In early September, news reports told the tragic tale of 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Indiana, a floppy-haired boy who liked to show horses and lambs at fairs. After daily torment and harassment from bullies who perceived he was gay, Lucas was so broken, so depressed and felt so alone that he couldn't stand living one more day.
He hung himself from a rafter in his family's barn, ending his life before he was old enough to get his driver's license.
During the past two months, newspapers and the Internet have been filled with stories of similar incidents across the nation, including the suicides of 13-year-old Asher Brown, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, 13-year-old Seth Walsh, 19-year-old Raymond Chase and others. All decided to end their own lives, and all for the same reason: They were tormented, harassed and bullied to a point they could no longer stand it.
In September alone there were 11 LGBT bullying-related suicides, all of which appear to be tied to anti-gay rhetoric and hatred.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that homosexuality is considered a prime factor in bullying and that gay youth who are bullied are more likely than other children to be depressed, lonely and anxious and are more prone to think about suicide or trying to commit suicide.
“Bullying is out of control,” says Patrick Moloughney, co-chairman of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) chapter in Cincinnati.
Increased LGBT visibility in human and civil rights battles, technology such as Facebook and Twitter that is leading to anonymous cyber-bullying and vocal anti-gay media attacks from right-wing conservatives are all contributing factors.
“The LGBT youth and bullies see this, they hear it and it encourages self-destruction for the LGBT youth and also encourages bullies to target them,” Moloughney says. “It’s the perfect storm.”
GLSEN’s biennial National School Climate Survey paints a sobering picture of LGBT students’ safety nationwide. The survey of more than 7,000 students reported that nearly nine out of every 10 respondents experienced some form of harassment.
Specifically, 61 percent of students felt unsafe at school due to their sexual orientation, more than 84 percent were verbally harassed and nearly 19 percent reported being physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation.
“Students, parents, schools and community organizations can work to create environments that are supportive and accepting of all students, regardless of their sexual orientation,” says Dr. Elise Berlan, a physician in Adolescent Medicine at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus who helped author the study. “Schools, in particular, need to work to increase the awareness of bullying.”
Other statistics show LGBT teens are bullied two to three times as much as straight teens, and more than one-third of LGBT youth have attempted to commit suicide.
GLSEN is doing its best to help nationally and locally.
The group is working with the Safe Schools Coalition to provide Cincinnati educators with tools they need for identifying LGBT bullying and how to deal with it. Also, it’s creating “safe school spaces” for LGBT youth (pictured above) and holding targeted youth summits, hoping that a combination of education, advocacy and outreach can help stem the suicide trend.
But the situation remains serious. So serious, in fact, that the Obama administration recently issued a directive to educators by clarifying when student bullying might violate federal education anti-discrimination laws. The guidance comes in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter sent to schools, colleges and universities and explains educators’ legal obligations to protect students from student-on-student harassment triggered by racial and national origin, gender, sexual orientation or disability.
Tackling the problem effectively, though, hinges on determining what is sparking the hatred.
In a nationwide survey conducted in October by the nonprofit Public Religion Research Institute in conjunction with Religion News Services, 72 percent of those polled believe that negative messages about homosexuality espoused by religions have contributed to the spike in suicides linked to anti-gay bullying — despite the fact that some of those respondents still believed that same-sex affection was sinful.
Many conservative religious leaders and anti-gay groups such as the Catholic League, Focus on the Family, the Family Research Council and its affiliate here in Cincinnati, Citizens for Community Values (CCV), vehemently deny the connection even though they oppose adding homosexuality to anti-bullying programs. The stance is odd considering that every anti-bullying statute that's been enacted has covered bullying based on religious beliefs.
In published remarks, William Donohue of the Catholic League stated, “It is libelous to suggest that because (Christianity) is opposed to homosexuality that somehow it should be held responsible for whatever bullying did go on.”
Similarly, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council has said that “besides punishing individual bullies, the most compassionate thing Christians can do for gays is to convince them they can change their sexual orientation.”
During a recent National Public Radio interview, Perkins even went so far as to deny scientific data stating that there's no correlation between acceptance of homosexuality and depression and suicide.
“Homosexuality is abnormal, and the kids know it,” Perkins said. “That’s why they are led to despair.”
Conservative Christians like Donohue, Perkins and CCV's Phil Burress — who declined comment for this article — routinely deny they bear any responsibility for gay teens who commit suicide. Yet they preach that gays don’t deserve the same rights and dignity as everyone else, that they’re broken and the only thing that will “save” them is a life devoid of physical intimacy and a dose of Jesus and what they feel for people of the same sex is corrupt, deviant and in need of a cure.
Still, they're in no way to blame, they insist.
Meanwhile, people from all walks of life — from college students to celebrities — are taking part in the “It Gets Better” campaign. The project, the brainchild of openly gay alt weekly newspaper columnist Dan Savage, is designed as a forum to offer words of encouragement to LGBT youth, particularly those that don't have supportive friends, counselors or clergy.
Among those who have made recent videos and posted them online are Chris Seelbach, an openly gay candidate for Cincinnati City Council, and two groups at the University of Cincinnati, The Alliance and GenderBloc.
Among those appearing in the UC video are Jelley and Erin Kelly, a lesbian couple who attend the college.
“Our goal for this video was to reach out to UC students who may be struggling with their sexuality/gender identity currently,” Jelley Kelly says. “We want to make sure that the suicide tragedies that our making headline news does not happen here.”
Advocates say one of the best ways to help a young person who appears to be struggling with depression is to confront them directly and try to determine the source, then put them in touch with resources that can offer help.
It's also important that people stand up against anti-gay rhetoric, even when it's apparently done unthinkingly or in jest.
For some teen-agers, it really is a matter of life and death.
The Trevor Project
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
PFLAG (Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays)