Gay suicides shine light on old problem
by Dana Rudolph
The string of recent suicides by teens bullied for being gay or perceived to be gay captured nationwide media attention last week and prompted calls for action from LGBT organizations, celebrities, and the U.S. Department of Education, among others.
But what seemed like an emerging new problem for the public at large is not new at all for most in the LGBT community. It's a long, lingering issue, and last month's headlines about the brutal consequences of anti-gay bullying were a painful reminder that the problem of LGBT youth resorting to suicide persists.
Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, Texas, shot himself in the head September 23.
Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, California, hanged himself September 19 and died after nine days on life support.
Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Indiana, hanged himself September 9.
Justin Aaberg, 15, of Anoka, Minnesota, hanged himself July 9.
All were the subject of repeated anti-gay bullying, according to reports from friends and family.
In the most highly publicized case, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge on September 22 after two other students videotaped him making out with another man and broadcast the videos online. The students have been charged with violating the state's invasion-of-privacy laws. Officials are considering whether to charge them with a hate crime, according to an e-mail from Garden State Equality.
And a week later, Raymond Chase, 19, an openly gay student at Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island, was found dead in his dorm room. An e-mail from LGBT advocacy group Campus Pride said he had hanged himself, but the reasons remain unknown.
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan released a statement October 1, saying it was "unacceptable" that these young people took their own lives after bullying and harassment based on their actual or perceived sexual orientation.
In a joint statement on September 30, the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network; Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays; and the Trevor Project noted that, "Such cases are not new, but actually do reveal an important trend: the public is becoming more informed and in tune to the realities that adversely affect our youth."
Sheila Kuehl, an out lesbian and former California state senator who authored several laws on school safety and civil rights, said in an interview that the impression of a surge in suicides "has a lot more to do with media attention."
"There are a lot more suicides and attempted suicides among young people in our community, across all the states, really all the time," said Kuehl.
And Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, said the recently publicized suicides, "put a spotlight on a situation that has always existed and has largely been ignored."
The recently publicized deaths are only the tip of the iceberg. Aaberg was one of four students in the Anoka-Hennepin School District who committed suicide in the past year after anti-gay bullying. In April 2009, two 11-year-olds – Jaheem Herarra of Atlanta, Georgia, and Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Massachusetts – did so as well.
And, of course, there have been other bullying-related suicides in the recent past that were not connected with anti-LGBT hostilities, including those of 15-year-old Phoebe Prince of Massachusetts, 12-year-old Kimberly Linczeski of Michigan, and 13-year-old Jon Carmichael of Texas. There were even three additional suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin School District of Minnesota in the past year.
Research has shown that LGBTQ students – or those perceived to be – are a particularly vulnerable population. "Safe at School," a new report from the Williams Institute at UCLA and the National Education Policy Center, co-authored by Kuehl, cites studies showing that "K-12 students who are LGBT or thought to be LGBT are bullied more than twice as much as any other identifiable group," and their suicide rate is three to four times higher.
The GLSEN 2009 National School Climate Survey, released September 14, 2010, found that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT students experienced verbal or physical harassment at school in the previous year. This was related to increased depression and anxiety and decreased self-esteem.
The solution, according to the statement from GLSEN, PFLAG, and the Trevor Project, is to create a "cultural shift" through a multi-pronged approach that includes anti-bullying legislation, data collection on bullying incidents, suicide helplines, training for teachers and other school personnel, and support for gay-straight alliances. Friends, family, and community members must also know they have the power to help.
The Safe at School report offers "a menu of strategies" that can work together. It provides recommended policy approaches related to school climate, curriculum, and sports programs, along with a model anti-bullying code for state legislatures.
And Ryan has documented a connection between a higher incidence of suicide attempts and family rejection of LGBTQ youth. In addition to policies and training for school personnel, she said, society needs to help parents of LGBTQ youth better understand how to support their children.
Many organizations and individuals have issued calls to action and offered encouragement to young people in the past two weeks.
Judy Shepard, president of the Matthew Shepard Foundation Board of Directors, knows about the horrors of anti-gay violence against young people. Her son, Matthew Shepard, was killed in an anti-gay hate crime in 1998. Judy Shepard released a statement last week calling "for all Americans to stand up and speak out against taunting, invasion of privacy, violence and discrimination against these youth by their peers."
Out talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres reached out to LGBT youth on her program last week and recorded a special video for her website, calling the suicides "an epidemic" and "a crisis."
"Things will get easier, people's minds will change," DeGeneres told her young viewers, "and you should be alive to see it."
Gay columnist Dan Savage, in response to Lucas's suicide, launched "It Gets Better," a YouTube channel that enables people to submit videos giving messages of hope to LGBTQ youth. As of this writing, over 400 videos had been uploaded.
"This is a moment where every one of us – parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience – needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms," said Duncan. "... It is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop."
For more on the federal government's efforts to stem bullying, see related article online at ebar.com.