Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"Honoring" Gay Teen Suicides? A Tuesday Journal

I'm afraid this will not be easy.....

Out of sympathy for the families who lost gay loved ones to a series of recent, highly publicized suicides, I plan to join in an initiative called Spirit Day on Wednesday.  People are asked to wear purple, to remember the gay teens who felt hopeless to escape the impossible situations that homophobia had made of their lives.  I make this simple gesture to raise awareness of the particularly troubling stresses placed on young gay people, who are still forced into frightened silence, threatened with cruel humiliation or violence, or abandoned by their families.

I say "still" , because these things are not new.  Gay people have been bullied and ostracized in America (and the world) for centuries.  Gay teens are far more likely to kill themselves as their non-gay peers, and many gays have, for decades, chose suicide out of despair, of profound feelings of isolation and of no escape from ostracism and self-hatred.  However, many others who have been subject to the same pressures and cruelty through the decades, have not chosen to end their lives.

I don't want to make light of the tragic consequences of homophobia, nor of the terrible effects the desperate act of suicide has on the survivors, and others who contemplate the same fate.  But I am uneasy.  Something inside me tightens up when I read statements like the following from Lambda Legal:

 "Tomorrow, October 20, has been named Spirit Day, and supporters across the country will wear purple in honor of all of the LGBT young people who have committed suicide."

While I think that suicide is a personal decision not to be lightly considered, nor encouraged, I likewise  believe that suicide is not an action to be honored;  nor is the rash of highly publicized gay suicides (a disturbing trend, but not new) an appropriate form of protest even against the irrational and continuing hatred of gays. 

Will I wear purple to commemorate the deaths out of compassion? Absolutely.  Can it be seen as a symbol to encourage allies, from schools to the military, from Congress to the wedding chapel, to stridently oppose homophobia, and demand civil treatment of gays? Of course. 

Yet it seems wrong to hold these tragic young people up as martyrs, who are likely to be emulated as heroes by an impressionable age group.

Believe me, I do NOT mean to appear unsympathetic.  I am merely dealing with what my instinct tells me could become a misguided gesture.  I, too, know the terror of loneliness for being different, and the fear of being shamed or hurt, and not being able to tell a single soul.  Maybe my coping mechanisms were less than healthy, but I coped,  I hurt no one, and maybe even helped others;  and millions like me did the same. 

Young people have been, over the years, just as likely to have been bullied, humiliated, beaten by their parents, as by their homophobic peers.  Institutionalized homophobia must be addressed and eradicated to be sure; but violent mistreatment of kids (physical or emotional) whether it is driven by homophobia or not, must be confronted and opposed and punished.  There are many reasons why a young person may end his or her life. 

Spirit Day draws attention to a pervasive message that still makes it okay to harrass a yong person for being gay.  To battle institutionalized homophobia, we first have to loudly oppose political hatred that is wrapped in the flag; and second, we have to be aware of insidious attitudes, speech, and media images that hide behind the aprons of the Constitution.  We must be willing to fight these. 

Most difficult, however, is that we also have to accept that, sometimes, we unknowingly exacerbate the problem by trying too hard to show our understanding.


If that poor college student, who jumped off a bridge for having his same-sex liaison secretly recorded and posted on-line, was instead recorded having sex with a girl, I believe that he might not have killed himself; and that the perpetrators might have been dismissed as typical college pranksters.  But the pervasive attitude that having gay sex is somehow more taboo makes for a sensational media story, and our focus on the same-sex aspect of it inadvertently perpetuates an attitude that gay sex is shameful in a way that "straight" sex is not.

The student who killed himself certainly felt this way, and it is for that reason, and not because he took his life, that well-meaning people have to fight hard to change attitudes and laws, and define what is acceptable.

Maybe I, too, am perpetuating this notion by wearing purple.  At any rate, I wanted to state my motives in my own way, to say that I do this because I do care, that I want to draw attention to the problems that create an atmosphere of despair, while not creating heroes of the unfortunates who succumbed to that despair. 

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