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National Coming Out Day: Stand up for LGBT Kids

2010 October 11

The author, in high school

• Raymond Chase 19, (RI)
• Tyler Clementi 18, (NJ)
• Felix Sacco, 17 (MA)
• Cody J. Barker 17, (WI)
• Justin Aaberg 15, (MN)
• Billy Lucas 15, (IN)
• Harrison Chase Brown 15, (CO)
• Caleb Nolt 14, (IN)
• Seth Walsh 13, (CA)
• Asher Brown 13, (TX)

In the past two months, at least 10 young men who identified as gay – or were labeled as such by their peers – have taken their lives.  The oldest was 19; the youngest was 13.  The latter shot himself in his father’s closet.  He died in a closet.  The irony is certainly not lost on me.

In the wake of the death of Asher Brown, Annise Parker, the out lesbian mayor of Houston, released the following statement:

What happened to Asher Brown, his family and friends is a tragedy. This situation is being investigated by the proper authorities, but it is a sign that bullying of any kind can have deadly consequences. It reminds us that young people who are targets of bullying need love and support.

Mayor Parker is the first gay mayor of a US city with over one million residents, yet in issuing this statement, she chose not to address the fact that Brown was bullied by classmates who believed he was gay.  His peers simulated sex acts on him in gym class and hurled homophobic slurs at him at school. We have a bullying problem in the country, and people like Ms. Parker need to take a stronger stance.  According to a 10-year study conducted by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in the past year nearly 90% of LGBT students experienced harassment at school.  They also found that nearly two-thirds of students felt unsafe because of their sexual orientation, and that close to one-third of LGBT students feared for their safety to the point that they skipped at least one day of school in the past month.

October 11th is National Coming Out Day.  Every year on this day, the LGBT(QI..XYZ) community encourages people to come out.  Come out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer/questioning, intersex, allied, supportive.  Come out as a person who stands against intolerance.  Come out as the mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, friend, priest of an LGBT person.  Come out as a person committed to ending the violence, hatred, and homophobia aimed at queer kids everywhere.

When I was a freshman in high school, I did not yet know that I was gay, but my male peers had already decided I was.  I was never the victim of violence, but years of taunting and name-calling took a toll, and when I did start to wonder about my sexual orientation, it seemed the decision had been made for me.  For the next few years, I did not identify as gay; I didn’t want those boys to be right.  It didn’t help that during my freshman year, I had joined a group of friends in starting a discussion group for kids who were questioning their sexuality or who were victims of bullying.  The group eventually evolved into the school’s first Gay-Straight Alliance, providing my bullies with more fodder.

Throughout my junior and senior years of high school, I was talking to my mother about my confusion, frustration, and anxiety.  She was supportive, understanding, and non-judgemental.  Even though I had a supportive family at home, the alienation I felt from them and my peers was a source of tremendous stress.  This is a piece of the gay-kid puzzle that is too often overlooked.  LGBT kids are born into every kind of family: rich, poor, black, white, conservative, liberal, stable and chaotic. The majority of us are not born into gay families; we are raised by heterosexuals.  Even the most supportive straight parents cannot completely understand the struggles of a young gay person.  I did not know of any other gays in my family tree.  Turns out, my father has a gay cousin, and when I found out, my father couldn’t understand why I was so upset that he hadn’t told me sooner.  No one wants to feel alone, especially during middle and high school.  Knowing that someone else in the family was gay could have made a huge difference for me, because it would have meant that a) my family had been through this before and b) I wasn’t the black (or gay) sheep.

The true nature of homosexuality has yet to be discovered, but there is strong evidence suggesting biological roots.  That being said, homosexuality is not genetic.  Anyone could have a gay child.  As a result, gay children can be subjected to the cruelty of intolerant families.  This “alienation effect” seems pervasive among young LGBT people.  In coming out, gay kids risk alienation from their families, communities, and peers.  Before we come out, we must assess the risks: Will my family kick me out of the house?  Will my parents pull their financial support when I enter college?  How will they react when I want to bring my partner to Thanksgiving?  Are they going to send me away for “treatment”?  I was confident that my family would be supportive, but I worried that my brothers would be uncomfortable, or that my father would think it was a phase.  The coming out process is one of the factors that separates the gay community from other minorities.

I have never heard of an instance in which a black child was abandoned by his parents for being black.  In most minority groups, the very characteristic that makes you a minority is inherited.  Race and religion are good examples.  There are, of course, exceptions, as there are black children adopted by white couples, (though their adoption would imply the parents’ acceptance of the child’s race), and there are children who denounce the religion of their parents.  In the case of children with disabilities, parents are almost always privy to the discovery of the disability, either at birth or over the course of the child’s development.  You rarely hear stories about parents “disowning” a child with disabilities; if anything, you hear about parents who “commit” severely disabled children to facilities that are better equipped to manage the children’s care.  “Treatment” facilities for gay people are more like torture camps.  Those parents who “commit” their gay kids send them to programs where they are “reprogrammed” with electroshock therapy until they swear they no longer feel same-sex attraction.

How is it possible that in the year 2010 we tolerate this kind of hatred towards children?  No child should ever have to fear being “sent away” to be punished for their sexual orientation.  Yet so many kids live in fear every day.  And for many of us, we are surrounded by messages that reinforce the attitudes of those who at best tolerate us, and at worst hate us.  I see so many commercials that equate sexual prowess with masculinity and docile domesticity with femininity.  If I were a 13 year-old questioning my sexuality, what kind of messages would these ads send?  At schools across the country, teachers and principals- the very people charged with protecting kids at school- allow bullies to torture students, and refuse to step in when complaints are filed.  Every faculty member and every school administrator should, upon hearing the word “faggot” in the hallway, stop the offending child and make it very clear that this is unacceptable language.  Right now, only 12 states have laws that explicitly protect students from bullying on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

All over this country, children are scared to go to school.  They are scared to talk to their teachers, principals, and classmates.  They are afraid to come out to their parents.  Acceptance of homosexuality is increasing among the younger generations, and with tools like the internet at our disposal, there is no reason that LGBT kids should feel so alone, yet many of them do.  Projects like Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video series on YouTube attempt to reach out to kids who are suffering at the hands of bullies in their schools and communities, and groups like GLSEN work tirelessly to educate school faculty about anti-gay bullying.  But for a lot of these kids “It Gets Better” is too far away.  They need help now, and for entirely too many of them, suicide is the only way out.

We have to do better for these kids.  Maybe the “It Gets Better” project is only half of the battle.  We can’t just tell people “once you get past high school, it gets better.”  We also need to focus on ending the bullying in schools.  Queer kids should absolutely look forward to a day when they can comfortably walk down the street in some college town holding a partner’s hand.  But they should also be able to look forward to a day when the bullies don’t impale squirrels on their car antennas (yes, that actually happened to Mikey Rox, who blogs for CNN).  It can get better.  Soon.  But, as Sherry Wolf, author of Sexuality and Socialism said in a recent blog post:

The crime is that LGBT people continue to be held in an official state of civil inequality that foments a soulless social pathology toward sexual minorities in this country. Official policy carries over into social attitudes. So long as schools lack sex and sexuality education along with anti-bullying campaigns the insane rates of LGBT youth suicide and harassment will continue.

There needs to be a serious re-focusing on bullying in schools, but we also need to address the inequalities that LGBT people face in terms of civil marriage rights, adoption, housing and public accommodations, Social Security Survivor Benefits, etc.  Until we are fully equal citizens under the law, our second-class citizenship will continue to make us targets for harassment and mistreatment.  Now is the time to send a strong statement to Washington about the rights of LGBT people of all ages.  No one else needs to die.

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