On Sept. 19, Seth Walsh also tried to hang himself at his home in Tehachapi, California. Seth identified as gay or bisexual, and his classmates bullied him so persistently that he asked his family to withdraw him from school. He escaped his school, but not the effects of the bullying. Seth’s family found him after his suicide attempt, and he spent nine days in intensive care. Then, at 13 years old, he died.
On Sept. 23, Asher Brown came home from school in Houston, Texas while his parents were still at work, and shot himself. He had just come out to his family; at school, students knew he was gay and hounded him for it, as well as for his religion and his worn clothes. The straight-A student was just 13 years old when he died.
And on Sept. 22, Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge. A Rutgers freshman from North Jersey, Clementi was a good student and a dedicated violinist. But when Clementi’s roommate streamed video of him having sex with another man online, posted the link on Twitter and invited other students to ridicule him, Clementi put up a suicide note on Facebook and went to New York to follow through. He was 18 years old, and only 72 miles from New Haven, when he died.
It’s easy to say that four deaths in three weeks represent an aberration, or an outlier: random events that we can’t hope to prevent or predict. But while that thought may be comforting, it’s far from true. The experiences which Billy, Seth, Asher and Tyler endured are not limited to a single region, a single age group or a single demographic. Across the country and across identity categories, almost all LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) secondary school students endure the same kind of treatment that contributed to the deaths of these four young men.
The most recent data collected on bullying of LGBTQ youth show that the experience of harassment related to sexual orientation and gender identity is near-universal among students who are not straight and gender-conforming. According to a 2009 survey conducted by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), almost 90 percent of LGBTQ middle and high school students report being verbally harassed at school because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. 40 percent have been physically harassed and nearly 20 percent have been physically assaulted.
This experience of harassment leaves lasting wounds. LGBTQ youth who are victimized at school have lower school-attendance rates, GPAs and educational aspirations than their classmates. They are also much more likely to experience depression or anxiety, 190 percent more likely to use drugs or alcohol and between two and three times more likely to become homeless than non-LGBTQ students from comparable backgrounds.
These numbers are hard to read, and harder to understand. When I see them, I question whether coming out — a choice I made at 12, and a step that programs like today’s National Coming Out Day encourage — will be of any help to students who face physical and verbal intimidation every day at school.
I wonder whether the Gay-Straight Alliances that other Yale students and I have helped New Haven youth to build will help LGBTQ youth hold on through high school. Will each GSA support its members and keep them safe from harassment, or only give bullies more targets? Will uniting these vulnerable youth and connecting them with LGBTQ adults will give these kids real strength, or just a false, fast-disappearing hope?
But then I remember the other numbers: that youth who are out have better mental health, even when they face more harassment; that Gay Straight Alliances do reduce the level of harassment students report; that knowing supportive adults helps students feel safer and achieve more. I remember the stories, including my own, of youth who could withstand harassment because they had support, who were able to leave their schools for safer places. I also remember that, with a concerted effort from the straight community, communities can open, and hatreds, ebb away.
These don’t give me certainty, but they do give me hope: hope that each person who comes out today, as LGBTQ or an ally or both, will help build a movement strong enough to make hatred — and stories like Billy, Seth, Asher and Tyler’s — history.