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Back to school beneath the shadow of tragedy

Last year, a spate of LGBT youth suicides sent shock waves throughout America.

Despite repeated polls showing young people are ahead of their elders in supporting same-sex marriage, it became evident last September that a shocking backlash of hate was poisoning the hallways, dormitories and locker rooms of the nation’s schools and colleges.

On Sept. 22, 2010, exactly one year prior to the publication date of this issue of WiG, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi leaped to his death off the George Washington Bridge. Clementi was humiliated after his dorm roommate broadcast a recording online of him having a sexual encounter with a man online.

For many LGBT Americans, Clementi’s death became emblematic of the senseless loss of young lives last September. But it was the death of 17-year-old Cody Barker of Shiocton on Sept. 13, 2010, that brought the issue home to Wisconsin like a knife through the heart.

Bright, loving, handsome and brave, Barker had a supportive, adoring family and even a gay uncle as a role model. He was out at school, where he was struggling to establish a Gay-Straight Alliance club. He was part of an LGBT youth support group that met regularly in nearby Appleton.

But even with all of that going for him, Cody found conditions at his school intolerable. During the first week of his senior year, he hung himself in his family’s barn.

For decades, experts have documented with alarm the disproportionately high rates of suicide among LGBT youth. There’s no evidence that 2010’s body count was higher than in previous years. It was just more visible.

In the year since last September’s tragedies, the LGBT community and its allies have come together in a way seldom seen since the early years of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. The Trevor Project and writer Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video series have raised the issue to a level of unparalleled awareness. These projects are trying to save young lives by offering reassuring messages from high-profile role models along with supportive resources to those at risk.

In many areas, school districts, state governments and other policy-making bodies have aggressively taken on the complex issue of school bullying, some with a resolve that could make a real difference.

Still, harassment at the nation’s schools continues to cost young lives and leave lasting emotional scars. And right-wing Christians are fighting anti-bullying policies with all the money and propaganda tools in their arsenal. They contend that ridiculing and damning LGBT youth is essential to the practice of their religious faith. They also claim it’s the only way to save young people from the eternal damnation of the so-called “gay lifestyle.”

Republican lawmakers have enthusiastically co-opted the evangelical agenda, even to the extent of opposing laws designed to protect youth from harassment in schools.

The only way to keep up the momentum for our youth is for parents and students to continue stepping forward, challenging school authorities and telling their stories to the public before those stories erupt into the kind of headlines that horrified us last September.

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