Preventing LGBTQ teen suicides

7 students in the past year have committed suicide in the Anoka-Hennepin school district. Many of these students appear to have committed suicide due to harassment experienced in school as a result of their sexual orientation, or perceived sexual orientation.

I currently live in Anoka county, and just moved here from Hennepin county. I tend to, rather appropriately I think, associate a strong “red” voting area with anti-LGBTQ legislation, and I knew that moving to the Northern suburbs of Minneapolis would mean that I was in a particularly conservative-heavy district, but I had no idea that the anti-gay climate was so thick here. Our congressman, though, Erik Paulsen, and the Republican gubernatorial candidate (that I loathe with all of my being) Tom Emmer have both voted against anti-bulling legislation that would help to prevent the tragic circumstances under which these kids felt that their only option was to end their lives.

Thankfully, this ongoing tragedy is making news as of late, and the school district is finally taking some steps to try to change the alarming and deeply saddening trend of LGBTQ students — and even those who are possibly inaccurately identified as LGBTQ — feeling so hopeless in the face of harassment and bullying that they feel they need to end their own lives. Whether someone does or does not identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer isn’t even the point anymore, as we can clearly see. The harassment that is directed at these kids is all too often based on known or perceived sexual orientation that deviates from the district’s well-ingrained heteronormative status quo, and that’s blatantly hateful toward LGBTQ youth.

I remember clearly the anti-gay culture in my own public school experience. A person being gay in the Minneapolis public school system in high school was far more accepted than the same person attending Anoka High School, but the overall sentiment was often that being anything other than obviously and actively heterosexual was, by default, something worthy of ridicule. Even as a pretty obviously hetero person, I was occasionally the target of homophobic teasing, albeit usually light-hearted, due simply to the close friendship I had with another girl in school. People called us “dykes” and “lesbos” and everything in-between. It didn’t bother me, or my friend from what I recall, but that’s largely due to the fact that we weren’t lesbians, and that we didn’t have to deal with the daily reality of people believing that we were lesbians, and regularly abusing us as a result. My actual identity wasn’t being attacked. But I find it telling that people who knew we weren’t lesbians felt it was appropriate to use the term to describe us in a derogatory manner.

While it absolutely could have been better, my high school was quite progressive for its time in its support of LGBTQ students. In response to a push for more LGBTQ acceptance in school, however, a relatively popular white, hetero jock made a “straight pride” flag in art class to counter the rainbow flag seen on many classroom doors around campus, which were placed there to show LGBTQ students that they had a support network. The “straight flag” was a circle with three stripes of black, white and grey. I mean, I get it; it’s clever because the opposite of a rainbow, har har, blah blah blah. I’m pretty sure I even laughed at it a couple times. His motivation, though, was rooted in the erroneous belief that his own heteronormative sexual orientation was somehow being ignored or overlooked, or even threatened, by the alleged “gay agenda,” which, if you think about it for more than a superficial minute or two, you’ll realize is laughably ridiculous. It’s like saying that white, Christian men are actually being oppressed in the US. It’s just… a fucking joke. Anyway, the “straight pride” flags quickly became replicated and were found taped to the daily planners of many other popular, white, hetero jocks around the school.

In my tenth grade biology class, we found ourselves in a debate about whether being gay was a choice, or something that a person was born with. My teacher remained neutral on the topic and acted as moderator for the spontaneous debate. A popular student who was well known for her strong Christian faith made the argument that, while she may feel a strong urge to punch another student in the face, she had the choice to abstain from doing so. She believed that people who were gay were born that way, but had the same moral obligation to not act on that particular “desire” as she had when she apparently had a desire to punch someone. We’re Facebook friends now; I wonder if she still feels the same way. I’d imagine so, given the religious nature of her infrequent status updates. I hate to equate Christianity with homophobia, but unfortunately, the religious right isn’t doing anything whatsoever to quell those particular stereotypes. In fact, they seem to go out of their way to prove that being homophobic is their god-given right.

While the students that sported the trendy straight flags seemed to be displaying them in order to merely be funny, and not necessarily hateful, and the girl who tried to argue that avoiding being actively homosexual is the same as punching her classmate but still claimed to love the classmate regardless, the sentiment behind them reinforces the belief that the LGBTQ community is deviant and strange, and that, even if we may have “acceptance” for the people identifying as such, we think that their rights being made public is simply too much. And it’s not. The 7 teen suicides in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in the past year is proof of that.

We need to do something. There is absolutely no reason why anyone should be allowed to bully and harass another student to the point of them taking his or her own life.

There’s a campaign going in response to the rash of anti-LGBTQ suicides happening right now, called It Will Get Better. The idea that it will get better can be applied across the board. I was bullied and teased throughout most of my K – 12 school experience all the time for so many inane reasons: I was too skinny or my hair was too puffy or I had glasses or someone thought my head was disproportionately large or I ate salad for lunch sometimes so I must be anorexic (which, if true, was supposed to be funny…?) or they saw me holding hands with someone and decided that made me a slut. It wasn’t constant, it happened less frequently as time went on, and it didn’t traumatize me, but there was always at least one person, or a group of people, that I sought to avoid passing in the hallways for fear of some mean thing that might be said to me, or some random comment that would kill any confidence I’d managed to muster for the day. But you know what? Once I got out of high school, none of that shit mattered. None of it. No one gives a flying crap about just about everything once you’re out of the vacuum of high school life. Fewer people care who you have sex with or why, whether you’re fat or thin, whether you get good grades in school or go to a prestigious college or work at a gas station for 6 years. Just tough it out; high school is rough for everyone.

…But. While “sticking it out” is a fairly effective method, it’s not enough. We need real reform in schools. “Stick it out” isn’t enough for the kids who are bullied day in and day out because they’re gay, or perceived to be gay. A structural change needs to take effect, and it needs to start with the grass roots of our communities. If you’re willing to say that you don’t care enough about LGBTQ kids, then you can go fuck yourselves, while you try to figure out how Jesus would approve of your blatant intolerance. But not many people are willing to admit to that, so let’s focus instead on being proactive in our support for the students who identify as LGBTQ, and let’s also focus on being proactive in educating the youth of this country so that they know that not only is there absolutely nothing wrong with being born gay, just as there is nothing wrong with being born heterosexual, but that another person’s sexuality is never a threat to anybody.

And one of my personal pet peeves? If you’re a hetero guy and a gay guy flirts with you, you should treat it the same as you would a flirtatious female you’re not interested in. The fact that it’s a male makes no difference; if you’re not interested, you’re not interested. Period. No need to take your lack of interest any further than that. If you’re a hetero female who is being solicited to make out with girls at a frat party and it makes you uncomfortable, you can decline without implying that you just don’t understand how anyone can lick a vagina. “I am fine with gay people, as long as they don’t hit on me” needs to stop being a culturally accepted response to homosexuality. It’s irrelevant and damaging… not to mention completely missing the point.

The story that I linked to on MPR made me tear up. I wish more than anything that these kids believed that there were people looking out for them, people who had their back. Because there were people who would have given everything they had to help them overcome this, who would have done anything to help them love themselves. But they were stuck in a place where loving one’s neighbor isn’t applicable if you’re gay. And they didn’t see a way out.

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3 Responses to Preventing LGBTQ teen suicides

  1. Paul says:

    April, thanks for writing this… I used to live in the area where this occurred and also find it heart-breaking.

    I’m a bisexual male, and while I didn’t realize I was until after I’d left high school, it didn’t particularly matter- I still got called a f****t by the jockstraps that were higher on the pecking order than I was.

    Why? Because I was short, scrawny, quiet, interested in theater, uninterested in sports (and the only sport I did participate in was soccer- aka a “field fairy”) in other words, pretty much the exact opposite of what was acceptable to the High School Hierarchy of the small town I lived in.

    It absolutely baffles me how little sympathy for bullying victims there is sometimes, I mean it is probably one of the very few things that practically everyone has experienced at some point or another, so everyone should be able to relate to it… right?

    Apparently not.

    Anyway, thanks again for this. The word needs to get out.

  2. David K says:

    Nothing like school children to remind you how far humanity hasn’t come is there?
    I remember “gay” being the abuse-word of choice at my middle-school which was the period when I was most bullied myself – I was called “gay” for no other reason than it was the insult of choice, in the same way I was bullied for having red hair, both of which I found as much confusing as hurtful (I wasn’t gay, I did have red hair – why did these things matter?) inability to understand why these are things to be ashamed of seems to count against you almost as much as being them in the first place…
    It taught me a good lesson though-
    1. People enjoy the cruelty first, any “reason” for it is usually secondary
    2. The only way to reduce or control cruelty is to reduce the number of “acceptable targets” people feel they can direct it at – by acceptance and normalisation of group differences.

    It absolutely baffles me how little sympathy for bullying victims there is sometimes, I mean it is probably one of the very few things that practically everyone has experienced at some point or another, so everyone should be able to relate to it… right?
    The explanation I’ve come up with is simply this: everyone has a bit of a bully in them, and people who have been bullied for any length of time tend to get cold and mean in order to survive.
    When I was a teenager I my feelings towards other bulling victims were often simply:
    “Oh you’ve had a hard time? Piss off -we’ve all had a hard time!” People who feel they never had sympathy and support don’t always want to offer it to others.

    Why is it “Parent’s Action” or “Family” groups always seems to be a euphemism for “We hate queers”? Aren’t there any real parent’s issues for them to care about?

  3. Jim says:

    “A popular student who was well known for her strong Christian faith made the argument that, while she may feel a strong urge to punch another student in the face, she had the choice to abstain from doing so. She believed that people who were gay were born that way, but had the same moral obligation to not act on that particular “desire” as she had when she apparently had a desire to punch someone.”

    This particular recurring bit of idiocy makes me think that these heretics’ memories of burnings at the stake have grown too dim. That can be corrected.

    Secondly, these heretics need to be reminded that they don’t speak for or represent christianinty. When it comes to homophobia, we don’t need these people; we have the Roman Church to misrepresent Christainity.

    Finally this choice versus birth business is very shaky ground for religious people to be taking anyway. It must give Jews the heebie-jeebies.

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