LGBTQ youth suicide rate cause for alarm

Twelve years ago, the tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s murder sparked an international discussion about the nature of hate crimes, especially those based on sexual orientation. Against sometimes impossible odds, Matthew’s parents formed a foundation in his honour and lobbied relentlessly for legislation that would give prosecutors more leverage to seek tougher penalties for crimes motivated by a victim’s gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. More than a decade after Matthew was tied to a fence in Wyoming and left to die, the legislation was signed by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The legacy of Matthew Shepard lives on through the legislation named in his memory, which serves as a cornerstone of the formal progression of social acceptance. In the same way that Shepard prompted a change in public discourse about the intentional propagation of hate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered and queer (LGBTQ) persons, the most recent rash of gay suicides must prompt a discussion about what creates such a hostile environment for LGBTQ youth today and what we can do about curbing it.

Studies conducted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services have shown that suicide is up to four times more prevalent among homosexual youth than heterosexual youth. Nine out of ten gay teenagers have said they have been the victim of bullying. The alarming number of suicides in the last several weeks has led some to speculate that suicide is becoming an increasing epidemic in the gay community.

The story of Tyler Clementi speaks to the problem we, as a society, are dealing with. On Sept. 22, Clementi took his own life after his roommate, Dharun Ravi and his friend, Molly Wei, decided it would be funny to stream video of Clementi and another man in a sexual encounter.

Somewhere along the line, Ravi and Wei got the idea that not only would it be acceptable to tape Clementi in an obviously private moment, but that it was somehow amusing because the way Clementi lived his life was different than the way they do.

In the cases of the deaths of Asher Brown, Seth Walsh and Billy Lucas it has been reported that all were relentlessly bullied before they decided to end their suffering by taking their own lives. While bullying has not been reported for Raymond Chase and in the most recent reports of Jeanine Blanchette and Chantal Dube, one can only presume that their environments were no better.

Even amongst the advancements being made in the LGBTQ equality movement, acceptance seems to be on a fatal back and forth trajectory. Five days after Clementi’s suicide, 50 Cent posted this on his Twitter feed: “If you a man and your over 25 and you don’t eat pu**y just kill yourself damn it. The world will be a better place. Lol.” On Oct. 4, 50 Cent defended his remarks as a “joke” that his “male followers liked.”

Recently, conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh was talking about openly gay Congressman Barney Frank as he played “My Boy Lollypop” in the background, adding slurping noises into the song to mimic sexual acts. No apology was issued.

I seek not to place blame. I want not to find erroneous conclusions, or suggest false correlations between the recent suicides of LGBTQ youth and the ignorant and obnoxious comments made by members of the celebrity and media classes.

What I do suggest is that we have created and condoned an environment where we tolerate petty and ignorant jokes at the expense of those who not only find them offensive but fatally so. Without a doubt, as I write this, there are LGBTQ youth seeking not only to understand themselves but to find others who will give them the hope and support they need to live openly as who they are.

Abhorrent comments made in jest with the hope of either boosting ratings or getting a cheap laugh among friends do nothing but contribute to a culture that subverts the LGBTQ community into second-class citizenship and threatens to break the already fragile environment in which some troubled and bullied LGBTQ youth are living.

Be the hope for those youth who think that life can offer them nothing more. Try to understand what they are going through. Think before you make a joke or use “gay” to describe something you think is dumb or stupid.
On Wednesday, Oct. 20, wear purple to commemorate those who have committed suicide due to homophobia. Think of it as a token of support and a turn of the page to a society where we truly value the worth of every single individual living in it. We owe it to all who have fallen victim to hate.

For support, call the Lesbian Gay BiTrans Youth Line at 1-800-268-9688 or the Distress Centre of Waterloo Region (24 hours a day) at 519-745-1166.