If We Want To Stop Queer Kids From Dying By Suicide, We Need To Start At The Top
I spent my freshman year of high school dreaming of dying.
I was hopelessly, unmistakably and inescapably gay and because of it ― and what that meant about how the world around me saw and (mis)understood me ― death seemed like my only option.
I attended a small, clique-y Catholic school in southern Wisconsin during the early ’90s and I was ruthlessly bullied by my classmates. So, like a character in a mediocre teen movie, I spent lunch and my free periods hiding in the biology lab or a bathroom stall.
Two years earlier my brilliant, wonderfully caustic, joke-cracking Uncle Ward had been diagnosed with AIDS. I can still remember when he returned from New York to die in a small, bright bedroom in my grandparent’s house that looked out on Lake Michigan. I didn’t know that day as I watched him hobble up the driveway — at that point little more than a skeleton in his second-hand winter coat — that it would be the last time I’d see him alive, but I knew that he and I were made from the same type of irredeemably dangerous molecules and it terrified me.
After his death, my parents took my brothers and me to see the AIDS Quilt in Washington and as I wandered the rows and rows of beautiful, awful patchwork memorials, it became absolutely clear to me that even if I could somehow evade the abuse I was experiencing at school, other nightmares awaited me simply because of who I wanted to touch and taste and maybe one day even love.
With no examples of healthy, happy queer people in my town, on my TV or anywhere else, I was unable to see ― or even imagine ― how I could ever exist exactly as I was, and I began to plot how I could end my suffering ― how I could end my everything. I considered drinking the deadliest things I could swallow or cutting the softest, tenderest parts I could cut, and I became obsessed with finding the best place in my house for my body to eventually be found.
For whatever reason — the luck and joy of having a family who loved me unconditionally; my fear of being a disappointment to them, even in death; my twisted belief that my continued suffering might one day cleanse me of my unspeakable sin and I would be free — planning was all I could ever bring myself to do.
With no examples of healthy, happy queer people in my town, on my TV or anywhere else, I was unable to see ― or even imagine ― how I could ever exist exactly as I was, and I began to plot how I could end my suffering ― how I could end my everything.
That was 25 years ago. You’d have thought things would have gotten better for queer people by now and, thankfully, in many remarkable ways they have. But in many other ways, they haven’t — especially if you’re a queer person of color, a queer woman, a transgender or gender non-conforming person, a queer person struggling with poverty or any combination of these or other marginalized identities.
Too many queer people have found themselves — and still find themselves — exactly where I was. Too many queer people have found a reason and a way to do what I didn’t do. And too many of them are children ― like 15-year-old Nigel Shelby, who died by suicide last week in Alabama after struggling with depression and dealing with homophobic bullying.
“He would tell me that kids would say things to him that would hurt his feelings,” Camika Shelby, his mother, told NBC News.
“When you have a kid that’s already depressed and going through a lot emotionally, for you to call him names that you shouldn’t call them or say stuff to them — it sometimes has a worse effect than it would on a child who’s not struggling with depression,” she added.
According to a fact sheet compiled by The Trevor Project, “LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth” and “LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.” Furthermore, “40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt” and “92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.”
While attributing a suicide to any single experience or issue is simplistic at best and potentially irresponsible, I don’t believe it’s inaccurate or unfair to claim a connection, if not a correlation, between the trauma that queer people face and their decision to harm themselves or end their lives. In fact, a study in the American Journal of Public Health, also shared by The Trevor Project, found that “each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.”
What’s often more difficult for people to understand is how attitudes that inspire and enable this kind of discrimination and harassment still flourish in an era when we’ve been told ― and have seen ― queer people gain more rights, more visibility and more acceptance than ever before.
For me, it starts at the very top.
Despite ridiculous claims about President Donald Trump being the “most pro-LGBTQ president in history,” his administration has worked tirelessly over the past two years to roll back protections for queer people while finding new ways to terrorize us.
Even with recent triumphs like the legalization of marriage equality and increasingly better representation in the media, the queer community ― especially those with multiple marginalized identities ― remains under siege. Aside from long-standing stigma from and inspired by religious institutions, as well as decades-old garden-variety homophobia and transphobia that continue to haunt and menace our nation, anti-queer attacks are being called for, carried out and supported by our own government. And it’s having a devastating effect on how ― and if ― many of us live.
Despite ridiculous claims about President Donald Trump being the “most pro-LGBTQ president in history,” his administration has worked tirelessly over the past two years to roll back protections for queer people while finding new ways to terrorize us. GLAAD notes that Trump’s administration has “unleashed more than 92 attacks against LGBTQ Americans in policy and rhetoric,” from a ban on transgender military personnel, which went into effect earlier this month, to disbanding the Presidential Advisory Council on HIV and AIDS.
Trump has also stacked his cabinet and the courts with anti-LGBTQ toadies and judges who are making decisions and handing down verdicts that seek to limit or fully wipe out our protections and rights. Just this week the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case which will decide whether Title VII protects queer people from job discrimination, a stance President Barack Obama’s Justice Department affirmed but which Trump’s DOJ argues does not.
In some ways, even more horrifying is the cues these policymakers and their decisions send to people we call our neighbors, coworkers, classmates ― and even friends and family – about acceptable behavior.
Take, for instance, how a sheriff’s deputy allegedly responded to Nigel Shelby’s death.
“Liberty, Guns, Bible, Trump, BBQ. That’s my kind of LGBTQ,” the deputy reportedly wrote on a local Alabama news outlet’s Facebook page, responding to a story about Shelby’s death. “I’m seriously offended that there is such a thing as this movement. Society cannot and should not [accept] this behavior…”
What kind of a person ― a public servant tasked with safeguarding his community, no less ― responds to the death of a 15-year-old with a comment like that? Apparently someone who feels so emboldened by our president that he directly and proudly name-dropped Trump in his post.
And this deputy isn’t alone. According to a study by the FBI, the number of hate crimes ― against queer people but also people of color, immigrants, holders of particular religious beliefs and others ― skyrocketed in the year after Trump was elected. Speaking in response to the study ― and specifically about the difference between Trump’s presidency and those of his predecessors ― Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism and a professor of criminal justice at California State University-San Bernardino, told the Southern Poverty Law Center, “There is a line that wouldn’t be crossed with regards to over-the-top bigotry, which apparently no longer exists.”
The erasing of this line by the very people who are supposed to be protecting our country and everyone in it ― who are supposed to be protecting us ― has allowed and even encouraged homophobia and transphobia to not only run rampant in ways many people were convinced were no longer possible, but has also rubber-stamped this kind of behavior as completely acceptable ― if not preferable.
Can we really expect our queer youth not to hate themselves when the messages they’re receiving from our leaders tell them in no uncertain terms that they’re essentially worthless and that there’s no place for them in our country?
Can we really expect our fellow citizens not to hate us if our president is telling us that trans people are not worthy of serving in our military? If our vice president believes and publicly states that being gay is a choice and that prohibiting marriage equality isn’t discrimination, but instead upholding “God’s idea”? If our secretary of education admits she knew of the harm she would be doing if she rolled back protections for trans kids ― and did it anyway? If our Justice Department sides with and advocates for a baker who refuses to make cakes for gay couples?
And can we really expect our queer youth not to hate themselves when the messages they’re receiving from our leaders tell them in no uncertain terms that they’re essentially worthless and that there’s no place for them in our country?
If we want these children to stop killing themselves, we not only have to let them know that they are deserving of living their lives just as they are but we also need to channel our anger and direct it at those in power who are attempting to ― and succeeding in ― seeding queerphobia with their sinister rhetoric and even more sinister policymaking. If we don’t challenge the men and women who spend their days deciding what freedom means for us, then we will be forced to accept whatever perverted definition they come up with and thrust upon us ― as well as the deadly consequences that result.
So, essentially, this means if you’re not outraged, it’s time to get outraged. If you’re outraged but you aren’t doing anything about it, it’s time to start doing something about it so we can save our queer youth. That means speaking up. That means drawing lines in the sand and telling the people you love that if they really care about queer people, they’ll speak up too. And if they won’t, then we need to reconsider our relationships with them.
It also means not excusing even the most casual of homophobia or transphobia. That means not letting people hide their hate behind religion. It means coming out if you can safely come out so that your story might open or change minds or, if you’re an ally, supporting queer people whenever and wherever you encounter them.
It means telling our stories and listening to and passing on the stories of others. It means recognizing your privileges wherever and however you experience them and then using them to benefit others. It means calling your elected officials. It means showing up at protests. It means voting.
And it means reminding ourselves and each other that as justifiably terrified as we may be ― and should be ― we know how to fight because we’ve been fighting for our entire lives.
We cannot let another queer kid die because they can’t bear another day of living in a country and a culture that tells them they are sick or evil or unworthy of being protected, and because they can no longer grapple with the resulting sadness or shame that’s so deep and pervasive and endless that they believe they have nowhere else to go but the grave.
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.
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