by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, and Tyler Clementi may not have had much in common. None of the teens knew each other, nor did they live in the same state or attend the same school. But what these four boys did share was that they all faced violence from their peers simply by being perceived as LGBTQ, and each of them reportedly committed suicide rather than endure the daily violence of anti-LGBTQ harassment, bullying, and hate. In the words of young Asher Brown's family, the boys were 'bullied to death.' Homophobia is killing our youth, and there seems to be no end in sight.
In early September, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana, committed suicide by hanging in an act that stemmed from daily bullying about his perceived sexual orientation. Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, California, passed away on September 28 after he attempted to hang himself on September 19. Walsh tried to hang himself from a tree in his backyard and was found unconscious. The boy was rushed to the hospital and was placed on life support in critical condition, but succumbed to his injuries. Walsh identified as Gay and suffered constant hate-motivated bullying from peers. On September 23, Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, Texas, shot himself, which his parents believe came as a result of unchecked anti-Gay cruelty and harassment at his school. Tyler Clementi, 18, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped from the George Washington Bridge on September 22. Police believe that Clementi committed suicide in response to his discovering that two fellow students broadcast footage of the teen having a sexual encounter with another man.
Tragically, these suicides are evidence of a need to redouble efforts to make schools, campuses, and communities safe for LGBTQ youth - particularly when some LGBTQ youth may not feel able to ask for help at home. According to the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP) - a coalition of 40 anti-violence organizations that monitor, respond to, and work to end hate, domestic and sexual violence, HIV-related violence, and other forms of violence affecting LGBTQ communities - school-based bullying and harassment are forms of hate violence and are reinforced by broader structural discrimination in society at large. NCAVP's recent Hate Violence Report indicates anti-LGBTQ hate murders are at the second highest rate in a decade, and demonstrates the severity of the anti-LGBTQ sentiments that may have driven these youth to suicide.
'HE SAW NO HOPE, SO HE CHOSE TO END HIS LIFE'
'I'm angry. I'm reeling from the news,' said Gabi Clayton, who lost her son Bill to suicide after he was Gay bashed in Olympia, Washington, 15 years ago, about the news of the recent teen suicides. 'Asher, Billy, and Seth - and how many more we don't know about? - chose death rather than to live in the world we made.'
'The news hits me raw - and this is not yet the kind of anger that fuels me daily now,' she continued. 'That will come - at least I think it will as it always has since our beautiful son Bill committed suicide at 17 after a bashing based on his sexual orientation.'
Bill came out his family when he was 14. Gabi recalls that Bill seemed afraid to tell them because he knew that other kids had told their parents and their parents had disowned them or reacted in ways that were frightening. When Bill did come out as Bisexual, he was assured that he was loved and accepted.
Gabi described her son as a wonderful boy. Someone who made friends, even though he claimed to be shy, and a gifted student 'who didn't always get the best grades because he was always doing 20 things at the same time.'
Bill was sexually assaulted the same year he came out. He kept the assault inside, and his parents didn't learn of the incident until Bill had told his best friend that the memories of the assault made him suicidal. Although the attacker was eventually caught, and Bill was seeing a therapist, he suffered from post-traumatic stress.
After staying in counseling for some time, his mental health improved tremendously.
'On April 6, 1995, Sam and his girlfriend, Jenny, were walking with Bill near their high school to Jenny's house to watch a video they had rented. Four guys - one of whom knew Bill and Sam because he was in the same high school (and had gone to their middle school before that) - followed them in a car and yelled things I will not repeat related to sexual orientation,' recalled Gabi. 'Bill and his friends ignored them and decided to walk through the high school campus, thinking it would be safer because the gate was closed. The four guys drove off, but they parked the car nearby, but the next thing Bill and his friends knew, they came up on foot and surrounded them. Bill, Sam and Jenny tried to walk away - they didn't want to fight at all.'
The four boys then brutally assaulted Bill and Sam, kicking and beating them into unconsciousness. It was broad daylight during spring break. The boys were taken to the emergency room. Bill had abrasions and bruises and Sam had a broken nose. Their attackers were all under 18-years-old and the police treated it as a hate crime from the very beginning.
According to Gabi, a lot of people in Olympia responded quickly and supported Bill and an anti-hate rally was held a few days after the assault.
At the rally, Bill spoke from his heart, saying, 'In all likelihood, my friends Sam and Jenny will never have to tolerate this - or never have to endure this type of hate crime or any other type in their lives - and I hope that's true. But as an openly Bisexual person in Olympia, I'm probably - or may be - the victim of this sort of thing again. Hate crimes, especially those against Homosexuals and Bisexuals and Transgender people, are on the rise in this area. And that is why now, more than ever, we, the Gay community, need to come out and band together and fight for our civil rights and our right to be safe in our homes and on the streets.'
'We thought he was going to make it,' said Gabi. 'He seemed to handle things really well until after the rally, and then he crashed back into depression. He was suicidal again; it was too much. The assault sent him right back into the place he had fought so hard to get out of. He suddenly became depressed and suicidal, and we had to put him in the hospital again. While he was in the hospital he heard that a friend of his was Gay-bashed at school in a nearby town. After about 10 days, he came home. His doctors thought he had gotten past being suicidal. But Bill took a massive overdose on May 8, 1995. He was found unconscious on the kitchen floor and was rushed to the hospital, but they couldn't save him.'
Gabi says Bill didn't leave a suicide note, but he had said to her before he was hospitalized after the rally that he was just tired of coping. 'It was the constant knowledge that at any time he could be attacked again simply because of who he was, that at any time his friends could be attacked for the same reason, that despite the love of his family and friends, all he could see ahead was a lifetime of facing a world filled with hate and violence, going from one assault to another,' she said. 'He was 17 years old - an age when kids are supposed to be excited about moving out into the world as adults. The only place he felt safe was at home. He saw no hope, so he chose to end his life.'
Gabi turned sorrow into action and currently works with Safe Schools Coalition, an organization established in 1988 dedicated to helping schools become safe places, where every family can belong, where every educator can teach, and where every child can learn, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.
'I know that if more of us had visibly worked to make schools and communities places they could thrive in, these children of ours - becoming adults in a world which they saw had no safe place for them - might have survived the horror and suffering that killed their spirits to have the good life we know can be possible,' she said.
In response to the recent teen suicides, Safe Schools Coalition issued a statement saying that they grieve the death of these teens. 'If people want to know what they can do in response to these deaths beyond expressing their condolences, find out what the schools in your area do in cases of bullying and harassment, how they are trained to deal with those situations, and what they can do to help. They can assist any support groups for LGBTQ youth in their area so that young people do not feel they are living in isolation.'
LGBTQ YOUTH NINE TIMES MORE LIKELY TO ATTEMPT SUICIDE
Heather Carter, OUTLoud program coordinator and Youth Suicide Prevention Program (YSPP) official, can't say that she is shocked by the recent tragedies. 'Unfortunately, this tragedy is all too familiar to me,' she said. 'Hardly a day goes by that I don't hear about a similar story. In most cases, not only is the school district not taking any responsibility, but they say that the parents never got in touch with them about the bullying and that they are unaware of any issues except those at home.'
YSPP is an organization that aims to reduce youth suicide attempts and deaths in Washington state. Working toward that goal, YSPP builds public awareness, offers training, and supports communities taking action.
Through her research, Heather and YSPP have found that bullying, cyberbullying, and victimization link to depression, loneliness, risk for suicide, self-harm, and child and adolescent psychopathology, with links to both the victim and the bully. In addition, YSPP found that anti-LGBT bias and harassment is a mediating factor for suicide, high-risk behaviors, and isolation.
Heather says that suicidal screening efforts should include questions about victimization history. 'Current bullying prevention programs are not working well,' she said. 'They have modest outcomes only and do not influence behaviors.'
'Training for school staff should include pre-professional and continuing education about effective bullying prevention activities,' said Heather.
According to YSPP, each week in Washington state, an average of two young people die by suicide and another 17 suicide attempts result in hospitalization. What's chilling is that Washington state actually ranks well for teen suicide prevention and awareness.
Twenty states have laws that currently prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and currently only 12 states and the D.C. areas have policies that protect against both sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination. YSPP says this matters because these laws apply to discrimination against children and staff in schools and strengthen the civil rights of students in public schools.
Washington is a state with such protections. 'But we're finding that schools aren't following a uniform process to address bullying and harassment in the schools,' said Heather.
'What we are doing isn't working.'
According to a 2008 YSPP 'Update to Bullying' in Washington report, bullying hasn't declined significantly since 2002. So, even in a state with those protections, students aren't getting the support they need to combat bullying and harassment in schools.
The report reads that LGBTQ students are more than five times as likely as their straight-identified peers to miss school due to feeling unsafe; 31.7% of LGBTQ students missed a class and 32.7% missed a day of school in the past month because of feeling unsafe, compared to only 5.5% and 4.5% of their peers; and LGBTQ youth from rejecting families are up to nine times more likely to attempt suicide.
'We know that bullying and suicide [and other negative mental outcomes] have very strong connections,' concluded Heather. 'Youth truly are being bullied to death.'
'WHEN A CHILD IS DRIVEN TO THE POINT OF SUICIDE, EVERYONE SHARES THE BLAME'
Since 2002, school districts in Washington state have been required to take action to prevent and stop school-based harassment, intimidation and bullying.
'This year, I was proud to sponsor a bill to give the law more force by requiring school districts to adopt an action plan for the specific steps they will take to address complaints,' said Washington State Representative Marko Liias (D-21). Rep. Liias is an openly Gay legislator. 'The new law also requires each school district to designate a specific school official to implement the law.'
Rep. Liias says that the definition of the law specifically mentions LGBTQ students.
'I am very concerned about the number of children that drop out from school, and when I looked at the evidence, it is clear that many kids are being driven out of school due to harassment, intimidation, and bullying,' he said. 'The bottom line is that every child deserves a safe and respectful learning environment, and we should expect our schools to take this issue seriously.'
For LGBTQ teens, coming out is already an emotional experience, and we need to ensure that school is a safe place to be open and honest about their identity, he said.
Rep. Liias says he believes there should be a federal LGBTQ inclusive anti-bullying law. 'We are one of the few states that has taken serious action to address harassment and bullying in schools, and we are at the forefront of protecting LGBTQ youth,' he said. 'There are a lot of states that aren't as progressive, and children in those states deserve the same protections as our students in Washington.'
'When a child is driven to the point of suicide, everyone shares the blame,' said Rep. Liias. 'We all have a responsibility to look out for one another, especially when a friend or classmate is struggling with depression or other emotional trauma. That is why I serve on the board of the YSPP; because we are teaching everyone that interacts with youth about the need to be vigilant and intervene to save a life. In the school setting, there are several award-winning curricula that train teachers and school personnel how to be proactive about creating respectful learning environments. There are solutions to this problem, but as a society, we haven't made this issue enough of a priority.'
Dr. Maria L. Goodloe-Johnson is in charge of the largest K-12 school system in Washington state. As superintendent of Seattle Public Schools, she is at the head of the education system that serves more than 45,000 students in 88 schools. Bullying is something she says she is all too familiar with, and something that Seattle Public Schools takes very seriously.
'At Seattle Public Schools, our ultimate goal is to make sure the school environment is safe and welcoming so that students can learn. We have a school board-approved policy that prohibits harassment, intimidation, and bullying, and we have also created a number of prevention/intervention programs in our schools to help ensure a safe learning environment,' said Dr. Goodloe-Johnson. 'We also have Gay Straight Alliances (GSAs), and school-based support groups for LGBTQ students and their straight allies.'
The superintendent says that there is a clear path in place for educators to follow when a student complains of bullying.
'Schools are instructed to follow the same steps that they would take in response to any other form of harassment,' she said. 'Typically, each school has a point person who has been identified to receive those types of complaints. That person will check in with the person who is being harassed - and depending on the severity, may have a direct conversation with the alleged perpetrator, and also with family members and others who may have more information. Based on the findings of those conversations, there may be a discussion about the potential next steps, including suspension or other discipline depending on the severity of the complaint or incident.'
She said that when a student identifies as LGBTQ, 'an administrator has to be cautious as to what is shared. They are careful about disclosure to avoid potential further repercussions for the student and his or her family.'
In addition, Dr. Goodloe-Johnson says students have the right to file informal and formal complaints of harassment under the Seattle Public School District's Anti-Harassment Procedure D49.01.
Washington state - Seattle in particular - has not seen too many LGBTQ teen suicides. Dr. Goodloe-Johnson says that is due to the progressive attitude of the city. 'The political climate in Seattle encourages respectful discussion of homosexuality and related issues, including Gay marriage, military service, and adoptions,' she said. 'Seattle Public Schools are a reflection of that climate, and is committed to providing staff training, GSAs, and information about the range of services available to this population in our broader community.'
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