There’s an entertaining show about cancer on Showtime, The Big C. This is out of alphabetical order with The L Word, an entirely different, and now completed, series about lesbian life in LA—and which shock of shocks, looks nothing like any actual lesbian’s life I’ve ever known. HBO has its pluralist wives show, Big Love, which hasn’t worked so well for a reality series, Sister Wives, over on TLC. Apparently The Learning Channel wants to learn us some polygamy? I’m not sure. But in this television is a window into our culture thang, there are some obvious disconnects, and not just having to do with the preponderance of overly made up, coiffed women near Rodeo Drive.
Four boys made headlines in the news in these last three weeks, four boys—one of whom was 18 but for all intents and purposes still had the thinking processes and responses of an adolescent—who took their own lives because of bullying, more specifically, anti-gay bullying. You’d think this sort of situation had never happened before. But that’s just because we’ve turned away from admitting we have a long-standing problem with youth suicide.
For all of the strides toward civil rights for gays and lesbians, there is certainly a whole lot of hate and bigotry. Multiple states have same sex marriage or domestic partner benefits, and many more states have banned discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation. But with every push toward supporting those civil rights there comes a circus of opinion, with reactionary right-wing folks getting gobs of media attention for what amounts to, on some level, an attack on one’s personhood. It’s one of the strongest statements I could make to another human being: You do not deserve protection. It stabs right at the core at one’s sense of worthiness, which let’s face it, we all worry about our worth, at least a little, at least several times a week. Denying a basic right like access to employment, a home, official recognition of one’s relationship is not an abstraction.
For kids, who are still gathering in cargo ships of information about who they are and why they are and how they are, these messages are atomic bombs. The things that are communicated to them are all they know as yet, and while some amount of adversity helps build character—how else can I understand my dozen years in Catholic school—the mountains of stress that kids must climb, the endless humiliation via text messages and social networking sites, the evil craftiness of bullies who photoshop all kinds of things and pass it off as someone else’s new reputation, these are many, many straws to put on one 13-year-old’s back.
Imagine waking up, in high school, having wrestled with the idea that you really, positively know in your heart that you need to have a sex change. Just go there for a moment. Where would you even begin? No way will your parents understand. There’s not a teacher you trust whom you can talk to. You’re sure your best friend won’t understand because all they talk about is their latest flame. Maybe you can escape to college. Maybe you don’t think you’re smart enough to go to college. Maybe you know your parents are having a hard time making ends meet and they can’t afford it even if you could get in. The whole world is pressing on you. This is the scope of such a realization, an invisible burden with no solution in sight. All it takes to hurl over a precipice are some indifferent or absent adults, mean-spirited kids, and bad to no communication.
In the early aughts, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration finished a report for counselors on gay and trans teen suicide that had taken years to prepare. It looked at warning signs, approaches to treating depressed gay youth, focusing on practical solutions. It had a section for teachers and education administrators. It was meant to dovetail with anti-bullying programs in other parts of the Federal government. Authors of the report prepared to attend a conference in Oregon on the same issue, named Suicide Prevention Among Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual/Transgender Individuals. The Bush Administration officials at SAMHSA were apoplectic at the title and demanded the conference be renamed to “Suicide Prevention in Vulnerable Populations.”
Gay and trans youth suicide does not comport with compassionate conservatism, I suppose. Gay and trans youth suicide is a glaring, violent, screaming piece of evidence that all of the invective against sexual minorities and transgender people does real, measurable damage. It kills innocent youth. I may not be personally content with prioritizing same sex marriage and the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell over other issues that affect LGBT folks, but I am dead set against the hatred I hear from people in opposition to these things. As Justice Vaughn Walker wrote in his decision to overturn Proposition 8 in California, which banned same sex marriage last year:
Moral disapproval alone is an improper basis on which to deny rights to gay men and lesbians.
Further, his decision was painstaking in showing that the stereotypes about gay and lesbian people, including their ability to turn children into armies of gaywads, is empirically bereft and unfounded. It’s also contradictory to what young adults need, namely positive messages about being gay. This goes for being trans, too, maybe even more so, as transgender is still scrabbling along behind LGB for any kind of recognition and affection.
Suicide just isn’t funny, especially when enacted by schoolchildren. It’s not acceptable, it’s not comprehensible, it’s not okay to keep sweeping it under the rug. Some experts estimate that up to 50 percent of trans youth attempt suicide, and a third of teen suicides are due to the individual self-identifying as gay. Those numbers are astounding, and yet we’re afraid to have a discussion about prevention education with the words “gay” or “transgender” in the title? That is well over the line of negligent, and no government should have that kind of stake in covering up the loss of human life.
This is not a gay issue, or a trans one. It’s about our failure as a society to protect our youngest members from ourselves. It’s about ignoring bullying. It’s about careless or dysfunctional parenting. It’s about giving kids access to all of the power of the Internet with little understanding of the consequences. It’s about not caring that the messages that we send out are contradictory and often awful. It’s about distracting ourselves from talking about why children are reaching puberty at younger and younger ages, well in advance of having the intellectual capacity to deal with early physical adulthood. It’s about tolerating truly dangerous people like Rev. Phelps, or giving over our media to whatever anti-gay crackpot is holding the most colorful sign at a Tea Party rally. We need to unpack so much to get at what is happening among our youth that we make like a bunch of ostriches and fling our heads into the sand.
Teen suicide has been around for a long, long time, and it’s not going away on its own. So it’s time for us to come up for air and deal with ourselves.
I am a survivor of a gaybashing that happened to me in college. I don’t enjoy thinking about it, of course, but I remember it because it helps me connect with what today’s youth have to deal with. I detailed my own struggles with depression in my memoir, and I’ve talked to many trans people about how they almost killed themselves before transitioning. Or they tried and failed, and lived to see another day. Would that our culture helped set us up for success when we realize we need to turn our worlds upside-down. I want the generation behind me to have a better world than I have had. And that can only happen with their survival.
Please, do what you can today and every day to be there for the kids in your life. Please.