Billy Lucas. Seth Walsh. Asher Brown. Tyler Clementi. These names of teenagers who have committed suicide have come to us through the national news this fall semester 2010. They had been subjected to anti-gay harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation. Some had come out, and some had never revealed their sexual orientation to anyone. Whether in middle school, high school, or their first year of university, they encountered bullies who harassed them. Raymond Chase and Cody J. Barker were two out gay youth who also killed themselves this fall. In a hate crime not related to sexual orientation or gender identity, 11-year-old Tyler Walsh had his arm broken by other middle school children. His “offense” was becoming a male cheerleader. Two of his peers enforced the gender role they had learned.
The risk of suicide for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning youth has been known for decades now. Research literature provides the estimate that gay, lesbian and bisexual youth attempt suicide at a rate 2–4 times higher than their heterosexual peers. A recent study reported a rate of attempted suicide for transgender youth of 26%. Multiple factors contribute to suicide risk. Adolescence is a time when individuals face the tasks of finding their identity and establishing sexual/emotional intimacy in relationships. For heterosexual youth and those who are not gender-variant, society promotes and fosters these tasks. However, for LGBTQ youth, attempting to accomplish these tasks happens in a highly variable society. Some of them have wonderful support from their families, while others face hostility or outright rejection. Only 14 states and D.C. have non-discrimination laws that protect lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth when they go to school, while another 3 protect LGB youth. According to a 2009 GLSEN survey of youth, only 18% of their schools have comprehensive programming concerning anti-gay bullying. G. Mason in 2002 summarized results from large surveys in several English-speaking countries. Seventy to eighty percent of lesbians and gay men reported experiencing verbal abuse in public because of their orientation. The experiences of bisexual and transgender people are similar.
Bullying is a blight upon any educational system. Bullying youth have learned to hate from an environment in which some politicians and religious leaders devalue the lives of LGBTQ people and provide the language bullies can mimic. Some families model hate. As a result, LGBTQ children and youth sometimes endure experiences for which we, as adults, would call the police if they happened to us. There are educators and administrators who are committed to zero tolerance for bullying. However, victims who have endured ongoing bullying to the extent that bystander peers are aware of it most likely represent a failure of adults to intervene adequately. A teacher only saying, “Don't do that,” does not effectively address the situation. Consequences change behavior. As a survivor of anti-gay verbal, physical and sexual harassment when a youth, I remember how terrified and isolated I felt. Unfortunately, my experience continues to be a common one for many LGBTQ youth. If you are a UNH student and are being bullied or harassed, you can report it to any of the resources listed at the end of this article and receive support.
As the late gay poet Paul Monette wrote, “Grief is a sword, or it is nothing.” We must move beyond our despair and anger to honor fully these dead. The parents of the dead youth named above have been brave enough to bear witness to the bullying that cost them their children. There is no ambiguity about what is needed. Our children and youth have a right to be safe in the educational institutions they attend. We must hold those professionals accountable. We must hold accountable those children, youth and adults who demean and harass those of different sexual orientation and gender identity/expression. As LGBTQ people and allies, we must not fear our power. The sword of our grief must cut through our fears to make the world a safer place for all youth.
Elie Weisel said when accepting the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, “Take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.” When it comes to bullying, there are no innocent bystanders. We must each speak up, or hold ourselves accountable.
Paul Cody, PhD UNH Counseling Center 862-2090
Report it! http:reportit.unh.edu
Affirmative Action 862-2090
President’s Commission on the Status of GLBT Issues 862-1058
UNH Police 911