Gay Teen Suicide: Problems and Solutions
By John M. Enlow, December 10, 2008
Every day in the United States we are losing gay teen lives because they feel that they are the only ones out there, isolated from the rest of the world. It can be seen in this country as an epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control/Massachusetts Department of Education Youth Risk Behavior Survey (1999), 33% of gay youth will attempt suicide. In fact, gay teen suicide attempts are four times that of heterosexual youth. Yet, why is this not seen as a social problem? Gay teen suicide is a societal problem that has reached epidemic proportions, but there are solutions that can help this population. Creating programs that help Gay, Lesbian, Bi-sexual, and transgender teens is on solution, as is developing high schools like Harvey Milk in New York.
Gay teens in the United States can be invisible. However, they can be your sons and daughters or nieces and nephews. When confronted with such things as being in high school or just daily life, gay teens are faced with not wanting to be gay because this is not the “cool thing” to be in school. Also, they are afraid to come out because they fear being picked on by other kids. If the kids came out to people they could be face such things as ridicule or even hate crimes. Such things will ultimately lead them to depression and maybe even drug and alcohol dependency.
All teens are under more pressures than ever in today’s society. I have personally talked to these teens and it seems that they are faced with such pressures as how they dress and how they act around their peers. Some have the difficult task of their sexual orientation. They do not know who they can talk to and who they can share with their same sex attractions because they are faced with such things a bullying and hate crimes from their peers, as well as their family. As the Gay, Lesbian, and Trans-gender advocacy group, The Trevor Project states: “Sexual orientation and gender identity alone are not risk factors for suicide. However, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth face many social factors that put them at higher risk for self-destructive behaviors, including suicide”
Also, as stated by the US Surgeon General:
Last July U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher released a report entitled "The Surgeon General's Call To Action To Prevent Suicide 1999", which called suicide a public health crisis. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people aged 15-24, who account for 35% of the American population and 15% of all suicide deaths. Additionally, the suicide rate has doubled among children ages 10 to 14 since 1980 (Ocamb 2000, 1).
These statistics show that there is a growing problem with suicide in young people. Many in society want to ignore these statistics because they believe that being gay is an amoral act or that gay teen’s sexuality is just a phase that these teens are going through, which they will outgrow in time. In fact, “Approximately 5 percent of young people consider themselves lesbian, gay or bisexual, and many adolescents know a friend, classmate, neighbor or relative who is non-heterosexual” (Harvard Reviews of Health News 2006, 1). Being gay or lesbian is more acceptable today than in the past, but there is still a long way to go for it to be truly acceptable in our society.
As Ritch C. Savin-Williams and Geoffrey L. Ream (2006) state: “Controversy exits, however, based on methodological issues, including the unrepresentative nature of the gay youth population sampled” (Savin-Williams and Ream 2006 170). Many believe that the problem of gay teen suicide is overstated. Yet, why would researches fix these numbers to say that so many gay teens are committing suicide? Society would like you to think that they know the true numbers of gay teens. Yet the truth is: no one has the true number of how many gay teens are really out their or Gay adults for that matter. Still, society is not open to teens knowing who their true identities are.
“Gay teenagers are "coming out" earlier than ever, and many feel better about themselves than earlier generations of gays, youth leaders, and researchers say. The change is happening in the wake of opinion polls that show growing acceptance of gays, more supportive adults and positive gay role models in popular media” (Elias 2007). Even though gay teens are coming out earlier and earlier it is still hard for them to come to grips with whom they are at such a young age. They are turning to drugs and alcohol to answer their problems instead of talking to some positive role models, which there is very few of them to turn to in many communities.
There are many reasons why it is hard for these teenagers to find role models. Firstly, the gay community is honestly frowned upon groups like the churches and the community in general to help them to understand their community. Secondly, the gay community isn’t really a whole yet. The gay community is divided among many subgroups. Until the gay community comes together as a group and a whole, it will be difficult for these teens to find such great and inspiring role models, role models that can guild teens through the stressors of life.
Robert Li Kitts writes the same thing that The Trevor Project states: “Being gay in-and-of-itself is not the cause of the increase in suicide. The increased risk comes from the psychosocial distress associated with being gay” (Kitts 2005 160). There are many things that one can associate with this. Gay teens are faced with such things as peer pressure and lack of support from schools, such as groups like the gay straight alliance, and just plain out depression because they grow up in households where their parents tell them that being gay is bad. Gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender teens feel like outcasts in our society. Many feel the need to hide the true feelings.
Being gay in the US is still seen as a sin by many religious groups, or against the social norm in many ways. Gay rights are under fire across this country. This year alone they have taken rights away from gay people in the state of California because they believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. In the state of Arkansas and Florida they made it apparent by banning gay people from being able to adopt children. It is still looking like gay people in our society are being treated as a second class citizen.
This has an adverse affect on gay teens. It reinforces the feels that being gay is wrong. “One study involving 350 gay adolescents between the ages of 14 and 21 reported that 54% made their first suicide attempt before coming out to others, 27% made the attempt during the same year they came out, and 19% made the attempt after coming out” (164). This statistic shows that there are a lot of teens out in the word that need help. Those first day, months, year after coming out are rough for Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens.
The worst off in the gay community are young people in conservative rural regions and children whose parents cannot bear having gay progeny (Elias 2007). Many church and religious organizations have always coming out and stating that homosexuality is a sin, and that they feel that they can form such organizations to help these teens and individuals to turn them into people they call “Ex Gays.”
“Exodus is one of the ministries of the so-called “ex-gay” movement, a controversial fundamentalist Christian campaign that encourages gay people to renounce their sexuality. This, its annual conference, promises “an amazing week of breakthroughs, transformations and healings” (Bannerman 2008). There are many such groups scattered throughout the world. “Conservative Christians and Jews have teamed up with men and women who call themselves “ex-gay” to lobby – and even sue – for the right to tell teenagers that they can “heal” themselves of unwanted same-sex attractions” (Simon 2006 A-1).
These “ex-gay” groups out there are putting even more stress on teens for simply being Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender. The people in these groups think that they can help gay individuals to change their sexuality by the power of prayer. In some cases, they might have helped these individuals suppress their true identity and mask it behind another. This could ultimately lead to the psychological problems that they face as individuals and lead to the statistic of suicide and depression in gay teens. In fact, “Three former leaders of Exodus International, often described as the nation’s largest ex-gay ministry, publicly apologized . . . for the harm they said their efforts had caused many gays and lesbians who believed the group’s message that sexual orientation could be changed through prayer” (Trounson 2007 B-4).
Thankfully, there are many organizations in this country that have a mission to help Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens. “More than 3,000 Gay-Straight Alliance clubs meet across the country. Nearly half a million students take a vow of silence one day each spring in an annual event to support gay rights. California may soon require textbooks to feature the contributions of gays and lesbians throughout history” (Simon 2006 A-1).
The Gay-Straight Alliance is an organization that is formed to teach gay teens that they are not the only ones out their in public schools. It also teaches the students on such issues as homophobia and other oppressed situations. The club also shows the teens how to cope with the feelings they are having and teaching them to deal with such things as discrimination and harassment. As Michel Dorais writes in his book that deal with research on gay teen suicide, Dead Boys Can't Dance, (2004) “Young homosexuals males are also often placed in the role of having to educate those around them after their coming out” (Dorais 2004 75). These kinds of club help because they are a safe place to be who you are.
Unfortunately, many gay and straight teens feel that the club makes them targets by students that do not feel that being gay is right. While doing my research for this paper, I came up with a group on Facebook called “Stopping Gay Teen Suicide”. In this group, I set it up where gay and straight people alike can come and share their stories of their attempts to commit suicide, and for the teens to come and talk to older individuals so that we can hopefully teach them that suicide is not the answer to their problems. As Dorais writes: “Their double burden is therefore involved struggling with a serious problem and also feeling that it was impossible for anyone to understand and help them” (75). I hope that my Facebook can be a help.
While starting my Facebook group, I have gotten a lot of hits from individuals that tell me “thank you” for starting the group and that “there should be more people in the world like me.” Also, I have had teens that told me their stories of how they don’t feel safe in their neighborhood as well as public schools because they didn’t have an opportunity to be themselves. My ultimate goal for this group is to show teens and adults that they are not the only ones out their and that we all have this problem and we should turn around and face it head on.
Schools need to be a place that help Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens to develop in to adulthood. Michel Dorais writes, “Schools are a pivotal element of socialization process and they should be privileged places of learning about respect pf self and others” (91). Schools should be open to the possibility that there are Gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender in the school, and openly observing these teenagers that seem very suicidal at times. They should also have programs set in place to where these teenagers can come and talk about what challenges they are being faced with in society as well as in school. Teachers should also be properly trained on how to deal with these teens. Schools should be a positive environment to where these teens can come and be young adults.
However, how many highs school across this country have programs in place that deal the problems gay teens face? Dorais states: “Teachers and administrators frequently turn a blind eye to sexist and homophobic statements and behavior of students and schools staff” (91). People are faced with this all over the country. Teachers should really be educated on how to work with these teens and how to properly deal with the students that are faced with sexist and homophobic remarks. If they turn a blind eye well then they should be handed the maximum punishment for letting things like this go on in school. “At a time in life – childhood and adolescence – when rejection or acceptance by one’s peers is very important, when the first feelings of sexual attraction plays a monumental role in our sense of relationship with others, the imposed fate of the Token Fag is exceptionally cruel” (78).
Too many Gay, Lesbian, and bisexual students are being harassed and bullied in many public schools all over the United States. There needs to be some kind of intervention for these bad statistics to change. “A 2006 report by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) found that 35 percent of Illinois students reported that sexual orientation is the most common reason students are harassed or bullied at school. Nearly the same number of Illinois students said the same for gender identity”
The Trevor Project can have a significant affect on the lives of gay teens. It is a group that helps Gay, Lesbian, and bisexual teens. On their website, teens can see where they can call helpline counselors to talk to if they are feeling suicidal. It offers educational advice to the educators on how to deal with these teens in their time of need. They also have events to teach everyone on how to work together and solve the problems that we are all facing in the community.
The United States government can play a role in solving this problem too. “For a brief moment after President Clinton's election, gays and supporters of gay rights were hopeful because they thought he would lead the battle for gay rights” (Torres 2000 www.healthyplace.com). But little has been done in the years after that beginning belief.
However things are changing “In Massachusetts, for example, Governor Weld has formed the Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth to come up with strategies to stop gay teen suicide” (Torres 2000 www.healthyplace.com). There are new schools forming all over the United States strictly for gay and lesbian and bi sexual teens. These schools will be a good thing for these students. It will give them a chance to have a normal education without the hassle of teens bullying them for their sexual orientations. Hopefully, this will ultimately lower the numbers of gay teen suicide in the United States and it will educate the people to understanding we are here, we are queer, get use to it because we are not going away anytime soon.
One such school is Harvey Milk in New York City “Harvey Milk is a voluntary public high school in New York. It's open to all students, but is a safe haven for LGBTQA students, especially those who are at-risk and have experienced extreme levels of violence and harassment. A majority of the students are African-American or Latino. The school was founded in 1985, but opened as a public high school administered by the New York City Department of Education in 2003”
Why are there not more of these kinds of schools in this country? As the New York Times (2008) states:
The Harvey Milk High School -- named after a slain gay city official from San Francisco -- is an outgrowth of a longstanding program for gay students. Many of those who have gone through the program were from low-income minority families. Some were former dropouts. The program was successful, with about 95 percent of those eligible to take the Regents exams graduating from it (New York Times November, 25, 2008).
This school is has shown to be successful with 95% graduating. This should be a model for other places in this country. And it is.
Chicago is trying to open one of these types of school too. “An LGBTQA Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) high school has been proposed and, if given the green light, the school would join the likes of New York's Harvey Milk High School in becoming a national model in providing a welcoming, safe education for queer and questioning youth and their allies” (Wooten 2008 www.windycitytimes.com/gay/lesbian/news). This is a very good idea. Their needs to be more then one school in this country because the gay teens need to feel safe when they come to school without having to deal with harassment as well as discrimination for who they are. Their needs to be a school like this in every state in the United States, so that people can open their eyes to the times of change.
In writing this paper it shows that we are faced with such an epidemic as the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender teens committing suicide in the United States and the world. We as a nation need to find a way to fix this problem. Ultimately, we need to create more programs such as The Trevor Project to keep these teens alive. My Facebook group was created ultimately to get these teens to dialogue with me and to show them that they are not the only ones out in the world that face problems of everyday life. Education needs to be the biggest step in creating a more positive environment for these teens. Creating schools like Harvey Milk High School is a step in the right direction. We need to create stricter laws that prohibit people to turn the other way if they notice these kids in trouble.
Bannerman, Lucy. 2008. “The camp that 'cures' homosexuality”. London Times. October 7, 2008. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/faith/article4893735.ece.
Dorais, Michel. 2004. Dead Boys Can’t Dance. MiGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal.
Elias, Marilyn. 2007. “Gay teens coming out earlier to peers and family”. USA TODAY 2007.
Kitts, Robert Li. 2005. “Homosexuality Is a Risk Factors in Teen Suicide.” Problems with Death. David A. Becker and Cynthia S. Becker, Ed. Thomson Gale: NY.
Opinion. 2008. New York Times, November 25, 2008
Ocamb, Karen. 2000. Trevor Project Fundraiser Brings Out the Stars. Lesbian News; Jan 2000, Vol. 25 Issue 6, p19, 1/3p, 1 bw.
Savin-Williams, Ritch C. and Ream, Geoffrey L. (2006). “Homosexuality Is Not a Risk Factor in Teen Suicide”. Problems with Death. David A. Becker and Cynthia S. Becker, Ed. Thomson Gale: NY.
Simon, Stephanie. 2006. “Ex-Gays’ Seek a Say in Schools” Los Angeles Times, May 28, 2006, Section A-1.
Torres, Ciara. 2000. “Stopping Gay Teen Suicide” www.healthyplace.com/Communities/Gender/gayisok/stopping_suicide.html.
The Trevor Project. 2008. Education. http://www.thetrevorproject.org/education.aspx.
Trounson, Rebecca. 2007. “3 from ex-gay group are sorry” Los Angeles Times, June 28, 2007, Section B-4.
- - . 2006. “Support for Gay, Lesbian Teens." Harvard Reviews of Health News. Harvard Health Publications Group, 2006. NA. Academic OneFile. Gale. Roosevelt University Library. 4 Nov. 2008
Wooten, Amy. 2008 “Gay high school planned”. Windy City Times. 2008-09-03. www.windycitytimes.com/gay/lesbian/news
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John M. Enlow