Gay Teens Bullied to the Point of Suicide
How This Affects All of Us
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."