National Coming Out Day had quite the buildup to Monday's celebration of being open about one's sexual orientation and gender. Rather than a rise in expectations or excitement, the buildup was of bodies. At least six teenagers killed themselves in September. Some of them were out of the closet, while others, still young and figuring out their identity, were not. Calling them all queer teens is not quite accurate, but the bullies who harassed many of them for years had no such reservation.
Raymond Chase, a 19-year-old openly gay Johnson and Wales student, hanged himself in his Providence dorm room two weeks ago. Asher Brown, 13, was bullied for 18 months and was tripped down a flight of stairs by another student the day before he shot himself. Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself after years of bullying — including on that very day. Cody Barker, 17, had planned to start a gay–straight alliance before committing suicide. Billy Lucas, 15, also hanged himself after harassment by classmates who thought he "did not deserve to live."
Tyler Clementi, 18, has probably received the most attention after jumping to his death in the Hudson River. Just three weeks into his first year at Rutgers, his roommate streamed video of what news organizations have delicately called an "intimate encounter" that Clementi had with another man. Unlike the other cases of harassment and assault, Clementi's roommate and a friend who helped distribute video of the hookup are being investigated for criminal charges. In some of the other suicides, police have stated that they do not consider the harassment to be criminal.
These suicides may have received widespread attention in recent weeks, but they are sadly all too common. Queer teens attempt suicide at several times the rate of straight ones. Based on the statistics, the publicized deaths in September must have only been a fraction of the actual number of suicides. This long- standing problem is only just getting the attention it deserves.
While 90 percent of queer teens report being harassed and 39 percent of those in middle school report violence against them, conservatives continue to block anti-bullying programs. Groups like Focus on the Family criticize anti-bullying programs for promoting the gay agenda. They want people — queer and straight — to remain under the impression that "alternative lifestyles" are wrong and shameful. It does not matter if kids get harassed, are assaulted or even commit suicide, because it is more important that everyone thinks queer people are sinners — why wouldn't bullies harass such depraved and immoral people?
The problem is not confined to bullies; cruel children do not develop in a vacuum. Many school administrators choose to ignore the harassment as happened before several of the September suicides. The bullies receive weekly support from their churches' haphazard application of Old Testament passages. Conservative politicians continue to capitalize on hostility toward queer people in order to win votes with little work. Liberal politicians still try to gain queer votes by claiming to support equal rights — albeit separate ones.
What can we do to stop this?
If schools will not allow people to tell students that it is okay to be different, lest we turn them gay, we must get around them. The Internet helps dissidents circumvent totalitarian regimes, and it can help us circumvent bigoted teachers and parents — a far easier feat. Dan Savage started the "It Gets Better Project" on YouTube with one simple, eponymous message to teens wandering the Web: it gets better.
Hundreds of people have posted videos to YouTube talking about what they went through as teenagers and what their lives are like now. Videos have been submitted from across the LGBT community — Savage and his husband, well-known people from a transsexual porn star to the director of the ACLU, countless queer people and heterosexual allies — all telling teens that they are not alone and talking about resources like the Trevor Project, which promotes mental health and suicide prevention in the LGBT community.
While the It Gets Better Project cannot solve the problem in its entirety, but it helps. As Harvey Milk said in his famous "You Gotta Give Them Hope" speech, "I know that you cannot live on hope alone, but without it, life is not worth living." These videos must only be a temporary measure; they are ad hoc support. It is not enough to just tell teenagers that life will one day get better while they often face the better part of a decade surrounded by bigoted classmates, parents and towns. We must make their lives better now.
Tell any struggling teens you know that you support them and are there if they ever need your help. Give them hope. Make a video if you were harassed about what your life is like now. Urge your school boards to deal with this problem. Demand that politicians give equal civil rights to all citizens. The only way to change this is for teens to know that being queer is acceptable, but being a bully is not.
David Sheffield '11 is a math-physics concentrator from New Jersey. He can be harangued at firstname.lastname@example.org