Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumps off a bridge to his death because others have videotaped and broadcast the young man engaging in a homosexual encounter.
In California, a 13-year-old boy, Seth Walsh, hangs himself from a tree in his backyard because he was bullied for being gay. He dies nine days later.
In Houston, another 13-year-old, Asher Brown, kills himself with a gun after years of ongoing gay bullying at school.
In Indiana, 15-year-old Billy Lucas hanged himself in his grandmother's barn after years of torment at school, a result of his perceived sexual orientation.
Unusual stories? Unfortunately, they are too usual. All these deaths occurred in September 2010. Are we numb to so many repetitions of the same story, or are we blind to the reality?
Last year the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota experienced the suicides of three lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender students within a single year. Yet the school board is reluctant to take any positive steps to protect LGBT students.
The assistant attorney general in the state of Michigan posts defamatory remarks and images on the internet and protests outside the home of the student body president of the University of Michigan because the young man, who is openly gay, has a “very deeply radical agenda.” Yet this elected official has the duty of applying the law equitably to the residents of Michigan.
Where is the public outrage?
What if it was your child? And why wouldn't you do for anyone's child what you would do to protect your own?
Homosexuality is a fact of life, not a choice. Precise statistics as to the percentage of the population that is gay are impossible to determine because so many LGBT persons still hide their sexual orientation, too often for very good reasons. Some sources suggest that perhaps 10 percent of the population is gay. Others suggest that homosexuality may occur with approximately the same frequency as left-handedness.
We may object to homosexual acts and consider them “unnatural” and “immoral,” according to the religious beliefs we hold. We may oppose the notion of same-sex marriage for similar religious reasons or political reasons. We may even still want homosexuality considered illegal. And we all hope that there won't be any homosexuals in our own families.
But how can we ignore the plight of our children who discover that they might be gay? They may not feel able to share the issue with their parents and family. They probably don't feel much acceptance in their churches. School may be the only place they can find understanding friends and adults who will listen, but too often they find endless bullying, emotional torment and even physical assault instead. Others who aren't even gay are teased and bullied as if they are. The list of recent youth suicides should be a real eye opener.
What does a young person feel when he or she begins to think that his or her sexuality is something other than the norm? First of all, he hates himself and doesn't want this “thing” to be true. He fears the rejection of parents and family. She may fear the loss of her home. There may be the loss of friends, as well as the loss of future opportunities, of dreams. If she “comes out,” she faces a public hell. If he tries to “stay in the closet,” he faces a private hell. There is a third alternative that too often appears the most desireable, and that's where many promising young lives end.
Parents of gay youth face their own brand of hell — to accept or reject, to tell or not to tell, and how to reconcile a child's gay orientation with personal beliefs and values.
Hope and help exist.
For students, organizations such as GLSEN, Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educational Network, provide the structure and guidance for gay-straight alliances in schools, where students can discuss LBGT issues and find support in a safe, caring environment. Especially for parents, but for students as well, PFLAG, Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, offers the opportunity to find support among others dealing with similar issues. For school staff, the Montana Safe Schools Coalition provides workshops where teachers and administrators can discuss sexual orientation and plan to provide a school environment that is safe for all students.
For those experiencing the worst days of your lives, listen to Ellen DeGeneres: “Things will get easier; people's minds will change. And you should be alive to see it.”
(Peter Shea has been a teacher in the Browning Public School for 30 years and a Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians representative to the Montana Safe Schools Coalition, which provides workshops for school staffs throughout the state on the issue of gay bullying.)