As someone who was routinely harassed for being gay in high school and commonly endured derogatory statements about gay people throughout my college years as well, it deeply saddens me to learn that almost 20 years later, this behavior continues with dire consequences. Within the past month, four teenage boys in the US have sadly taken their own lives as a result of being ridiculed in school for being gay.
As a young boy growing up in the 80’s in the masculine suburbs of New York City, society constantly confirmed for me that being gay was possibly the worst thing imaginable. I was teased in grade school for the way I walked and talked and upon enertering high school – an all male private Catholic prep school – the teasing and taunting grew even worse. During freshman year, I was continually called a faggot both behind my back and directly to my face.
Fear overtook my thoughts and actions – I never once fought back or stood up for myself, because deep down inside, even though I hadn’t admitted it, I knew I was gay. The name calling and harassment ravaged my self esteem and my pride. I shut down, desperately tried to go unnoticed and fortunately found an escape in my favorite TV shows. Thank God for my deep-seated fear of death, otherwise suicide could have been an option for me as well.
In college the taunting subsided, but the sense of feeling like an outcast remained. The badgering took on a different tone. Instead of being called a faggot, my fellow classmates would just condescendingly ask; “You’re not gay are you?” Once again, fear controlled me, always responding with a stern no.
That was almost twenty years ago, unfortunately it seems little has changed in our school systems since then. Earlier this month, after experiencing endless harassment and bullying during his freshman year at Greensburg High School, 15 year-old Billy Lucas of Indiana hung himself in his family’s barn. Classmates openly admitted that students continually bullied Billy, calling him “fag and stuff like that” even though he never admitted to being gay. On September 19th, 13-year-old Seth Walsh of California, having experienced endless anti-gay taunts from his classmates, hung himself from a tree. He spent nine days in a coma before passing away. A few days later, another 13-year-old eighth-grader, Asher Brown of Texas, took his own life by shooting himself with a pistol. He endured endless torture from four fellow students at Hamilton Middle School simply because he was gay. Asher’s parents complained to school officials about the situation, but now it appears those complaints fell on deaf ears. And now 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, Tyler Clementi, whose college roommate secretly broadcast images of him kissing another boy over the internet, took his life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge.
This teasing, taunting and subsequent torture needs to stop. How many more innocent young lives do we need to lose as a result of this type of bullying? How many more families need to be destroyed by the ignorant actions of others? We must establish policies and procedures in every school across the nation so that kids who are being harassed, whether for their sexuality or other reasons, have a place to turn to for comfort, solace and most importantly safety. A dialogue needs to be established. Action needs to be taken. School administrations must recognize that every child has the right to feel safe at school and deserves protection regardless of their race, religion, sexuality or sexual preference. And we as a society must step forward and let this generation of gay and lesbian youth know that suicide is not the answer.
As someone who has been through the trenches and back – I know first hand that there is hope. As a teenager, I never imagined living the life of an openly, proud, gay man – but here I am – happy, healthy and surrounded by friends and family who love and support me. There is indeed hope. We must find a way to let these kids know it, prove it to them and protect them. We must take action now and honor Billy, Seth, Asher, Tyler and all those who came before them, by putting an end to these unnecessary losses once and for all.