hallmarks of religion of all sorts is its obsession with, and focus upon difference. Despite the overwhelming similarities that unite the human race, religion is devoted to exploiting, or worse manufacturing things that can be used to drive wedges between us. Be it the eucharist, or the sex organs between our legs.

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Half a world away, adherents to an especially vile interpretation of Islam are butchering their way through Iraq and Syria. It would be a mistake to think what is going on in those countries is foreign to us here in Winnipeg; that it is the behaviour of religious zealots incapable of existing in an enlightened Western society like Canada’s. No, at their core, the murderous butchers that comprise the ranks of ISIS are inspired by the same sureness of faith that prompted the mother who bullied Isabella Burgos for being trans.

Not that religion has been invoked in any of the coverage about Isabella’s ordeal. Religion remains firmly off limits. Apparently, everyone is entitled to their opinion about the small matters of THE ORIGINS OF THE UNIVERSE and EVERYTHING THAT CAME AFTERWARD. Bizarrely, regardless of how outlandish, absurd or hurtful such opinions, religion is beyond reproach.

Nonsense.

The prejudice inspired and encouraged by religion of all stripes has been and continues to be the most destructive, devastating force imaginable throughout human history. And what is going on in the Arab world today cannot, must not be dismissed as a Muslim problem. No, it is a religious problem, and one which is just as prevalent in Canada. And the agents of hatred here in Canada, like the mother bullying Isabella Burgos, adhere to the same sureness of faith and adherence to religion that inspire those ISIS monsters.

Isabella Burgos’ story isn’t one about gender identity or gender issues, but religion. And the bullying she has endured because of the religiosity of her tormentor cannot be reduced or dismissed. If we’re to get serious about ending this abuse on our playgrounds, in our schools, and across social media, then we must start by correctly identifying the source of this prejudice and take the steps necessary to bring it to its rightful end.

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Originally published on Spectator Tribune.

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For a second time, the justice system has had to contend with allegations of sexual misconduct at Winnipeg’s St. John’s-Ravenscourt School—and has once again failed the victims.

On February 19, Justice Janice leMaistre rejected a jail sentence for a young man originally charged with over 10 counts of sexual assault with a weapon, possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, and nine counts of forcible confinement and uttering threats involving as many as victims.

Yes, the defendant plead guilty to a lesser number of charges, admitting his guilt in what the media has so casually termed “hazing incidents.” However, because he is currently enrolled in medical school and, according to his lawyer, “He’s got unbelievably top grades. He’ll, without question, qualify to be admitted,” he won’t be saddled with a criminal record, which would seriously jeopardize his ability to become a qualified medical doctor.

This is a travesty for the victims and, to me, sets an eerie precedent for future such cases.

What if this young man had instead chosen a less prestigious path? A dentist? A lawyer? What if he’d skipped university altogether and, instead, taken up a trade? A plumber? An electrician? A lowly cook? What then? Would it have increased his guilt, or the severity of his past crimes? Should it have?

Worse, of all the professions this young man has chosen, he is seeking to become a doctor. What person would want to be treated by him? Would you? Should you have a right to know that this young man, when 18, victimized as many as 15 boys in ways that can be rightly described as depraved?

More than anything, why should what he’s doing now in any way influence how negatively we view what he did three years ago? Kudos to him for his current academic successes, but surely our actions should have consequences. And his actions, depraved and heinous, should come with steep ones. At the very least they should make it more difficult, if not outright impossible, for him to become a medical doctor.

I was a student of St. John’s-Ravenscourt from 1988 to 2000. It holds a complicated place in my heart and my personal history. I was bullied at various times during my 12 years at the school. Mercifully, it was never so grotesque as what this individual did to those 15 boys. No, I suffered mere garden-variety, boys-will-be-boys stuff. You know, the kind of bullying our society continues to shrug off. Still, the subject matter of bullying, of hazing, of abuse touches a raw nerve with me.

Accordingly, maybe I’m biased and unfit to pronounce upon this case. My bias, after all, is usually with the victims, and for justice.

Still, where is the outrage over this verdict? Why have we so casually accepted the outcome of this especially disturbing case? Will the Crown appeal it? Among other things, the defendant had been charged with “pinning [a] younger boy on the floor and removing his pants. A walking stick was allegedly held near the anus of the victim and he was threatened with penetration.”

What if, I wonder, his victims had been young girls. Would we, as a society, have responded any differently? Would Justice Janice leMaistre?

We’ll never know. And neither will his patients.

Last week, Amanda Todd, a 15-year old girl from British Columbia, took her own life.

While all suicides should make us stop and consider the enormity of pain and despair that person must’ve been feeling to commit such an act upon themselves, Amanda’s case is especially notable because she’d previously posted a video to YouTube in which she recounted the bullying she had endured since the 7th Grade and the misery of her life in the ensuing years.

I’ve written about bullying before. I’ll say it again now: there is no greater scourge on playgrounds, in locker rooms, on buses, in cafeterias than bullying. It is a vile, vicious form of abuse, and one which we, as a society, seem truly unwilling to seriously, finally bring to an end.

How many more children—yes, children—must kill themselves before we, as adults, do something?

And let’s dispense with the notion right now that “education” or “awareness” will solve this problem. They are the bromides of gutless politicians who wish to appear to be doing something without actually doing anything at all.

Unless or until we admit bullying is far more serious, more deadly than mere playground tom-foolery or Facebook nit-picking “between kids” it will continue—and children will continue to die.

It’s time to bring the full force of the law to bear against these bullies: charge them with murder, with manslaughter; call it what you will, but the words and actions of these morally bankrupt individuals cut so deep, their abuse so perverse and so unending they might as well have killed their victims. After all, they had already crushed their souls, shattered their spirits beyond recognition or repair. Enough with the bully moniker, charge them for who they really are: murderers.

But do not stop with these murderous bullies. Charge the parents, too. Charge them with aiding and abetting their little monsters’ wicked crimes. Bullying, after all, is learned behaviour. Clearly, obviously, they created the conditions in which these children believed it was acceptable to abuse others with wanton disregard. Charge them, too.

And do not stop with the parents, either. Charge those gutless teachers and school administrators who sat idly by while these crimes occur on their watch by those in their care. Charge them with depraved indifference.

Adults must be held accountable, too.

This isn’t a joke anymore. It isn’t a “right of passage,” a bit of rough-housing, a little harmless character building. It’s criminal. And it’s deadly. And it has to stop. Now.

On February 29th, Leap Day, Lady Gaga unveiled her Born This Way Foundation. Canada’s pink shirt day against bullying also took place.

Fitting: Leap Day has always been a day for outcasts and iconoclasts, rarities and rituals.

These initiatives and others like them (e.g., Ally Week; the It Gets Better project; NOH8) share similar, important aims: making our communities safer, kinder, more accepting for all our children and teens — regardless of their sex, gender, identity, image. And in every case, that starts when the bullying stops.

I can think of no greater scourge on playgrounds, in locker rooms, on buses, in cafeterias than bullying. Tragically, it isn’t going away. It isn’t even getting better. Bullying has never been worse, the consequences never more fatal than they are right now.

It breaks my heart — and fills my gut with a white-hot rage.

Sticks and stones do break bones, yes. And words? Words cut far deeper, wounding the soul, leaving terrible, horrible, lifelong scars. Anyone who says otherwise has clearly never been the victim of bullying, mercifully so.

I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like for boys and girls growing up in today’s world, what with the Internet and its myriad social media, smart phones and high-speed cellular networks, webcams and waning privacy; to be different, atypical, above or below “average,” anything other than the vaunted “normal.”

Worst of all, for a seemingly endless number of young people, boys in particular, the only way out, the only way to end the pain and the torment, is to end it all.

Suicide.

Think about that for a moment: Being so brutally, viciously, unendingly bullied by your peers, and feeling so alone, so isolated, so helpless to stop it you choose to end your own life.

15-year-old Jamie Hubley of Ottawa made that tragic choice last October.

In the aftermath of his death, I posted the following:

Jamie Hubley’s teachers, his school’s administrators, and the parents of his tormentors should be charged with depraved indifference.

Six months on, I remain convinced of this opinion, more so now than ever before.

Is there such a law on the books in Canada? I know not; but, I do know time has long passed for our society to view bullying as a “boys will be boys” rite of passage, a bit of harmless character building between kids that we, as adults, have no part of, nor are responsible for.

Prejudice isn’t innate, it’s learnt; taught by bigoted parents, encouraged by political and religious zealots, rewarded by those gutless teachers and principals who sit idly by while it occurs on their watch by those in their care.

Make these people answer for their crimes; hold them to account for the decision Jamie Hubley felt he had to make. They are no less guilty than the bullies they nurtured with their hatred, or ignored because of their cowardice.

How many more children must take their own lives before we take seriously this epidemic infecting our schools and playgrounds, community centres and public squares?