13 October 2010: GLBT youth navigating rough waters

GLBT youth navigating the rough waters

While viewing an intense film, I would observe my students’ body language, spontaneous comments, and nervous laughter since they gave immediate insight to what was whirling through their minds.

The paddling of a character in Dead Poet’s Society, set in an upper-class prep school, always led to a telling discussion. The general consensus was that spanking is an egregious form of punishment because it demeans, stripping the student of his dignity.

A deeper conversation about how shame and embarrassment differ, where shame fits relative to anger, sadness, and fear, and the relevance of age would ensue. They would talk about that for teens, due to their impulsive nature and desire not to be seen as different, being publicly humiliated can have dire results, especially when it comes to issues dealing with their bodies and sexuality.

Though having sex might carry a degree of opprobrium during the teen years, engaging in same-sex acts or even exhibiting behaviors associated with “being gay” often bring heavy censure, particularly from peers.

In their online paper “Other Factors Contributing to Suicide Risk,” psychologists Natalie Staats Reiss, Ph.D., and Mark Dombeck, Ph.D. state, “Current research suggests that young homosexual or bisexual males are at greater risk than heterosexuals for suicide attempts, but findings are less clear regarding suicide completion.”

Sadly, the findings for these teens are quite clear. Each took his own life:
• September 9: Billy, 15, Greensburg IN, endured years of torment because his peers thought him gay;
• September 13: Cody, 17, Shiocton WI, openly gay, recently attended a seminar to help him establish a GSA—gay/straight alliance—at his school;
• September 19: Seth, 13, Tehachapi CA, openly gay, suffered years of relentless bullying, died on September 28;
• September 22, 18-year-old Tyler, Rutgers’ freshman, jumped from the George Washington Bridge after a video of him having sex with another man was posted on the Internet.
• September 23: Asher, 13, Houston TX, constantly harassed by other students, had outed himself to his parents that morning;
• September 29: Raymond, 19-year-old openly gay sophomore studying culinary arts at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island.

One cannot fathom the ordeal their parents are now enduring. She did not lose her child to suicide, but Judy Shephard understands full well their agony because her son Matthew, in the early hours of October 7, 1998, was tied to a fence in an isolated field near Laramie WY, beaten, and left for dead. Killing Matthew because of his sexuality wasn’t enough: his murderers felt the need to shame him, to debase him, to treat him less than human.

“Judy Shepard is living a parent’s worst nightmare, surviving the loss of a child,” Summit High counselor Holly Baldwin told me, “but she has done tremendous work in heightening awareness around attitudes toward hatred and violence, especially toward disenfranchised groups such as GLBT. She highlights the factors that give rise to the levels of hatred such as ignorance, fear, and anger that inspired the terrible crime inflicted on her son.”

In response to those boys and young men taking their lives, Judy writes on the Matthew Shephard website, “Suicide is a complicated problem and it is too easy to casually blame it on a single factor in a young person’s life, but it is clear that mistreatment by others has a tremendously negative effect on a young person’s sense of self worth and colors how he or she sees the world around them.”

The hurt, loneliness, and fear that marginalized teens deal with can seem unbearable, but with mindfulness and support of adults in their world, they can make it safely through the rough waters.

“Parents, educators and peers in the community,” Judy continues, “need to be vigilant to the warning signs of suicide and other self-destructive behaviors in the young people in their lives, and help them find resources to be healthy and productive.

“We urge any LGBT youth contemplating suicide to immediately reach out to The Trevor Project, day or night, at (866) 4-U-TREVOR [866-488-7386].” (http://www.thetrevorproject.org)

Holly believes we can create a more compassionate and safer world with Judy Shephard as our guide because she “helps us dare to imagine a world without hatred and violence.”

Out actor Neil Patrick Harris of “How I Met Your Mother” counsels youth stuggling with sexual identity: “For the love of Pete, there’s no need to harm yourself if something is going bad. You can act with strength, you can act with courage, you can act with class. Stand tall, be proud of who you are. This is a good time that we live in, and we’re being granted more and more rights. And that’s awesome, and it will continue in that direction. Yeah – be proud.”

For GLBT youth who might be reading: Neil is right, “Be proud,” but also reach out to a caring adult in whom you can confide. The waters might be choppy, but with a good mentor, you will arrive at port, safe and happy.

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