The recent rash of suicides by young men who had been taunted for being gay (or otherwise non-heterosexual) has taken me a bit by surprise.
First, while growing up in the backasswards red state of Arizona I always was keenly aware of homophobic sentiment all around me (and I still am aware of homophobia, although I encounter it much less often as an adult in the blue state of California), but never did I feel wrong or defective or dirty or sinful or any of the other negative, toxic things that the “Christo”fascists wanted me to feel. I always viewed them as the ones with the problem. Love is never wrong, and these bigoted dipshits were/are on the wrong side of history, I always have known.
It surprised me to learn over the years that other gay men haven’t had the same fortitude that I have had, that they haven’t been able to see, as I have been able to see, that while homophobia is shitty to have to endure, there’s nothing wrong with us non-heterosexuals. The fact that so many non-heterosexuals have internalized to some degree a belief that they are defective still surprises me at least somewhat.
Secondly, it long has been my impression that it’s much easier on today’s youth to be gay than it was back when I was young (I’m 42). I never contemplated suicide because of my sexual orientation, so it’s difficult for me to see why a young gay man of today* would go to the extreme of seriously contemplating suicide, unless, I suppose, his life were made a constant living hell by his tormentors.
The recent suicide of the 18-year-old Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, is perhaps the strangest, or at least the most publicized, of the recent suicides of young gay men. Clementi jumped to his death after his roommate, unbeknownst to Clementi, captured a same-sex sexual encounter of Clementi’s and aired it on the Internet.
That would be embarrassing to anyone of any sexual orientation, to have a sexual encounter of his or hers aired on the Internet (unless he or she were an exhibitionist…), but added to the blatant invasion of privacy in Clementi’s case was the stigma of homosexuality.
As embarrassing as it would have been to have had one’s sexual encounter publicized as it was in Clementi’s case, I still can’t see that embarrassment warranting one’s own death, but very apparently his own death seemed to make sense to Clementi.
I imagine that Clementi’s roommate feels like absolute shit, assuming that he has anything like a conscience. While Clementi’s roommate undoubtedly is guilty of invasion of privacy, whether or not he committed a hate crime is debatable, and whether or not he is guilty of manslaughter or the like is even more debatable, although it seems to me that it was not entirely unforeseeable that to embarrass someone as much as Clementi must have been embarrassed might lead the embarrassed individual to suicidal ideation.
Still, although he apparently committed a heartless act, it’s important that we not crucify Clementi’s roommate, in my estimation. One suicide of a young man in the case has been more than enough.
In response to the recent suicides of young gay men, apparently, a YouTube channel called the “It Gets Better” project has been created, and features videos of non-heterosexuals telling their stories of how their problems related to their non-heterosexuality lessened over time. I surmise that it’s meant to encourage non-heterosexuals experiencing problems with homophobia to press on.
While that’s a good message, it seems to me that those of us non-heterosexuals who are struggling severely right now need to be reminded how fabulous we already are, whether the non-fabulous among us are able to recognize that or not, and regardless of how many non-fabulous individuals surround us. Indeed, we might be the only fabulous ones we know. But fabulousness is not about numbers. It’s not up for a vote. Fabulousness is about fabulousness.
So yeah, if you are fabulous and you keep the faith and you hang in there, it probably will get better as you learn to cope with being surrounded by so many who are so non-fabulous, but when you actually are contemplating suicide, perhaps promises that things will get better aren’t enough.
Those actively contemplating suicide aren’t thinking about the future so much as they are thinking about right now.
So again, it seems to me that what we need to do is to remind struggling non-heterosexuals how fabulous they already are — right now. Their first need is not promises of a brighter tomorrow, as accurate as those promises might be. Their first need is assistance in being able to see what they cannot see right now.
That happens best, I think, one on one. When we see someone struggling, that is an opportunity for us to help him or her to see the light that he or she cannot, at this moment, see. He or she might slap away our hand outstretched to offer him or her help — that’s always a risk when we extend ourselves to another — but he or she also might accept it.
And we need to continue to improve the social environment, such as with the “Make It Better” project, which is about making our schools safer and saner for our non-heterosexual students.
And never underestimate what perhaps is our best tool for combating homophobia (and racism, too): Never allowing a homophobic (or racist) word or deed to go unchallenged. Social pressure is a powerful tool of social change, and silence kills, because silence in the face of wrongdoing only feeds that wrongdoing, as wrongdoers unchallenged come to believe that they are doing no wrong.
And all of us, I think, are responsible for a social environment that allows so many individuals to be able to find suicide their only solution. Even those of us who don’t actively engage in homophobia, for instance, probably don’t do enough to combat it.
Suicide isn’t just an individual’s problem, but is our collective problem, and only when we work seriously to solve it collectively will we see suicides drop.
*When I was a high school student — indeed, even when I was a university student — openly having a boyfriend was not an option, unless I wanted to endure almost certain torment, and the plethora of gay-themed mainstream movies and television shows that exist today certainly didn’t exist back then. Non-heterosexuality is much more out of the closet these days than it was then.