As is tradition, President Trump and First Lady Melania invited special guests to the State of the Union and, as is also tradition, these guests tote along with them political narratives. In attendance will be the family of someone who was murdered by an undocumented migrant and a Homeland Security specialist in human trafficking. Their presence is intended to drive home a political point about the dangers of immigrants. Also in attendance will be a young boy named Joshua Trump, bullied for his last name, who will be used to tell a story about bullying — or, more to the point, to obscure a story about bullying.
Joshua Trump, a 6th grade student from Delaware, has been bullied because of his last name for some time now, but it has gotten more intense as the Trump presidency has gone on. In an interview with ‘Inside Edition,’ Joshua said that when his name is called during roll call, almost everyone laughs at him. Because of this — the laughter could be interpreted as backlash against Trump or just kids being jerks, but it’s all the same from Joshua — his parents tried to homeschool him and then transferred him to another school where teachers avoid using his last name at all. He’s presumably been invited to the SOTU to be the face of Melania Trump’s “Be Best” anti-bullying campaign.
Bullying is bad, and this kid shouldn’t be bullied for his name. Everyone can agree on that. But the choice of bringing the young Trump to illustrate the administration’s seriousness about bullying is, well, Trumpian. Joshua’s presence implies a “both sides” narrative that is, frankly, ridiculous. A diminishingly small number of kids are bullied for being named Trump, but lots of kids are bullied for being black or latino or gay. And Trump’s rhetoric has demonstrably encouraged this. Studies have shown that bullying rates are higher in schools in districts that voted for Trump and that his emergence as a political leader seemed to exacerbate the problem.
But let’s focus on the community that seems to be most meaningfully put at risk by bullying: LGBTQ youth. According to the Trevor Project, queer-identified children contemplate suicide at three times the rate of straight kids and are five times as likely to have attempted suicide as straight kids or required medical treatment from a suicide attempt than straight kids. And that’s just kids who are lesbian, gay, or bisexual. Some 40 percent of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt, and 92 percent of those attempts happened before the age of 25. Here’s why: 81 percent of trans youth are harassed at school, 72 percent of lesbian students are harassed at school, and 66 percent of gay and bisexual students are harassed at school.
So why isn’t Trump bringing a young, proud gay American? Because his administration does not support those most at risk. In fact, his Vice President’s wife works at a school that does not accept gay children or children of gay parents. This is both predictable and unfortunate given that every instance of bullying makes gay kids 2.5 times more likely to engage in self-harm according to recent data. And let’s not forget that the State of the Union is coming on the heels of a much-publicized hate crime perpetrated against Jussie Smollet, a gay, black actor and singer who two young men beat up. When they were done, they put a noose around his neck and welcomed him to “MAGA Country.”
Really. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for kids in America behind car accidents. Bullying is part of the reason why and it really is a crisis, a good topic for the State of the Union and for a First Lady to prioritize. But to pretend to care about the wellbeing of children while actually obscuring the nature of the real problem is negligent and hateful. Joshua Trump is surely a good kid, but his presence is a distraction. He’s been made a pawn in a singularly ugly (and poorly played) political game.
So while Joshua sits in the SOTU hall tonight, Mike Pence’s contributions to those 10 million LGBT Americans, over 200,000 of which live in his home state of Indiana, should not be ignored. Mike Pence felt bullied because his wife chose to teach at a school that expels gay students and doesn’t allow kids of gay parents to attend their school and still is federally subsidized by the government even though they essentially sponsor a discriminatory learning environment. Mike Pence, in his home state of Indiana, supported and legalized conversion therapy, a type of religious-based therapy that parents can send their kids to to “cure them” of their sexuality. Conversion therapy, it should be noted, has affected nearly one million Americans and is correlated with a higher rate of suicide attempts. Perhaps they could have invited a survivor of that? Mike Pence, in his home state of Indiana, voted against an Employment Non-Discrimination act in 2007. Mike Pence, in 2012, refused to say whether or not he supported gay couples raising children, even though the science all but concludes that kids of gay couples are totally fine. In 2014, a year before gay marriage was legalized in the United States, Pence added an amendment to a bill banning same-sex marriage in Indiana.
So what is the Trump Administrations real stance on bullying? The seem to be for getting away with it. Mike Pence is a long-time proponent of conversion therapy, a form of extreme, institutionalized bullying, and Donald Trump is a Twitter troll who has refers to Senator Jack Rosen as ‘Wacky Jacky’, Representative Adam Schiff as ‘Little Adam Schitt’, and Elizabeth Warren as ‘Pocahontas’ and political analyst Chuck Todd as ‘Sleepy-Eyed Chuck,’ an anti-semitic dog-whistle. The question for the President, then, might not be how to get kids to stop bullying young Joshua, but how to get his own name out of the dirt by doing right by other children.