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Voices / Column

We must tell young people: ’It gets better’

Adults begin to address GLBTQ youth suicides

Elayne Clift (www.elayneclift.com) writes about politics and social issues.

Saxtons River

Seth Walsh was in the sixth grade in the small town of Tehachapi, Calif., when he came out to his mother.  She told him she loved him no matter what.  But his peers were not so kind.

They taunted him to death, literally.  Seth hanged himself. He was 13.

Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind. also hanged himself after constant slurs against him by classmates. Asher Brown, 13, who lived near Houston, shot himself as a result of school taunting.

Tyler Clementi was older than these boys when he jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and an accomplice posted live video of Tyler having sexual relations with another male student at Rutgers University.

The tragedy and waste of these deaths is a phenomenon we should all be worried about.

Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, according to the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey.

A later study conducted by San Francisco State University in 2009 revealed that adolescents who were rejected by their families for being LGBT were more than eight times more likely to report having attempted suicide.

And for every completed suicide by a young person, a 2003 study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that between 100 and 200 attempts are made.

* * *

These youth are at high risk of suicide largely because of the pressure society imposes upon them at a time when all people face the daunting developmental task of finding their identity and establishing emotional and/or sexual intimacy in relationships.

While heterosexual youth find their feelings, identities, and relationships acknowledged and supported, “gender-minority youth” see the world around them as an emotional wasteland full of threatened violence, harassment, and potential assault.  Try navigating that world in adolescence.

“If you’re in a small community, the pressure is hard enough,” Eliza Byard, executive director of the New York-based Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educational Network, told The New York Times after Tyler Clementi’s suicide captured national attention.  “People get enough signals about ‘how wrong it is to be gay’ without anyone in those communities actually having to say so.”

Dan Savage, a Seattle writer who is gay, understands all too well what these kids are up against.

With his husband, Terry Miller, Savage has launched the It Gets Better Project, seeking contributions of videos to YouTube from adults who wish to speak directly to these young people.

 In Savage and Miller’s eight-minute contribution, they talk about their own experiences as gay youth, segueing into a glimpse of their adult lives in which they have adopted a son and live life as any other family.

The campaign is inspired by former San Francisco mayor Harvey Milk, who famously said, “You gotta give ’em hope.”  Milk, the first openly gay elected public official, was assassinated in 1978 while still in office.

“Today we have the power to give these kids hope,” Savage wrote of the project.  “We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and to let them know that it does get better.  Many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults.  They can’t imagine a future for themselves.”

“So let’s show them what our lives are like, let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.”

* * *

He’s right, of course.  But the problem is that not all gay youth at risk will find their way to Dan Savage, or to other gay adults who can convey to them that it really does get better and that there is hope for the future. 

That job falls to all of us, gay or straight.  As parents, clergy, mentors, teachers, prospective employers, we can – we must – let gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning youth know that there is life after adolescence, and that life can be fulfilling and joyful.

We must do this, because to paraphrase a well-known ad campaign, a young life is a terrible thing to lose.

The question is:  Do we believe it ourselves?  Are we adults prepared to accept the continuum of gender and to feel comfortable with it, whether close to home or farther afield?

Don’t we owe at least that much to Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, and Tyler Clementi — innocents all, who simply needed to hear, and believe, that it will get better?

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Originally published in The Commons issue #73 (Wednesday, October 27, 2010).

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