Most of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth we saw on the news in 2011 were dead.
Last fall, media outlets around the country reported on the death of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi. After that, it seemed like everywhere we looked, another teenager was making headlines for ending his or her life. Just this week, we lost another, 19-year-old filmmaker and activist Eric James Borges. The New York Times reported on five known suicides by LGBTQ youth in September 2011 alone. The number of these stories far outpaces any other representation of these youth in broader circulation.
This focus on the contemporary scourge of teen suicides belies a troubling truth: it is far easier to talk about the tragedy of LGBTQ youth suicide than it is to find ways to comprehend and address the complexity of their lives and identities.
By most accounts, it is tremendously difficult to be a gender-nonconforming or queer young person today. A 2010 study piloted by the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University concluded that the persistent bullying and harassment experienced by students perceived by their peers to be LGBTQ (many of who may not even identify with those labels) led directly to lower levels of life satisfaction and higher rates of depression in young adulthood. A 2009 article in the journal Pediatrics reported that lesbian, gay, and bisexual (LGB) young adults who experienced high levels of rejection from family members were 8.4 times more likely to attempt suicide. They were also more likely to experience depression and to attempt to self-medicate with alcohol and illegal drugs. And rejection isn't only verbal and physical abuse; it even includes hearing family members make disparaging comments about other LGBT people, being asked to remain silent about their identities, or being blamed for the bullying and harassment they receive from peers. In short, all the things adults say or do not say affect how these kids feel about themselves and what they believe their chances are for living a happy life.
Where are the stories of the youth who face these damaging threats on a daily basis and the culpability of adults in their suffering?
LGBTQ youth also face pernicious structural and institutional forms of violence. Yale sociologists Katherine Himmelstein and Hannah Bruckner use surveys from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health to demonstrate that nonheterosexual youth are no more likely than heterosexual youth to engage in violent behavior. They are, however, far more likely to be detained and arrested by police, more likely to be convicted of crimes, and are, each year, expelled from school in greater numbers. Individual-level prejudice translates into systematic deprivations of liberty and a persistent sense that there are few adults in whom they can trust. Where are the stories of these injustices? Where is our collective outrage at the systems that perpetuate them?
These stories make neglect by school administrators, parents, and peers seem like universal reactions to sexual and gender difference in youth. They aren't. The Family Acceptance Project research also shows that youth with supportive family members do better in school, feel more content with their lives, make better decisions, and have healthier bodies and minds. Support means more than merely "tolerating" difference. Parents must show affection and love, even if their child's identity makes them uncomfortable. They must intervene and prevent other adults and children from victimizing their child. And they must provide their child with connections to other LGBTQ youth and adults. They must actively foster positive, healthy, and accessible queer role models. Wouldn't it be great if the media did the same?
Don't get me wrong: LGBTQ teen suicide is a very serious problem. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center estimates that between 30 and 40 percent of LGB youth attempt suicide -- roughly 4 times the rate of their heterosexual peers. There's no question, given these statistics, that the struggles and recent deaths of so many youth deserve our attention, discussion, and deep grief. We need to hear these stories and acknowledge these losses. However the media's singular focus on them, to the exclusion of any positive coverage of LGBTQ youth, creates a deadly echo chamber. The repetitive tale about the inevitability of our collective failure to address the pain felt by many LGBTQ youth may translate into high readership rates, but it doesn't translate into inspiration for the kids who are still here.
More than 50 research studies show that persistent and prominent news coverage of suicides can lead to an increase in the likelihood that other vulnerable individuals might attempt it themselves.
Given the unrelenting discrimination they face, LGBTQ youth may be particularly vulnerable to this phenomenon, called suicide contagion, or so says Christopher Gandin Le, a former staff member of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline who founded a company that promotes mental health through online social networks. "These youth need the media to create messages of resilience, not messages of desperation," he says. The frequency and ardor with which we report on LGBTQ suicide has begun to make it seem as if these deaths are unavoidable, even normative responses to homophobia in our culture.
They aren't. In the face of tremendous overt hostility and covert neglect, still, most LGBTQ teenagers do not wish to end their lives. The Trevor Project, a national crisis and suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, has fielded over 200,000 calls since its inception in 2008, calls from youth reaching out for affirmation and support. They survived. Some of them even thrived. Where are their stories?
In August, 14-year-old Jonah Mowry posted a video on YouTube describing on a series of written notecards the daily harassment he faces as a gay youth. With tears rolling down his face, he tells us that suicide was an option for him many times. In the end, he takes a deep breath and displays his final cards. He says, "I'm not going anywhere, because I'm STRONGER than that... and... I have a million reasons to be here."
As it turns out, Mowry has 7.6 million reasons to be here -- that's how many people have viewed his video in the handful of months it has been online. Since then, he has appeared on television with his family. Some of the bullies who initially targeted him have apologized. He says a weight has been lifted off his shoulders. "I'm more confident, and I feel stronger every day."
To put this in perspective, the 2,000 videos submitted to Dan Savage's It Gets Better campaign have received, collectively, about 10 million views from around the world. Knowing that a positive life as an adult awaits them does precious little for the youth who remain trapped in the immediacy of their need. They need stories of teenagers just like them who are safe and happy now.
They need images of peers like Johnny Robinson, a 17-year-old, gay homecoming king from Limerick, Pa., who made his own video for Jonah, to reassure him that there are others just like him who survived experiences of bullying, who thrived. In it, he smiles into the camera and holds up his own set of note cards, which read, "Being different... is what helps you stand out. It's what makes you you. Love who you are... because we believe in you."
He tells Jonah, "You have already changed the world."