I can recall that phrase being uttered on the TV sets of my youth. "Kids these days," some curmudgeon would utter as he shook his head in wonder about one errant teen or another. And then his wife would make a remark which would set off the laugh track and we would all laugh right along with it. It seems like those teens were always up to something they had no business doing or more than likely were just living their lives to a standard the old fogey couldn't understand.
Well here I am in 2010 a bit of a curmudgeon shaking my head in wonder at "kids these days," only this old fogey and a bunch of young ones are all shaking our heads at the state of affairs which has brought our lgbt youth to the brink of disaster. Within the past couple of weeks the news has been littered with stories about one gay teen and then another committing suicide and I personally am flabbergasted. The stories read like a who's who of finger pointers over whose responsibility it is to keep our youth safe.
Really? C'mon. No one wants to take the blame for not narcing out the school bully, but really? That is what we are worried about. Seriously. One teen is too many. Five is an epidemic. And those are just the ones we have heard about. ABC's Good Morning America reported this morning that Tyler Clementi, the student from Rutgers was the second suicide at the school this year. The first one which occurred this past spring was also centered around the student's sexual orientation.
According to Prof. Rob O'Brien, "Students have talked about their fears, talked about their need to have a safe space and thusfar the University hasn't done anything of any substance to address their concerns." And then we wonder why our kids don't feel safe, listened to or protected. Umm, maybe it's because they're not. It sort of makes sense that gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide. It's time we stand up not just with them, but daggone it, for them. Had Rutgers acted more responsibly, Clementi may have had resource and recourse.
Former New Jersey Governor, Jim McGeevey who resigned office with the now famous statement, "I am a gay American," spoke with George Stephanopoulous regarding holding adults accountable for the bullying that occurs in our schools. "On one hand we want to change people's hearts, George, because I think fundamentaly when people know a gay person or recognize that love is love that changes their reaction. But I also believe we need to have strong clear legislation that holds adults accountable when children err in their ways." Wait. Hold the adults who are watching the kids accountable for their actions?!! What a concept. George asked him what that would look like.
"What we did in the state New Jersey was hold school principles accountable, teachers accountable in the same way we don't tolerate racism, we don't tolerate sexism, we don't tolerate anti semitism because we know that is fundamentally wrong. Unfortunately we give off messages in our society that says gay discrimination is in some sense socially acceptable. And so, authority has to sort of instruct children that it is not only morally wrong but it won't be tolerated and there are consequences for that happening."
I get it. Sort of like when we all had to take sexual harrassment in the workplace courses back in the eighties and nineties. So we would know what constituted harrassment and would get you fired and sued. Eureka! Now that would be great legislation.
Children, teenagers, college students should be permitted to attend school and not fear being harrassed and castigated for their sexual orientation or perception of such. 13-year-old Seth Walsh was laid to rest this week after hanging himself. He had been teased so much and school officials had done so little to protect him that his parents chose to homeschool him. He was teased at a local park on the day he hung himself. 13. At a park. Oh and did I mention the authorities decided the bullies actions did not warrant charges.
In Springfield, Massachusetts, Carl Walker-Hoover's mother described her son as a happy-go-lucky kid until he joined a new school this year. "The kids were teasing him and picking on him. He said that 'they were saying I'm gay.'" She buried her son last week. Carl was 11.
Raymond Chase an openly gay sophomore at Johnson and Wales hanged himself in his dorm room last week. The reason is still unknown although his brother has come forward to say that it was not due to bullying. His death is of note however as anti-gay sentiments continue to rise in this country's schools, classrooms and campuses. This past spring, The National Student Day of Silence, a movement in schools across the nation to call attention to anti-gay bullying and harrasment was met by student walkouts, boycotts and protests from Christian groups. Gotta love us Christians.
"I think that we shouldn't be exploiting public education for this," said Laurie Higgins, director of school advocacy for the Illinois Family Institute. "There are better ways to use taxpayer money. We send our kids there to learn the subject matter, not ... to be unwillingly exposed to political protest during instructional time." While Higgins agrees that bullying is a problem, she believes that the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLESN) organizers are using public funds to "transform the moral beliefs of other people's children." Sure they are. They are getting them to stop their immoral bullying!
OK. It's clear this issue hits home to a lot of people, no more so than to the parents left behind. Bullying has to stop. Someone needs to be held accountable. And we need to teach our children to be better people. We need to teach them not only not to bully, but to stand up for those who are being bullied. And we need to let our young people know they have rights and they are not alone.
I came out in 1974 at 13. My first suicide attempts came shortly thereafter. I jumped off a second-story porch and landed in some mud. I popped some pills I found in my sister's bedroom. I found out that taking an overdose of four or five birth control pills won't kill you; they may get you grounded, but they won't kill you. I didn't tell anyone what I was trying to do. Catholic guilt and all. I wasn't very good at the suicide thing. No matter. I met a nice Mormon girl that summer and fell in lust. Far more interesting.
In high school I was consistently harrassed by the mean girls. Senior year I was suspended when a classmate slipped a note under the office door saying I was bringing my girlfriend to the senior prom. Not so. I was taking my openly gay, flaming best friend, George Smith. Hi George! Despite my parents fight to reinstate me; I missed a week of school and my prom. But I was one of the lucky ones. I had supportive parents and someplace to go and I worked with my friends to ensure others had a safe place, too. Even with all of my resources, I still ended up living on the streets and in homeless shelters for several months during my senior year in high school. Like I said, I was one of the lucky ones. Some of our friends either committed suicide or were murdered.
In light of all of this, it is heartbreaking to hear this news each week of another teen committing suicide. I thought we had gotten past all of that. We had fewer resources in the seventies then are available now, yet we are coming up with the same results. Some want to blame technology which broadcasts normally isolated events over a wider spectrum. Clementi's roommate Ravi may face additional charges because of his use of technology in commiting this crime. Some say it is the underdeveloped mind of young people. Technology, psychology whatever, the issues remain the same. Intolerance, bullying and gays as easy and acceptable targets equals a lot of dead teens. Suicide is the third leading killer among people ages 15-24. Wow.
At the end of the day, kids want to know that someone cares, that there are other people out there who can relate to what they are feeling, experiencing and who can answer their questions. They want to know that they are not doomed to live a horrible lonely life or that they will live eternity in hell for being who they are. Something as simple as having a conversation with a teen will help. So will mentoring and spending time with them. It can be pretty rewarding, I know. A few of the ones I've mentored in high school are in graduate schools and doctoral programs, have bought homes and are starting families of their own.
If you know a teen who may have questions or who sets off your gaydar everytime you are around them, try approaching a conversation from an "I" perspective as in, "Did you know that I am gay?" or even something a little more subtle like, "[Significant other's name here] and I are thinking about hitting Dave and Busters on Saturday. Would you like to go?" Make sure you check in with the kid's parents first, of course. You just never know. You could be saving someone's life.
And while we're at it, let's get with the program and utilize technology for some good. Recently Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IcVyvg2Qlo. The idea behind the project is for adults to tell their story about how life may have been awful in high school or even college, but eventually as they toughed it out, it got better. Other celebrities have done television and radio spots about the bullying issue. I was moved by Ellen Degeneres's openly tearful plea http://ellen.warnerbros.com/2010/09/its_time_to_end_teenage_bullying_0930.php, and by Jason Derulo's short but pointed "Being different makes you special...There's a light at the end of the tunnel...It gets better" speech http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Xg-8CZuN7A&NR=1.
But the one I loved best was Sara Silverman's Dear America. Short and sweet, it drove the point home. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WM6xbW1DZyM&feature=player_embedded "Dear America, when you tell gay Americans that they can't serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you are telling that to kids too. So don't be f**king shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving themselves to kill themselves because they're different. They learned it from watching you."
Our kids need our protection so that more teens like 13-year-old, Asher Brown don't feel so badly harrassed and unprotected against bullies who simulate gay sex in gym at school that they put a gun to their heads like he did. Or that they won't feel the need to hang themselves like 15-year-old Billy Lucas did after being called a "fag" one too many times.
"Kids these days." SMDH!
Robin G. White is the award-winning author of Resurrection: A Collection of Work (Kings Crossing Publishing) and the forthcoming Reflections Of A Life Well Spent (Sunset Pointe Press), Intersections (Sunset Pointe) and The Omphaloskepsis Twelve Powers Journal (also Sunset Pointe). Read more about Robin and her work at http://www.robingwhite.com/.
OTHER WAYS YOU CAN HELP
You can join the It Gets Better campaign by making a video of yourself and posting it on YouTube like openly gay musician and activist Anthony Antoine did earlier this week. http://www.youtube.com/watchv=ttpc56zHxsQ.
You can volunteer at your local gay youth organization as a mentor or board member. You can donate time, money and non-monetary resources to your local gay youth shelter, or school if your city has one.
You can encourage others by periodically posting information about youth-safe events where other gay teens may be gathering. Organizations such as BAGLY in Boston http://www.bagly.org/, Youth Pride in Atlanta http://www.youthpride.org/, Youth Pride Alliance in DC http://www.youthpridedc.org/, SF LGBT Community Center http://www.sfcenter.org/, and the LGBT Community Center in New York http://www.gaycenter.org/ host events, workshops and groups for lgbtq teens. Check your local listings for groups near you.
Some major cities such as New York http://www.aliforneycenter.org/ and San Francisco http://www.larkinstreet.org/ have homeless shelters for teens and high schools where it is safe to be openly gay http://www.hmi.org/. Again, volunteer or give donations. Money is great, but often teens leave home without clothes or toiletries. Those hotel samples you've been saving make great donations to shelters of any kind.
You can join organizations such as the Trevor Project, a 24-hour, confidential suicide hotline specifically for lgbtq youth. You can contribute in a major way to their Circle of Hope (donors who give $500 or more).
You can join Facebook campaigns. You never know what information on your wall might mean to someone who is reading it.
Last but not least remember these things from the Trevor Project regarding teen suicide.
You are never alone. You are not responsible for anyone who chooses to take their own life. As family and friends and loved ones all you can do is listen and support and assist the person in getting the help they need.
Connect the person to resources and to a supportive trusted adult.
Accept and listen to the person's feelings and take them seriously.
Respond if a person has a plan to attempt suicide and tell someone you trust.
Empower the person to get help and call the Trevor Suicide Hotline at 866-488-7386.