“Suicide isn’t painless.” That message – in bold rainbow script on Day Glo orange poster board – stood out over the crowd of Rutgers University students grieving the death of Tyler Clementi, an outed gay college freshman who on Sept. 22 jumped off the George Washington Bridge.
Miles away, on other campuses, in other communities, students, parents, educators and administrators grieved for other young September casualties of suicide. Just weeks into the 2010-11 school year, the U.S. education system faces what some are calling an epidemic – a rash of suicides among students bullied and ridiculed for real or perceived homosexuality. It’s a campus crisis for which there is no quick vaccination or easy inoculation, nor is there a simple explanation.
“Suicide is a complicated problem and it is too easy to casually blame it on a single factor in a young person’s life, but it is clear that mistreatment by others has a tremendously negative effect on a young person’s sense of self worth and colors how he or she sees the world around them,” said Judy Shepard of the Matthew Shepard Foundation.
Bullied to death
Back-to-school month began with the death of a gay teen in Indiana – one death too many, said LGBT activists. But by the end of the month, there had been at least six gay related suicides.
Fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., was called “fag” over and over and over again by other kids. He hung himself in early September. On a memorial page, where friends posted sympathies and remembrances, one student wrote, “Everyone made fun of him.”
Seventeen-year-old Cody Barker of Shiocton, Wis., took his life Sept. 13. A young activist for safer schools, he confided to others that he didn’t feel safe or welcome in his own high school.
Thirteen-year-old Asher Brown, a straight-A student, fatally shot himself Sept. 23 at his home in Cypress, Texas, a suburb of Houston. On Oct. 2, hundreds of people attended a memorial, where classmates said the eighth-grader endured relentless bullying at school and city council member Jolanda Jones pleaded, “It has to stop. These schools are not protecting these children.”
Asher Brown’s parents have said their son was bullied to death.
After months of harassment, 13-year-old Seth Walsh hanged himself from a tree in the backyard of his Tehachapi, Calif., home. He died Sept. 28, after nine days on life-support. Family members said they would call for tolerance at the child’s memorial service.
Nineteen-year-old Raymond Chase, a sophomore at Johnson and Whales University in Providence, R.I., profiled himself on his Facebook page: “I like to laugh, I like to have fun, and I’m gay.” He was found hanging in his dorm room Sept. 29.
In the most widely publicized death, Clementi, 18, jumped from the George Washington Bridge Sept. 22 after college students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei secretly recorded Clementi and another male student kissing in a dorm room and then shared the digital video via the Internet.
Ravi sent a message through Google announcing, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Two days later, Ravi tweeted, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.”
Both Ravi and Wei were arrested for invasion of privacy and, if convicted, face five years in prison. They also may be charged with committing a bias-motivated crime, which could bring another five years in prison.
“There are no words sufficient to express our range of feelings today,” read a statement from Garden State Equality, New Jersey’s largest statewide LGBT civil rights group. “We are outraged at the perpetrators. We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind. And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others’ lives as a sport.”
“Our nation has failed to address the pervasive problem of bullying and harassment in schools for far too long,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.
Since its inception in 1990, GLSEN has documented the risks and threats LGBT students face on campus. GLSEN’s most recent report on campus climate found that nine out of 10 LGBT students experienced harassment in the past year – a rate three times higher than students in general.
Another new study, from the LGBT group Campus Pride, showed that 23 percent of LGBT staff and students experience harassment on campus, 33 percent considered leaving a school due to intolerance, 43 percent remained closeted to avoid intimidation, 43 percent feared for their safety.
“This isn’t a new problem,” Human Rights Campaign president Joe Solmonese said. “It’s been happening for decades. Too often, administrators fail to act, even after parents complain about the bullying at school.”
Government research indicated that LGBT adolescents are twice as likely to be depressed and think about or attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.
He added, “Our schools and our nation cannot sit back and wait for the next tragedy.”
In the days after Clementi’s death, numerous LGBT groups at national, state and local levels demanded more attention to the issue of bullying in classrooms:
- HRC promoted Welcoming Schools, a program equipping elementary school teachers with tools to combat name-calling, stereotyping and bulling.
- The Southern Poverty Law Center made available – at no charge – the documentary “Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History” and a teaching kit to every school in the country.
- The Matthew Shepard Foundation urged “parents, educators and peers … to be vigilant to the warning signs of suicide and other self-destructive behaviors in the young people in their lives and help them find resources to be healthy and productive.”
Shepard, whose gay son Matthew was murdered in 1998, said, “Quite simply, we are calling one more time for all Americans to stand up and speak out against taunting, invasion of privacy, violence and discrimination against these youth by their peers, and asking everyone in a position of authority in their schools and communities to step forward and provide safe spaces and support services for LGBT youth or those who are simply targeted for discrimination because others assume they are gay. There can never be enough love and acceptance for these young people as they seek to live openly as their true selves and find their role in society.”
LGBT activists also urged the Obama administration to act and called on Congress to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which would implement a comprehensive federal anti-bullying policy and require states to include data on bullying and harassment incidents in assessment reports.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan responded Oct. 1, stating, in a news release, “This is a moment where every one of us – parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience – needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms. Whether it’s students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the president of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay, it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop.”
Meanwhile, there were direct appeals to LGBT youth with a simple message – life gets better.
“Many of us know firsthand what it’s like to grow up with discrimination or prejudice for LGBT people,” said Anthony D. Romero, the openly gay executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union. “We know what it feels like to be sad or alone, to feel isolated in your own families and communities, and from our own lives we can tell you it definitely gets better.”
Romero taped a video for gay columnist Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign on YouTube.com.
Celebrities – gay and straight – also spoke out in online videos and on television.
Actor Neal Patrick Harris, in a video posted on MTV.com, said, “Let me assure you, if you’re getting bullied and feeling like you’re on the outskirts, it gets better. Because when you get older, you find that people are actually drawn to individuals with different points of view who are proud of who they are and who make interesting and different and unique choices.”
Talk show host Ellen DeGeneres, on her TV program, said, “I want anyone out there who feels different and alone to know that I know how you feel. There is help out there. You can find support in your community.”
Singer Lance Bass, in another taped message, admitted to bullying gay kids. “I had the secret this whole time. And so if people can look at me and see that I was one of those bullies that, like, always made fun of gay people and I had this huge secret, there is always more to the story than you see.”
A celebrity of sorts among LGBT activists, Jamie Nabozny, also delivered a message of hope.
Nabozny, with the support of Lambda Legal and his parents, won a high-profile lawsuit against the Ashland, Wis., school district, where he was subject to relentless verbal and physical harassment by other boys in his middle school. Students urinated on Nabozny, pretended to rape him during a class and, when they found Nabozny alone one day, they kicked him until they ruptured his spleen.
Nabozny and his parents complained of the abuse to teachers and administrators, who replied that boys will be boys and said gay students should expect to be teased and tortured.
Nabozny attempted suicide three times, dropped out of school and ran away. But he also took a stand, and, in 1996, he won a $1-million landmark federal ruling that school officials can be held accountable for not stopping the harassment and abuse of LGBT students.
Nabozny, now 34, is working with SPLC to spread the message that students should never be afraid for their safety at school. Educators, he said, must “live up to their responsibility to stop the bullying that is shattering lives.”
Resources providing assistance for youth, parents and educators.
- The Trevor Project, a 24-hour national helpline, 866-4U-TREVOR.
- Angels and Doves, a nationwide anti-bullying nonprofit organization.
- The National Center for Bullying Prevention, a teaching initiative.
- The Matthew Shepard Foundation, an online resource center for LGBTQ youth.
- Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, an organization for educators and students.