The topic of suicide by gay teenagers is in the news again, illustrated most vividly by the death of a Rutgers University student, Tyler Clementi, who leapt from the George Washington Bridge last month. (The circumstances of Clementi's suicide are fraught with questions and not a little hyperbole, so I will not be commenting directly on that particular case.)
Some gay activists have called four suicides by gay teenagers in the past month an "epidemic," although it does not appear that any of them were related to each other. (They occurred in California, Indiana, and Texas, in addition to Clementi's death in New Jersey.)
David Link on the Independent Gay Forum and conservative columnist (and, as of today, Eliot Spitzer's sparring partner on CNN) Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post both draw attention to a new project on YouTube called "It Gets Better," initiated by advice columnist Dan Savage and supported by talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres.
The aim of the It Gets Better Project is to showcase the personal stories of gay men and lesbians who used to be gay and lesbian children or teenagers. In short video clips, today's young (and some not-so-young) adults explain, from their own perspective, that bullying, disrespect, alienation, and disorientation are temporary phenomena that can be overcome with time, patience, and effort. In a phrase, "it gets better" -- life gets better, and it's worthwhile to stick around to find out where it takes us.
Although it is not a topic I have followed closely in recent years, I first wrote about gay teen suicide in 1988 -- about two years before I came out to more than my close circle of friends and classmates. The article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and, although the statistics cited may be different (and probably more accurate) today, the general theme remains solid.
I am grateful to an email correspondent (and old friend) who reminded me of this article and gave me a reason to repost it as an archival piece on this blog. (I do not believe the article, given its age, is available in any easily accessible electronic format on-line.)
Here it is as it appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Saturday, December 10, 1988.
The why of teen-age suicides
The drama is played out again and again in towns and cities across the country.
A young man of 16 or 17, good-looking. personable, popular, intelligent, often the captain of the football team or president of his class, takes his own life.
This tragedy grips family and friends, who question: “Why?” There seems to be no explanation for this senseless act. “No warning signs,” “every reason to live,” “not even his girlfriend had a clue” — these phrases are numbly repeated, in vain.
Wherever you turn, the tragedy of teen suicide has attracted enormous attention. Each year 5,000 people between the ages of 15 and 24 kill themselves. The rate has tripled over the past 30 years and doubled since 1960, so that today suicide Is the third leading cause of death in this age group.
Why do so many of our young people consider suicide, attempt it, and sometimes succeed at it?
Multiple causes are likely. Certainly the familiar woes of adolescence are a part of it, as are parental and peer-group pressures toward often contradictory goals — the drive for high grades or a well-paying job and the abuse of drugs and alcohol. Yet one factor deserves special attention, perhaps most of all because fear and prejudice have prevented our taking it fully into account.
This factor has been illuminated by films that portray the suicide of adolescents with sexual problems. In "Another Country," an English schoolboy hangs himself in the chapel after a teacher catches him in the passionate embrace of a fellow student. In "Ode to Billy Joe," the title character leaps off the Tallahatchee Bridge, unable to deal with the fact that he had been seduced by an older man.
These gripping images may help explain the deaths of so many “handsome young men” with “every reason to live.”
Contemporary discussions of teen-age suicide generally neglect to touch on the contributing factor of adolescent homosexuality. Reasons for this are vague. Society’s taboos against discussing teen sexuality In general and homosexuality in particular have hindered full examinations of adolescent suicide. In fact, outside the medical literature, only publications with primarily gay and lesbian readers do the story justice.
In 1986, sociologist Joseph Harry of Northern Illinois University reported that young people who are homosexual are six times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Dr. Harry’s research indicates that as many as half the males in the 15-24 age group who try to kill themselves are gay. His conclusions were partially confirmed in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association in July 1987.
Future studies of the teen-suicide problem must explore this factor more thoroughly. Shervert Frazier of the National Institute of Mental Health insists: “There’s no question that the issue of gay and lesbian adolescents who have suicidal behavior has to be considered.”
Statistics dictate such an examination: While only 3 percent of heterosexual men and 14 percent of heterosexual women attempt suicide, as many as 18 percent of gay men and 23 percent of lesbians do so. This is a striking comparison.
Considering that gay men constitute at most 10 percent of the male population, and lesbians an even smaller percentage of women, this attempted suicide rate is significantly out of proportion. It suggests that gay people encounter social pressures that undermine their sense of self-worth and undercut their basic human dignity unlike anything heterosexuals experience.
Our society continues to castigate and condemn gay and lesbian youth. In spite of the constant teaching of most religions that homosexuals should be treated with the same compassion as all other people, some Christians and Jews still ostracize gay men and women — teenagers, too — not so much for what they do but for who they are.
According to family counselor Wayne Pawlowski, young homosexuals have a lot of unique worries: “condemnation, rejection by family, friends, society at large; forced isolation from the family and/or peers; physical abuse; discrimination, legal problems; constraints on educational and career goals. In addition to these realistic fears, the same adolescents lack positive role models.”
As a result, he writes, gay teen-agers suffer “low self-esteem, poor self-image, guilt, loneliness, confusion, fear of being sick and different, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts.”
Society’s treatment of homosexual youth contributes to the high incidence of runaways and their prostitution, exploitation and drug abuse. Many families discard gay and lesbian teenagers when their sexual orientation surfaces. Directly or indirectly, these children are told by their families that they are unwanted and unloved — so they choose to run away or commit suicide. Either risk seems better than the real pain they encounter.
Coming to terms with one’s sexuality is always stressful. To return to Dr. Harry’s report, gay young people have experiences and characteristics that “may create special difficulties for them. And for some, suicide may seem preferable to other solutions.”
Suicide can be an escape from painful schoolyard taunts of “faggot” and “dyke” — and, worse than taunts, threats and assaults as well. Such intolerance is not limited to junior high or high school. It continues ever among “mature” college students.
Parents, friends, siblings and teachers who have had to face the suicide or attempted suicide of a young person should not be ashamed or afraid to consider the combination of homosexuality and homophobia (the irrational fear and hatred of homosexuals) as a motivation for this drastic act. There is much more to fear from covering it up, and much more shame in ignorance.
The captain of the football team or class president who kills himself is only the most visible and attractive example of a phenomenon that is much more far-reaching. Having hidden their sexual orientation for most of their lives from those closest to them, it was easy to hide the most recent troubles that have pushed them over the brink. That is why there were no clues. In almost every one of these cases, a little digging will reveal that the victim was either gay or thought he was or, sometimes, he had had an isolated homosexual experience — in either case, death appeared to be preferable to lifelong humiliation.
To combat this phenomenon, adults and teens alike must be more compassionate toward those who are or who think they may be gay. As one doctor urged in the Journal of the American Medical Association, we must all treat each other in a way “that promotes self-acceptance and tolerance of individual differences.” Only then can we fully grapple with the tragedy of teen suicide.
Richard Sincere is a Washington-based policy analyst and writer.