By Kenneth Miller
September 9, 2010: Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Indiana, hanged himself from the rafters of his family's barn.
January 1, 2012: Jeffrey Fehr, 18, of Granite Bay, California, hanged himself in the front entry of his home.
April 15: Kenneth Weishuhn, 14, of Primghar, Iowa, committed suicide approximately one month after coming out as a gay teen to family and friends.
April 22: Jack Reese, 17, of Mountain Green, Utah, was found after taking his own life.
These four boys didn't know each other, but they did have something in common. They'd been bullied at school, and one by one, they all apparently came to the same conclusion: If you're gay or thought to be gay, life just isn't worth living.
For most Americans the news reports were heartbreaking. They took us beyond our political arguments over gay marriage and "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"—even past our deeper disagreements about homosexuality. For once, we could all agree: Those kids should be in their classrooms, not in caskets.
The gruesome trend has a grip on American youth even when homosexuality appears to be more widely tolerated. Fifty-six percent of Americans consider it morally acceptable, according to a 2011 Gallup Poll. Kids can join gay-straight alliance groups at more than 4,000 schools nationwide and find advice and support online. Yet according to Pediatrics, gay, lesbian and bisexual teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Why are so many still driven to try to take their own life?
"Despite recent cultural shifts, kids still get the overwhelming message from society that homosexuality is not acceptable," says Scott Quasha, Psy.D., a professor of school psychology at Brooklyn College. It's not uncommon to hear fierce condemnation from politicians and preachers as they debate gay civil rights. Homosexuality is compared to incest, bestiality, even violent crime. "This trickles down into the schools, where bullying occurs," says Dr. Quasha. "A gay child is an easy target for classmates looking to make trouble."
Antigay bullying is something all parents should be concerned about, says Merle Bennett Buzzelli, who oversees the public school antiviolence program in Akron, Ohio. "The victims are not just students who are actually gay," she points out: The abuse is also directed at straight kids who don't quite fit gender norms. Tomboyish girls and guys who show interest in, say, gymnastics or dance are often called the same names—and subjected to the same ostracism and attacks—as their gay and lesbian classmates. There's no evidence that Billy Lucas was gay, but he was "different," classmates said. Because of that, bullies called him "fag" and told him he didn't deserve to live. Of course, for kids who do experience same-sex attraction, the use of the word gay as an all-purpose putdown is just one more painful indication that they don't fit in, whether or not they look or act any different from their peers, says Dr. Quasha.
"Being a teenager is tough enough," says Jody M. Huckaby, executive director of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), a national organization. "There's so much peer pressure. And when you're constantly getting messages that you're not okay, the pressure can just be too much. For some kids, it's hard to imagine that life will ever get better."
Since parents of gay kids are generally not gay themselves, even the most loving can find it hard to know how to respond when their child comes out. When Rashad Davis was 15, his mom, Deon Davis, sensed that there was something he wasn't telling her. "He was very, very depressed," recalls Deon, a dialysis nurse from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. "I'd say, ‘Honey, please talk to me, you know I can handle it.' He'd say, ‘No, Mom, it's just school,' and go to his room. Then, driving him to school one day, I saw cuts all over his arm. I asked if he was hurting himself and he said yes."
Afraid that Rashad might be suicidal, Deon called his health-insurance provider, which sent a therapist directly to their home. A few weeks later, with the therapist present, Rashad told his mom the source of his agony: He'd realized he was gay and he was terrified that family and friends would reject him. "I took a big swallow," says Deon. "I forced myself to say ‘okay' and hug him, but then I went off and cried all night long."
Deon was confused. This was the last thing she expected. "Rashad was 200 percent boy," she explains. "He wanted to play every sport and do every boy thing." And despite what she'd told her son, she really wasn't okay with it at all. "I'd been taught in my family and church that being gay was wrong and I thought that Rashad was going to go to hell. I thought, ‘This is disgusting. What are people going to say about us? My sister, his father, my father …' "
Still, something told her she'd better not share her fears with Rashad, and she was soon grateful to have made that decision. A week later Rashad told her about the antigay bullying he'd been experiencing at school. "I don't care if anybody else accepts me as long as you do," he told her. That comment really changed her attitude. "I knew I would have to be his protector and guide," she says.
It wasn't easy. To cope with her negative feelings, Deon worked with the therapist, connected with PFLAG, journaled her feelings and read up on gay issues. Bolstered by his mom's support, Rashad transferred to a more accepting high school. "I regained my confidence and started smiling more," he recalls. Now 21, Rashad is doing well as a junior at American Music Dance Academy in Los Angeles. His mother remains a speaker and activist helping other parents.
Deon Davis played it exactly right, says clinical social worker Caitlin Ryan, Ph.D., director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University. After almost a decade of research on gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender teens, Dr. Ryan's group has found a clear pattern: The more supportive the parents and family, the better kids do over the long run. "That doesn't necessarily mean changing your deeply held beliefs," Dr. Ryan explains. "It means finding a way to balance those beliefs with the love you have for your child."
Many parents, unwilling to believe that their child is gay, try to talk him out of it; they may tell him he's going through a phase, forbid him to discuss it and keep him from reaching out to the gay community. Often, their motive is to protect their child from harassment. But this well-meaning approach tends to backfire, Dr. Ryan says, since the child interprets it as a rejection of his true self: If his parents won't accept him for what he is, who will?
As young adults, lesbian, gay and bisexual youth from highly rejecting families are more than eight times as likely to attempt suicide, almost six times as likely to be clinically depressed and more than three times as likely to abuse drugs or be at high risk for HIV infection than those from families who are a little rejecting or not at all rejecting, Dr. Ryan's research has found. But even small changes can yield big results, she says—children from families that are only moderately rejecting have significantly fewer problems.
Even parents who can't be fully accepting can find ways to be supportive. "You can say, ‘I think this is wrong but I love you and I'm going to be here for you,' " Dr. Ryan suggests. "Be willing to listen. Give your child a hug."
Even if their parents fully support them, some gay kids are overwhelmed by community intolerance. Openly gay Zach Harrington killed himself in his hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. He had attended a city council meeting in which homosexuality was called a "destructive lifestyle" that corrupts children. Zach's parents felt that the rancorous debate may have pushed their son over the edge, the town's newspaper reported.
We all need to speak more carefully, says Father Mike Tegeder, pastor of St. Francis Cabrini and the Church of Gichitwaa Kateri in Minneapolis. "The Catholic Church teaches that each person has dignity whatever their race or gender or sexual orientation," he says. "We don't need to agree with one another, but we have to respect one another's dignity as children of God."
Warren Throckmorton, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College, a Christian school in Pennsylvania, says, "It seems to me that Christians should be first in line in saying that everyone should be treated the way you yourself want to be treated." Dr. Throckmorton is a traditional evangelical who developed The Golden Rule Pledge, a program specifically designed to help conservative churches prevent antigay bullying.
To combat antigay bullying in schools, parents of straight kids need to take a stand, says Maureen Costello, director of Teaching Tolerance, an educational project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization. "We have to tell our children that bullying of any kind is unacceptable but we also have to model the behavior we expect of them."
Expressing your opinions in a civil way, whether on homosexuality or any other issue, is a good place to start, Costello suggests. Concerned citizens can also push for schools to adopt antibullying policies that specifically cover harassment because of sexual or gender identity, Costello says. Many people feel a blanket "respect for all" statement is enough, but research shows such policies aren't as effective at protecting students from antigay bullying.
Teachers might let it ride if a kid says "that's so gay," since the insult isn't always intended as an antihomosexual slur, Buzzelli explains. Yet it still creates a hostile environment for gay kids. So her bullying-prevention program starts by explaining to kids that the term refers to an entire group of people. "Using gay as a put-down is like using Jew or black or disabled as a put-down—it's not acceptable," Buzzelli says. "Middle school kids also throw around words like fag and dyke without thinking about what they mean," she adds. They need to know these words are as offensive to gays as racial slursare to people of color.
Buzzelli's team focuses its bullying-prevention efforts in middle schools since that's when kids become aware of their sexuality, and it's also when bullying is often at its worst. When Seth Walsh killed himself at 13, many Americans were surprised by his youth: How could he even have known his sexual orientation at that age? That wasn't unusual, experts say: Research shows that kids first become aware of sexual feelings around 10 and those who are gay or lesbian know it around 13, just the way straight kids know they are attracted to the opposite sex. For both liberal and conservative opponents of antigay bullying, it boils down to the issue of basic human dignity.
"As a parent, it's your responsibility to sit your kids down and explain how there are lots of different kinds of people," says Dr. Quasha. "You can even say, ‘In our religion, we don't really agree with this, but what we do believe is that everybody deserves to be treated with kindness and respect.' "
And as the Department of Education reminded schools in an October 26, 2010, letter, harassment of any kind is against federal civil rights law.