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September 9: Billy Lucas, age 15, of Greensburg, Indiana, hanged himself from the rafters of his family's barn. September 19: Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, California, hanged himself from a tree in his yard. September 22: Tyler Clementi, 18, a Rutgers University freshman, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York City. September 23: Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, Texas, shot himself in the head. These four boys didn't know each other, but they did have something in common. They'd been bullied at school, and one by one, they all apparently came to the same conclusion: If you're gay or thought to be gay, life just isn't worth living.
For most Americans the news reports were heartbreaking. They took us beyond our political arguments over gay marriage and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" -- even past our deeper disagreements about homosexuality. For once we could all agree: Those kids should be in their classrooms, not in caskets.
September's gruesome trend raised pressing questions. Homosexuality appears to be more widely tolerated than ever: Fifty-two percent of Americans consider it morally acceptable, according to a recent Gallup poll. Kids can join gay-straight alliance groups at more than 4,000 high schools and more than 150 middle schools nationwide and find advice and support online. Yet according to the Journal of Adolescent Health, about one-third of gay, lesbian, and bisexual teens report an attempt at suicide. Why are so many still driven to try to take their own life?
"Despite recent cultural shifts, kids still get the overwhelming message from society that homosexuality is not acceptable," says Scott Quasha, PsyD, a professor of school psychology at Brooklyn College. It's not uncommon to hear fierce condemnation from politicians and preachers as they debate gay civil rights. Homosexuality is compared to incest, bestiality, even violent crime. "This trickles down into the schools, where bullying occurs," says Dr. Quasha. "A gay child is an easy target for classmates looking to make trouble."
Antigay bullying is something all parents should be concerned about, says Merle Bennett Buzzelli, who oversees the public school antiviolence program in Akron, Ohio. "The victims are not just students who are actually gay," she points out -- the abuse is also directed at straight kids who don't quite fit gender norms. Tomboyish girls and guys who show interest in, say, gymnastics or dance are often called the same names -- and subjected to the same ostracism and attacks -- as their gay and lesbian classmates. There's no evidence that Billy Lucas was gay, but he was "different," classmates said. Because of that, bullies called him "fag" and told him he didn't deserve to live. Of course, for kids who do experience same-sex attraction, the use of the word gay as an all-purpose put-down is just one more painful indication that they don't fit in, whether or not they look or act any different from their peers, says Dr. Quasha.
"Being a teenager is tough enough," says Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national organization. "There's so much peer pressure. And when you're constantly getting messages that you're not okay, the pressure can just be too much. For some kids, it's hard to imagine that life will ever get better."
Since parents of gay kids are generally not gay themselves, even the most loving can find it hard to know how to respond when their child comes out. When Rashad Davis was 15, his mom, Deon Davis, sensed that there was something he wasn't telling her. "He was very, very depressed," recalls Deon, 44, a dialysis nurse from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "I'd say, 'Honey, please talk to me, you know I can handle it.' He'd say, 'No, Mom, it's just school,' and go to his room. Then, driving him to school one day, I saw cuts all over his arm. I asked if he was hurting himself and he said yes."
Afraid that Rashad might be suicidal, Deon called his health-insurance plan, which sent a therapist directly to their home. A few weeks later, with the therapist present, Rashad told his mom the source of his agony: He'd realized he was gay and he was terrified that family and friends would reject him. "I took a big swallow," says Deon. "I forced myself to say 'okay' and hug him, but then I went off and cried all night long."
Deon was confused -- this was the last thing she expected. "Rashad was 200 percent boy," she ex-plains. "He wanted to play every sport and do every boy thing." And despite what she'd told her son, she really wasn't okay with it at all. "I'd been taught in my family and church that being gay was wrong and I thought that Rashad was going to go to hell. I thought, 'This is disgusting. What are people going to say about us? My sister, his father, my father....'"
Still, something told her she'd better not share her fears with Rashad, and she was soon grateful to have made that decision. A week later Rashad told her about the antigay bullying he'd been experiencing at school. "I don't care if anybody else accepts me as long as you do,'" he told her. That comment really changed her attitude. "I knew I would have to be his protector and guide," she says.
It wasn't easy. To cope with her negative feelings, Deon began working with the therapist, connected with PFLAG, and read up on gay issues. Bolstered by his mom's support, Rashad soon transferred to a more accepting high school. "I regained my confidence and started smiling more," he recalls. Now 19, Rashad is doing well as a sophomore at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Deon Davis played it exactly right, says clinical social worker Caitlin Ryan, PhD, director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. After almost a decade of research on gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens, Dr. Ryan's group has found a clear pattern: The more supportive the parents and family, the better kids do over the long run. "That doesn't necessarily mean changing your deeply held beliefs," Dr. Ryan explains. "It means finding a way to balance those beliefs with the love you have for your child."
Many parents, unwilling to believe that their child is gay, try to talk him out of it; they may tell him he's going through a phase, forbid him to discuss it, and keep him from reaching out to the gay community. Often, their motive is to protect their child from harassment. But this well-meaning approach tends to backfire, Dr. Ryan says, since the child interprets it as a rejection of his true self: If his parents won't accept him for what he is, who will?
As young adults, gay kids from highly rejecting families are more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, almost six times as likely to be clinically depressed, and more than three times as likely to abuse drugs or be at high risk for HIV infection than those from families who are more accepting, Dr. Ryan's research has found. But even small changes can yield big results, she says -- children from families that are only moderately rejecting have significantly fewer problems.
Even parents who can't be fully accepting can find ways to be supportive. "You can say, 'I think this is wrong but I love you and I'm going to be here for you,'" Dr. Ryan suggests. "Be willing to listen. Give your child a hug."
Even if their parents fully support them, some gay kids are overwhelmed by community intolerance. Soon after Tyler Clementi's fatal leap, openly gay 19-year-old Zach Harrington killed himself in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. He had recently attended a city council meeting in which homosexuality was called a "destructive lifestyle" that corrupts children. Zach's parents felt that the rancorous debate may have pushed their son over the edge, the town's newspaper reported.
We all need to speak more carefully, says Father Mike Tegeder, pastor of the Church of St. Edward in Bloomington, Minnesota. "The Catholic Church teaches that each person has dignity, whatever their race or gender or sexual orientation," he says. "We don't need to agree with one another, but we have to respect one another's dignity as children of God."
And many religious groups agree. Exodus International, a conservative Christian organization that had previously encouraged kids to speak out against homosexuality, changed direction after the recent string of suicides, deciding to advocate "biblical tolerance and grace" instead of confrontation. For Warren Throckmorton, PhD, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, the group's reversal was an obvious choice. "It seems to me that Christians should be first in line in saying that everyone should be treated the way you yourself want to be treated," says Dr. Throckmorton, a traditional evangelical who recently developed The Golden Rule Pledge, a program specifically designed to help conservative churches prevent antigay bullying.
To combat antigay bullying in schools, parents of straight kids need to take a stand, says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization. "We have to tell our children that bullying of any kind is unacceptable but we also have to model the behavior we expect of them." Expressing your opinions in a civil way, whether on homosexuality or any other issue, is a good place to start, Costello suggests.
Concerned citizens can also push for schools to adopt anti-bullying policies that specifically cover harassment because of sexual or gender identity, Costello says. Many people feel a blanket "respect for all" statement is enough, but research shows such policies aren't as effective at protecting students from antigay bullying.
Teachers might let it ride if a kid says "that's so gay," since the insult isn't always intended as an antihomosexual slur, Buzzelli explains. Yet it still creates a hostile environment for gay kids. So her bullying prevention program starts by explaining to kids that the term refers to an entire group of people. "Using gay as a put-down is like using Jew or black or disabled as a put-down -- it's not acceptable," Buzzelli says. "Middle school kids also throw around words like fag and dyke without thinking about what they mean," she adds. They need to know these words are as offensive to gays as racial slurs are to people of color.
Buzzelli's team focuses its bullying-prevention efforts on middle schools since that's when kids become aware of their sexuality, and it's also when bullying is often at its worst. When Seth Walsh killed himself at 13, many Americans were surprised by his youth: How could he even have known his sexual orientation at that age? That wasn't unusual, experts say: Research shows that kids first become aware of sexual feelings around 10 and those who are gay or lesbian know it around 13, just the way straight kids know they are attracted to the opposite sex.
If parents balk at terms like gay being discussed in middle school, Buzzelli explains to them that efforts to prevent bullying are crucial to their own child's ability to get an education. If bullying goes on, it creates a chaotic environment where no one can learn.
Cara Riggs is principal at Omaha South High Magnet School, another school that insists on a safe environment for gay students. Riggs has little patience for those who feel the school is advancing some kind of radical agenda: "We're not advocating anything but respect," she tells them. Dr. Throckmorton concurs: "Mutual respect and freedom from hostility are Christian virtues," he says. And as the Department of Education reminded schools in an October 26 letter, harassment of any kind is against federal civil rights law.
For both liberal and conservative opponents of antigay bullying, it boils down to the issue of basic human dignity. "As a parent, it's your responsibility to sit your kids down and explain how there are lots of different kinds of people," says Dr. Quasha. "You can even say, 'In our religion, we don't really agree with this, but what we do believe is that everybody deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.'"
E.J. Plata's parents had suspected he was gay since he was 4 years old, when he ditched his G.I. Joe in favor of dolls and jewelry. But it wasn't until he was 13, friendless and depressed, that they brought it up. Worried their son was headed for a breakdown, the Modesto, California, couple felt they couldn't wait for E.J. to come out to them. "It's not the worst thing that can happen to you," his mother, Elizabeth, assured him. E.J.'s tearful response: "Does Dad know?" Later, Ed Plata told E.J., "We will deal with it" and turned away.
Accepting the truth about E.J. was hard for Ed, an electrical contractor and ex-Marine from a blue-collar Mexican-American family. He'd been taught that homosexuality was an abomination. With Elizabeth and their six children, he attended a church that preached the same message. But he loved his son, whom he describes as gentle and artistic, and hated to see him suffer. When E.J. was 15, he asked his dad, "Am I going to hell?" Ed looked at the boy and said, "No way."
At that point the Platas realized that a few hugs and words of support weren't going to cut it. Ed and Elizabeth joined a church with a more inclusive attitude. They eventually started a support group for local gay kids and another one for parents. And they became outspoken advocates for gay rights -- and for E.J. Once, when a woman shouted an epithet at him from a passing car, Elizabeth drove after her until the offender pulled over. "Can I talk to you mom to mom?" she asked. "If you knew my son, you'd think he was a cool person." The woman apologized and promised never to use that word again. Another time, when a neighbor walked by the house and made an antigay remark, Ed let him have it. The man hasn't bothered the Platas since.
"My parents are there for me 150 percent," says E.J., now 20 and a hair stylist assistant at an upscale salon in San Francisco. "They started out uneducated on the subject of gay people. It's been a journey for them. But they thought more about what I was going through than what they were going through. That's how any parents should be, whether their child is gay or not."
Even kids who are not bullied can have trouble coping when they realize they're different in a fundamental way from their family and friends. Abby Braughton was 13 when she developed a serious crush on a female classmate at her suburban Indianapolis school. She felt ashamed and frightened.
Abby knew her mom, Tonja Smith, would probably be okay with it -- but she also knew that many others weren't. As her inner turmoil mounted, she even considered suicide.
It wasn't until her sophomore year in high school that Abby ran across her first bully, a boy who taunted her in person and in text messages for being a lesbian, even though she still hadn't gone public. When Abby came home crying, Smith called the principal and made sure the boy was disciplined. "It's okay if you admit the truth," said Smith, who had suspected her daughter was gay for years. "The other kids will get over it."
Abby did tell a few people, and her mom was right -- it went fine. But she was still struggling. "The hardest thing about being gay was accepting myself," she says.
Though she had known at 13, Abby didn't come out fully until her senior year. By then she'd found her first real girlfriend, Amy, whom she invited to the senior prom. And to Abby's surprise, she was elected prom queen.
Now a freshman at Indiana University Bloomington, Abby credits her mom for helping her get through the hard times. "When I came to her and said, 'What do I do?' she said, 'Be who you are.' That was the greatest thing she could have done for me."
We asked experts what parents can do to stop antigay bullying.
Check yourself. Take a look at your own prejudices, stereotypes, and language, and educate yourself about diversity issues.
Discuss values. Tell your child that even when you disagree with people, it's important to treat them with respect.
Have a plan. Encourage your child to stand up for bullied classmates and to tell an adult when bullying occurs.
Demand respect. If your kid's the bully, make it clear his behavior is unacceptable and there will be consequences.
Push for a policy. Find out if your school district specifically forbids antigay bullying. If it doesn't, file a complaint.
For resources on gay teens and bullying, go to lhj.com/bullies.