It’s fair to say that more than one gay teenager has committed suicide in recent weeks after being harassed and bullied by peers. Like Tyler Clementi, whose death has been well-publicized, they finally succumbed to a hopelessness most parents cannot imagine.
How can despair claim so young a life, we wonder. And how can some kids be so cruel?
Clementi’s death has been widely publicized because, in part, the circumstances terrify parents who want to believe their own children are incapable of the cruelty visited on this young man’s life by two of his fellow students.
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Eighteen-year-old Clementi was a shy kid and a talented violinist. He was into only the third week of his freshman year at Rutgers University when his roommate and another student decided that Clementi’s homosexuality would make for entertaining video.
Prosecutors say the pair, both also 18, secretly planted a webcam in Clementi’s dorm and transmitted live video of his sexual encounter with a man.
Three days later, Clementi posted a final update on Facebook: “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
Then he walked onto the George Washington Bridge and jumped. His body was found a week later.
The two students who made the video face invasion of privacy charges. The New Jersey attorney general is weighing whether to add hate crime charges.
And so we ask: Where do kids ever get the idea that it’s all right to harass and bully homosexuals?
Let us count the ways.
The U.S. government continues to enforce a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy against gay and lesbian members of our military. They must keep quiet about their sexual orientation or risk being discharged — no matter how nobly or bravely they have served our country.
One state after another passes laws to codify second-class citizenship for gay and lesbian Americans by preventing them from marrying or entering into civil unions. Recently, Florida tried to prevent gay couples from adopting, too.
Religious leaders and conservative columnists preach the gospel of hate, declaring homosexuality a perversion in God’s eyes and a danger to innocent children.
Newsrooms across the country cover one twisted minister from Kansas who, with his merry band of hatemongers, shows up at military funerals with signs reading “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for AIDS.”
So no, we cannot be shocked. We are, however, in deep denial.
America continues to sanctify the bigotry that empowers the bullies. And when the bullies go too far, children die.
Just as they always have, says Caitlin Ryan, director of San Francisco State University’s Family Acceptance Project.
“It’s not an epidemic of suicides; it’s an epidemic of neglect,” Ryan says. “Gay teens have been killing themselves for years in silence, and nobody knew their names. Now we know who they are.”
There are many ways to address the problem of suicide among gay teens, and I am interviewing advocates across the country for future columns.
This week, I implore the parents of LGBT teens to pull them close. The onslaught of suicide coverage has left many of them scared and uncertain, Ryan says.
No matter what your comfort level is with their sexual orientation, no matter what you’ve said to them in the past, they need you now.
“When families go from never discussing this to saying ‘I love you and want to understand,’ they are opening the door to hope,” Ryan says. “One conversation can change how they feel about themselves, because they’ll know they’re not alone.”
She recalled the story of one father who struggled mightily with his teenage son’s homosexuality — until his boy nearly died from alcohol poisoning.
“He was carrying his son into the emergency room. His son was sobbing and said, ‘Papa, I’m so sorry to disappoint you. I just want to be normal. I want to be like the other kids.'”
“His father’s heart split open that night,” she said.
And that changed his son’s life.
Connie Schultz is a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The Plain Dealer in Cleveland and an essayist for Parade magazine.
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