So I’ve been struggling to find out what to say in response to the latest media “discovery” that gay teens commit suicide, often, is it believed, in direct response to bullying.
My first response was: this is not news. Anyone with a few gay friends should know this. But lots of people don’t and so we should share what we know.
My second response was a negative reaction against the “blame the victim” mentality that set in. “These children should be stronger,” many opined; or, even worse, “It was just words; these kids should endure to see that it does get better.” This was tempered by the news that another group of men had beat yet another gay youth to death. My response went something like this: “Ah, so we should tell gay youth to stop killing themselves so that gangs of straight(s) (white) men can do it for them?”
I was also going to lament that Dan Savage’s decent point to these “nice” Christian people who complained that only bad Christians encouraged bigotry — loosely “Fuck your feelings. Gay children are dead and your feelings are hurt. Get a sense of perspective”– got lost again in his need to defame religion. This didn’t seem like a helpful intervention.
The truth of the matter is that gay teen homelessness is likely the leading cause of the high suicide rate among gay teen youth.
You see: there’s a long tradition in this country of running away from or being thrown out by homophobic parents when one can no longer hide the contradiction caused by one’s identity and the idealized/naturalized heterosexual life path into which one is socialized constantly as a youth.
Marriage, family, home, intimacy, experimentation, participation in communities of faith, — these are always already imagined and presented to youth as things that happen to everyone, but only with (hopefully attractive) members of the opposite sex. Queer children experience the moment of difference and then of shame as they wonder what’s so natural about this life path and why is it so hard for me to want those things. And then puberty/MySpace/Facebook happen within a very sexualized culture and all of sudden, this young child, whose very identity and life path have been disappeared by the seeming naturalness of heterosexuality, has a moment in which he or she comes out.
The moment of coming out is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of culture, concerned as we are with the sexual desire component of sexuality and not the deeper crisis of self-imagination. More than anything else, coming out is a double request for acknowledgement. First, that the naturalness of (monogamous, conservative) heterosexuality is at best a prescriptive meme and not a description of actually existing reality. Second, that this meme has caused a psychological disjuncture in the person who is coming out that has to reconcile itself both the ubiquity of the meme and the disappearance of other life paths beyond that meme. This initial coming out is literal cry of: “You don’t see me. Please look at me.” (Later coming outs are more of request to new and old friends that one can no longer live the illusion of gender-defined same-ness. It’s a request to account of otherwise unmentioned variation. It’s “I exist; acknowledge my same-sex attraction as real and as deep as your non-same-sex attraction.”)
Some parents and sibling refuse to look at their family member. “I can’t even look at you.” They turn away their faces and withdraw the emotional support that now reveals itself as having been premised on adherence to the script of the prescriptive meme. A radical sense of alienation sets in and so the youth flees — or in some cases is driven out “Get out! You are no son/daughter of mine” — into the streets.
We’ve seen them. They are sex workers. They are indigent. They wander around with their dogs. They are incarcerated with little recourse. They are often involved in the drug culture or get involved in very unhealthy relationships. Many don’t make it. Some are beaten by straights. Some are beaten/raped in jail. Others –often the queer people of color — realize that the fact of their desire frightens the God-fearing and the fact of their pigmentation frightens the “crime-fearing.” Brown, they learn, is not beautiful and their mannerisms are not inviting; perhaps a demure twink instead would have better fared.
This is of course says nothing about the flip side of the American welfare state: the way we deal with most social problems is by spending money for incarceration rather than money for social services or money to prevent discrimination.
The low mutual regard that civil rights communities hold for each other — paycheck fairness for women, the end of the police state and health service for people of color, and the end of heterosexual preferences in the civil law for gays — astounds me. Not only are men of color often the largest beneficiaries of America’s coercive welfare state: from prison to diminished opportunities with healthy doses of self-help rhetoric available from every clenched fist, but they are joined by single mothers (often of color) for whom the surveillance of the state in the name of preventing child abuse rips apart families by forcing the mothers into jail and the children into foster case, and queer homeless youth, most often the trans-sexual. HIV/AIDS services are big issues for each of these communities. I’ve never understood why the white men who head the HRC or the Log Cabin Republicans could never find time to forge an alliance.
So I suppose, to be brief, that I was absolutely appalled that the response to the media circus was a greater push for ending DADT and marriage equality. While I’m all for those things, and greatly believe that there should be no legal discriminatory regimes in place against people, the ability to get married, or to serve in the increasing frequent wars of choice that we are fighting in the corners of the globe is not a solution to problem.
The solution, rather, is twofold. A reaffirmation of the basic duty of the state to provide welfare, especially for its most vulnerable citizens, that is paid for by its most wealthy citizens coupled with a vast re-thinking and de-funding of the coercive institutions of the state, namely the criminal processing system (often misnamed the criminal ‘justice’ system), in favor of public goods is the way forward.
I want to close with this lengthy quote from the post “Complicating Queer Suicides.”
The last few weeks have seen a flurry of stories about the supposed rise in queer suicides, particularly by youth and young adults. But while the deaths are undoubtedly tragic, they are by no means unusual and have not increased in number; they are simply being reported on more often. The exact reasons why the press would, at this time, take such an interest in queer suicides are the subjects of a future piece. For now, I want to complicate the narratives and stories about queer youth that are being spun in the media and in our cultural discourse.
It is necessary to pay attention, as we have been doing, to why queer youth in particular are more than four times as likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. It is even more important to pay attention to how we deploy and even, on occasion, distort their reasons for doing so. Attempts to provide both reasons and solutions for the problem are often shamelessly manipulative and display a rank ignorance of the many multiple contexts in which queer youth live and die.
Take, for instance, the short but hyperbolic video by Sarah Silverman, where she says: “Dear America, When you tell gay Americans that they can’t serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you’re telling that to kids, too. So don’t be fucking shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves … because they learned it from watching you.”
No. Those are not the reasons why queer children and youth kill themselves. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover killed himself in Massachusetts after being taunted, on a daily basis, for being gay. Walker-Hoover did not identify as gay. He lived in a state where gay marriage has been legal since 2004.
There are, of course, several instances of queer-identified youth killing themselves after being bullied on account of their sexuality. And, certainly, the extreme right’s hostility to gay marriage or gays in the military does create a climate where there is at least a segment of society used to engaging in hateful rhetoric about queers.
But none of this justifies a logistical leap to the point of arguing that allowing gays to get married or join the army will somehow make people hate queers, or people they think of as queers, less. When a queer gets bashed, the basher isn’t thinking, “I hope this person isn’t the married kind because THEY would be all right.” The issue facing us is not how to make the bigots love us, but the bigotry they express. Which is to say: twisting and turning gay marriage into a solution for queer suicides is an abhorrent tactic to bolster the cause of gay marriage, on which there is no consensus in the LGBTQ community. The simple truth is that people hate us and will cause us harm. They may hate us because they secretly see themselves in us and are terrified of what that means, or they may hate us simply because they see us as the evil to be wiped out. But they hate us and they will cause us harm. The fact that we might be able to marry will not make a bit of difference to such deep-seated hatred.
The current rise in the reports of queer youth suicides does not signify either an epidemic or a crisis. What we are witnessing is the ongoing reality of what it means to be queer in a world where we forego complicated, systemic analyses of our issues in favor of simplistic and sentimental rhetoric about love and bravery conquering all. The Trevor Project is a hotline, not a program. While it performs an important service, the long-term work of preventing these suicides in a systemic way can only happen if we consider queer youth as more than just queer. If we are to address the issue of queer suicides, we need to think long and hard about actually addressing the depth and complexity of the problem without resorting to magic pill arguments.