Homophobia: The Plague That Is Killing Our Youth

If hate is learned, then it lies on our shoulders to teach our young kids acceptance before they continue hurting each other, and before they become adults who will likely pass their hatred to the next generation.
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"Our hope is that our family's personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity. "
--Clementi Family

The tragedy referred to in the quote above is one no family should ever have to endure. This statement came after Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old accomplished musician, who had only been a student at Rutgers University for one month, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. It's fairly common knowledge now that he was the fifth young gay man in September to take his own life after enduring severe harassment and bullying for being gay or perceived to be gay.

Seth Walsh, 13 years old. California. Hanging.
Asher Brown, 13 years old. Texas. Self-inflicted gunshot wound with his step-father's gun.
Billy Lucas, 15 years old. Indiana. Hanging.
Tyler Clementi, 18 years old. New Jersey. Jumped off of the George Washington Bridge.
Raymond Chase, 19 years old. Rhode Island. Hanging.

It saddens me that almost exactly one and a half years ago I wrote an article about homophobia and suicide among LGBT youth. Today, I write an almost identical article with practically the same statistics. Research conducted by GLSEN in 2009 indicates that nine out of ten LGBT youth report harassment in school. According to Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey, LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide. A 2009 study, "Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes " led by Dr. Caitlin Ryan and conducted as part of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University, shows that adolescents who were rejected by their families for being LGBT were 8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide.

Five suicides (and that's only five that have been publicized) in three weeks is profoundly tragic and more than sufficient to sound the "enough is enough" alarm. Once again, I feel my stomach doing backflips as I engage in conversation about the homophobia and hatred entrenched in our culture. I have been having this conversation since I was an undergraduate student, of all places, at Rutgers University, which is a place where I felt safe, accepted and free to explore and embrace diversity.

When I heard the news of Clementi, I asked myself how the experience that he went through occurred at such a progressive university. I then discovered alarming research conducted by Sara Konrath and Edward Obrien at University of Michigan that indicates that empathy among young adults and college students has dropped significantly since 2000. They went as far as to say that our culture's overexposure to violent media (i.e. video games) potentially desensitizes people to the pain of others. In addition, they indicate that the fast paced online world of social networking makes it easier to shut out the problems of others when we just don't feel like listening.

None of this changes the fact that we have a government that sanctions homophobia and discrimination. When the government upholds laws that allow our armed forces to discharge people, who are adding tremendous value by serving our country with honor and integrity, on the basis of sexual orientation, we are teaching our kids to hate. When we uphold laws that sanctify marriage as only valid between men and women we are teaching our kids to hate. When 28 states in our country can still legally fire LGBT people from their jobs and 33 states can legally fire transgendered people from their jobs, we are teaching our kids to hate.

My heart overflows with compassion for these young people who felt they had no alternative except to complete suicide. My compassion overflows to their families. Also, I feel compassion for the young people who have learned to perpetrate hate and violence towards LGBT people. Children are taught to hate and fear diversity in their homes (40 percent of LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes when they come out of the closet), and in their churches. Justin Early, author of "Streetchild: An Unpaved Passage," which is his memoir of his life as a gay, homeless youth, speaks first hand when he says, "It's sadly ironic that for millions of children, the deadly streets seem safer than many of the homophobic homes, schools and other mainstream communities that we would otherwise deem safe and comforting."

It follows that when kids learn to hate at home the next place they express it is in school. Ten percent of all hate crimes occur at schools and colleges. If hate is learned, then it lies on the shoulders of our schools, church officials, parents, teachers, and communities to teach our young kids acceptance before they continue hurting each other, and before they become adults who will likely pass their hatred to the next generation.

Of course the home is made up of individuals, and it is with each of us individually where the process of dissolving the plague of homophobia begins. Each of us must look into our own hearts and ask some difficult questions. How in my life and in my consciousness have I contributed to the perpetuation of homophobia and violence? Where do I harbor hatred? How can I heal this within me and participate in healing it among our children, schools, churches, governments?

Today (Monday, October 11) is National Coming Out Day. This is a perfect time, whether you are LGBTQ or straight, black, white, Asian, Latino, disabled or simply identify as a human being, to come out against hatred and take a stand for the expression of love of all beings regardless of differences. This is a time to send the message that as human beings inhabiting this planet we have a right to fully express the deepest truth of who we really are (as long as you don't hurt yourself or others).

It is time to forgive ourselves for our silence and for perpetuating this treachery. As I let my tears and anguish flow for the collective pain we have as a culture for allowing this to happen to our children I implore you to do the same. Let your tears go, reveal your pain, as you ask yourself, "How could we let this happen to our children?!?" And, when you are finished crying, stand up, declare, "No more!" and add your fire to the flame of love we must light to guide the way for our young people who deserve to live long lives fully embraced, nurtured and loved in the truth of who they are, regardless of seeming differences among sexual orientation, race or gender.

If you are a young LGBTQ person reading this who needs resources, please, know there are people who care about you and that there is support available (see below). As a gay man who was once a teenager dodging name-calling and taunting, wondering where his place was in this world, I know your pain, and I care about your pain.


Dan Savage just started the "It Gets Better" video project on Youtube.com. Please also see the Trevor Project and LGBT Homeless Youth
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