HRC Blog

Becoming an Upstander: What Presidential Candidates can Learn from Kids

This post comes from Kim Westheimer, the director of Welcoming Schools for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

HRC welcoming schoolsIt’s not just kids who bully. 

I thought about that while listening to President Obama take the Republican Presidential Candidates to task at the HRC national dinner.  He chastised the candidates for not speaking up during a presidential debate when a few audience members loudly booed an openly gay soldier.  Not one candidate called out the booing as inappropriate. They were silent bystanders to this hurtful behavior.

That soldier deserved to have one of the candidates be an upstander.  An upstander, as many children will tell you, is a person who stands up when someone is being harassed or bullied.

Research tells us that most students want to do something when they see someone being bullied. But students often don’t know what to do and sometimes fear becoming a target. Maybe the Republican candidates were afraid of becoming targets too if they spoke up:  targets of their anti-gay base. Well, I know a group of young students who would be glad to give them some lessons on why they should have spoken up—even if they were afraid.

The students who I have in mind are featured in a new professional development film, “What Do You Know? Six to twelve year olds talk about gays and lesbians.”

The film, produced by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation for the Welcoming Schools Program, features 25 children from Montgomery, Alabama and the greater Boston area. They live in all kinds of families; most have straight parents and go to public schools.

This week, some of the children in the film gathered for a screening. It was delightful to see them watching the film as their wisdom was reflected back to us all:

Two friends talked about a boy who had teased one of them because she had gay dads.  Her friend explained to the boy why he shouldn’t be doing that and now they are all friends.  While she was telling this story, her friend was beaming with pride.  Being an upstander can feel good.

One boy said that all of his friends used to use the word gay as an insult and every time they said it he would say emphatically, "DON'T DO THAT! STOP SAYING THAT –That word DOESN'T MEAN ANYTHING BAD!"  Now his friends don’t use the word anymore.

A girl talked about how her brother was called gay in kindergarten and first grade, “because he was a little bit feminine.”  Wondering why teachers didn’t act as upstanders, the girl said, ”I really wish they would have stopped it.”

Kids appreciated those teachers who did act as upstanders. One student told of his kindergarten teacher who “after a kid had been teased about having two moms. . .the teacher just laid down a few things, it was like, ‘no teasing about who your parents love. Love is love, and you shouldn't turn love into hate.’ "

Emma, the 12-year-old daughter of the filmmaker, assisted in the making of the film.  Since the film has been completed, she has heard many adults be surprised that the children in the film are so articulate.   More surprising, Emma said, is that “adults always think we have so little to say.” 

Well, these kids know a lot and they do have a lot to say.  They know what the word gay means and they know that it hurts when it is used as an insult.  They want adults to talk to them about these topics and they want adults to intervene when someone is being mistreated.  They would be happy to educate anyone who wants a lesson on how to be an upstander.  Any presidential candidates care to stand in line?  It might be one of the best campaign contributions they will get this year. 

Kim Westheimer is the director of Welcoming Schools for the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.  Welcoming Schools is an LGBT inclusive school climate improvement tool that helps elementary schools embrace family diversity, avoid gender stereotyping and stop bullying.  For more information go to or e-mail,

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