As if teenagers and youth in general don’t already face daily pressures, matters are made worse when they’re taunted, bullied and discriminated against because of their sexual orientation. Over the past four weeks there have been six known suicides by students who were bullied at their schools because they were gay or perceived to be gay.
Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, 18, a promising violinist, leaped to his death Sept. 22 from the George Washington Bridge near his New Jersey campus. Clementi’s roommate and another student used a webcam to secretly broadcast on the Internet live images of Clementi having an intimate encounter with another man. Clementi did not know he was being filmed at the time.
Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old in Tehachapi, Cailf., died last week after 10 days on life support after he hanged himself. Police say fellow students had mercilessly taunted him over his perceived sexual orientation.
Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself Sept. 9 at his Indiana home after years of harassment by students who judged him to be gay.
Asher Brown, a 13-year-old in Harris, Texas, who had recently come out, shot himself Sept. 23 after, his parents say, their efforts to alert school officials about ongoing bullying were not adequately addressed.
The U.S. is enduring a national problem of epidemic proportions, say gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and queer rights activists and supporters. “Bullycide,” a term referring to suicide resulting from intense bullying, has long been a severe public health crisis and must be stopped, they say. They call for a collective sense of urgency among LGBTQ people, supporters and school communities to address the anti-LGBTQ wave of bullying leading to suicides.
Many are speaking out including Judy Shepard, mother of Matthew Shepard who was killed a decade ago for being gay. “Our young people deserve better than to go to school where they are treated this way,” she told the Washington Blade. “We have to make schools a safe place for our youth to prepare for their futures, not be confronted with threats, intimidation or routine disrespect.”
Clementi’s family issued a statement saying, “Regardless of legal outcomes, our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.”
Activists note that LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. And of all American teens who die by suicide, 30 percent are LGBTQ.
According to a 2009 survey by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network almost 85 percent of LGBTQ teenagers are harassed in high school, with 61 percent of gay youth reporting that they felt unsafe in school and 30 percent staying home to avoid bullying.
Studies show that when LGBTQ youth know they have adult support – a teacher, nurse, guidance counselor or parent – the young person is much more likely to turn to these adults for help when bullied or depressed. Such support frees youth from feelings of isolation.
In a Huffington Post interview Charles Robbins, executive director and CEO of the Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis- and suicide-prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, said his work is both heartbreaking and heartwarming.
LGBTQ young people need to feel affirmed and worthwhile with a loving family and supportive friends, said Robbins. They also need a school environment where bullying isn’t tolerated. These are vital protective factors that are missing from the lives of so many LGBTQ teens, he added.
“They’re alone; they’re ostracized; they’re maligned; their very being is constantly getting negated,” said Robbins. “Being gay doesn’t make you suicidal. Being picked on, victimized, and constantly devalued makes you suicidal.” Words do matter and make the lives of LGBTQ kids who get bullied all the time unlivable, he said.
Last month gay rights activist and writer Dan Savage with his partner launched a campaign directed at LGBTQ youth called “It Gets Better.” The message is: Whatever you’re experiencing now, be it family rejection, bullying and harassment in schools or even thoughts of suicide, it gets better. The YouTube project began last month and has more than 300,000 viewers and over 135 submissions by gay adults encouraging teenagers to maintain an optimistic outlook.
Activists say federal leadership is required, including passing the Safe Schools Improvement Act, to comprehensively address school bullying, and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, which will prohibit discrimination against students based on sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.
Video by “It Gets Better” project:
Photo: A candlelight vigil for Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi on the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick, N.J., Oct. 3. (AP/Reena Rose Sibayan)