Suicides prompt activism

John Quinlan, Contributing writer

As newly reported incidents of teen suicides brought on by homophobic bullying continue to dominate the national news for a second month, advocates for youth in Wisconsin hope to transform the ongoing tragedy into positive action.

There have been recent town meetings in Appleton and Madison, candlelight vigils at the University of Wisconsin campuses in Green Bay and Madison and social networking campaigns by older LGBT community members, who are reaching out to their younger peers.

While more than a dozen suicides have been reported nationally this fall, the one that’s uppermost on the minds of people in Wisconsin is that of Cody Barker, 17, of Shiocton. Since May 2009, at least three openly gay youth in northeastern Wisconsin’s Outagamie County had committed suicide before Barker took his life on Sept. 13.

Friends who knew him say that Barker had big plans after attending an August leadership training institute sponsored by the Gay Straight Alliance for Safe Schools. He hoped to start a Gay-Straight Alliance at Shiocton High School, a courageous goal for a town with only 954 people.

“It’s not completely clear why Cody Barker committed suicide,” said Cindy Crane, executive director of the Madison-based statewide organization GSA for Safe Schools.  But Barker had left a strong impression on many of his peers, youth leaders of Gay Straight Alliances statewide, she said. A flurry of text messages he sent in August remarked with pride on the fact that “Cody was just ‘so gay,’” positively reflecting the confidence he exuded in August in his identity as an out gay youth.

And yet, in less supportive contexts, Crane added, the oft-repeated phrase “so gay,” can have devastating effects on many young people.

“It creates all of these internalized negative feelings,” she said. “Who knows how many negative messages youth are bombarded with, and what it does to their psyche, whether they’re out of the closet or not.”

Text messages since then from GSA members statewide have reflected both their devastation and determination, Crane said.

Crane said that it’s difficult to deconstruct the reality that’s being reflected in the often-distorted mirror of the popular media. It’s possible there’s an emotionally resonant effect that is motivating more youth to take their lives, but it’s equally possible that this is an ongoing problem that was previously unreported and that is only now receiving adequate coverage.

Well-meaning but often oversimplified and sensationalized media reports can have mixed results, Crane said “There are two myths: one, that all LGBTQ youth are on the verge of committing suicide or taking drugs, which isn’t the case, or the other that we’ve come so far in creating a better environment for LGBT youth that everything is OK now,” she explained. “The reality is that teen suicides affect LGBT youth disproportionately, and we can’t remain silent. And yes, things are better, but it’s still hard to be a sexual minority young person in a high school or college setting.”

In Madison, GSA for Safe Schools is collaborating with Madison Metropolitan School District’s LGBTQ resource specialist teacher Liz Lusk in inviting the public to a special event from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m on Wed., Oct. 20, at the Urban League of Greater Madison, 2222 South Park St. The gathering is targeted at adults working with youth and others who support young people.

Middle and high school youth concerned about this issue are encouraged to register for a youth leadership conference planned for Nov. 13 in Madison. Call 608-661-4141 or go to www.gsaforsafeschools.org for details of future actions.

UWM Dean of Students Lori Berquam said her campus is responding to the crisis with a Wed., Oct. 20, “Glow Vigil,” beginning at 8 p.m. on the UW’s Library Mall.  This will be followed by a UW and community-wide meeting from 5:45-6:45 p.m. on Tues., Oct. 26, in Room 165 Bascom Hall.

“Everybody’s voice is important,” Berquam said. “Our students need to have mentors and connections throughout their lives, including those connections that exist beyond our campus.”

In Appleton on Oct. 9, dozens of concerned citizens grieving the loss of Cody Barker packed a city hall conference room hoping to find ways to avert similar tragedies.

“As you can tell by the emotion here, we’re scared that we’re going to lose more youth,” said Appleton’s diversity coordinator Kathy Flores, who organized the event.

Jesse Heffernan, who runs a gay teen support group at Harmony Cafe in Appleton, warned that increased media attention has not made the problem disappear.

“Since Cody’s death, what I hear from the youth is that things haven’t changed,” Heffernan said. “Just this last Tuesday, youth were telling me how they’re still getting harassed and bullied in their schools. It’s a serious problem.”

In a column invoking the memory of an Indiana teen who took his life on Sept. 9, UWM alumnus Dan Savage implored older LGBT adults to reach out to younger peers.”

“Billy Lucas was just 15 when he hanged himself in a barn on his grandmother’s property,” Savage wrote in a recent column. “He reportedly endured intense bullying at the hands of his classmates – classmates who called him a fag and told him to kill himself. His mother found his body. … I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.”

“But gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay – or from ever coming out – by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

“Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.”

Savage and his partner Terry launched the You-Tube based “It Gets Better,” campaign, which has received over 1.6 million hits.

Other adults have followed Savage’s lead in reaching out to troubled youth through new media. LGBT members of the traveling company of “Wicked” recorded a powerfully resonant message for Facebook backstage at Madison’s Overture Center in late September. From-the-heart viral video messages from Ellen DeGeneres, Neal Patrick Harris and openly gay Fort Worth City councilman Joel Burns have received the attention of millions.

What you can do?

“Speak out,” Crane says. “Your voice is needed now more than ever before.”

She suggests contacting an LGBT group in your campus or community to find out how to help locally.