Student Well-Being

Homosexual Students: A Group Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide

By Jessica Portner — April 19, 2000 8 min read
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When Manny was 14, he announced to his parents that he was gay. They promptly restricted his phone calls and locked him in his room, but when those actions didn’t “change” him, they threw him out of the house. For months afterward, the teenager would stand on the roof of his aunt’s five-story apartment building, curling his toes over the concrete lip and fantasizing about diving over the ledge. Julie was 15 when she barricaded herself in her bedroom and sliced open her forearms with a knife, knowing that her family would disown her if she told them she liked girls.

PART II: April 19, 2000
Suicide: Many Schools
Fall Short on Prevention

Prevention: Los Angeles
Reaches Out

One School Strives
To Be Kinder, Gentler

Memphis: A District Under Emotional Renovation

S.D. Psychologist
Alone on the Range

Budget Battles
And Mental-Health Care

Gay Students: A Vulnerable Group

For More Information

PART I: April 12, 2000
Image Complex Set of Ills Spurs Rising Teen Suicide Rate

About This Series
To Learn More

Mark, a shy 18-year-old, downed a near-fatal dose of penicillin and painkillers two years ago. He could no longer endure the daily routine of being harassed at school—only to go home, where his brother beat him until he bled because he was gay. “I feel so unsupported,” Mark said outside the New York City alternative school that he, Julie, and Manny all attend. “There’s still some days I wish I were dead.”

Taunts at Home, School

Homosexual youths are more than five times as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. The taunts of “faggot” and “queer” that reverberate in school hallways, on street corners, playgrounds, and sometimes at the dinner table all combine to drive gay adolescents to the edge, said Rea Carey, the executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, based in Washington.

A survey last year of 496 gay adolescents nationwide, commissioned by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, or GLSEN, found that 69 percent of gay students reported having been targets of verbal, physical, or sexual harassment in school, and that 42 percent said they had been physically assaulted.

“It’s a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week saturation of anti-gay messages,” Ms. Carey said. “If they hear messages day in and day out that say they are not of value to their community or their school, eventually those messages sink in.”

Homosexual adults may have the emotional fortitude to deflect such comments, but adolescents typically are poorly equipped to repel jabs from their all-important peers. A 1991 University of Minnesota study found that the vast majority of suicide attempts by gay and lesbian adolescents were made within a year before or after they discovered their own sexual orientation.

In a majority of school shootings in 1997 and 1998, anti-gay harassment was a factor, even when the target of ridicule was heterosexual, several news reports showed. Michael Carneal, 14, went on his school shooting spree in December 1997 in West Paducah, Ky., a few weeks after a student newspaper article labeled him gay. Though clearly upset, the boy—who was straight—told his mother he didn’t want to make a fuss. The next week, three girls, including the girl who wrote the article, were dead.

Open Communication

Teachers like Michael Perelman at Manhattan’s City as School say one way to encourage tolerance is to get students talking about their prejudices.

In a classroom at the school one afternoon last fall, a multiethnic group of about 20 high school students squeezed into chairs already too small for them. Half the students in the weekly gender-discussion class are heterosexual, a third are gay or lesbian, and the rest, unsure of their sexual orientation, are still in search of a label.

For an hour and a half, these urban adolescents covered nearly everything: sexism, contraception, drug use. Manny, Julie, and Mark have each recounted the stories of their suicide attempts to the class. The day’s topic was a perennial problem: homophobia.

Alex, a charismatic 18-year-old who wears a dog collar and lip ring, then took the floor to recite a litany of abuse he has suffered. “People call me fag, queer, cocksucker,” he said, as other students nodded knowingly.

Winning school approval to earn credit for such a group was far from simple, said Mr. Perelman, who created the session with another teacher two years ago. They purposely called the course a “gender discussion” group because some administrators were afraid that district leaders would perceive the session as promoting homosexuality. “We are not telling kids what they are in here,” Mr. Perelman said. “We are letting kids tell us what they are.”

Kevin Jennings, the director of GLSEN, a national, New York City-based organization devoted to eradicating anti-homosexual attitudes and harassment in schools, said that such discussion groups and more formal gay-straight alliances are critical to making schools a more welcoming place.

Such groups are cropping up now not just in big cities, but also in suburbs and rural areas from Maine to Washington state. Through its network of 15,000 members in 85 communities nationwide, GLSEN has helped bolster the number of such clubs from half a dozen a decade ago to more than 600 today.

Mr. Jennings also urges teachers to confront prejudice against gay and lesbian students by integrating positive images of homosexuals into their lesson plans. A former history teacher, Mr. Jennings argues that students ought to be taught about the murder of Matthew Shepherd—the gay University of Wyoming student who was battered, tied to a fence, and left to die in 1998—alongside units on the lynchings of young black men.

But others argue strongly that America’s classrooms are inappropriate places to discuss homosexual issues.

“What they call teaching tolerance, we call advocating homosexuality, and we believe homosexuality is morally wrong,” said Peter LaBarbera, a senior policy analyst at the Family Research Council, a Washington research and advocacy group.

Mr. LaBarbera also said he objects to a group’s being singled out for special attention in schools. “We think it’s terribly wrong when any child is hurt or abused, but there are a lot of groups that get picked on, like skinny boys and fat girls, and we don’t have specific policies for them,” he said.

Some state leaders agree. In 1996, the Utah legislature took the unprecedented step of barring all extracurricular clubs at schools rather than allow alliances of gay and straight students to form and meet. In Oregon, groups are currently circulating petitions to put an initiative on the ballot next fall that would prohibit discussion of lesbian and gay issues in schools.

Despite such opposition, gay and lesbian advocacy groups point to several legislative victories. Since GLSEN was founded in 1994, Massachusetts, Wisconsin, Connecticut, and, most recently, California have enacted laws that prohibit discrimination or harassment against students based on their sexual orientation. Recent court decisions also have made it more costly for public schools to ignore anti-gay harassment.

In 1996, a federal district court ruled that the Ashland, Wis., school district’s failure to discipline a student who repeatedly beat a gay student had violated the equal-protection clause of the U.S. Constitution. The district of 2,400 students was ordered to pay the student, Jamie S. Nabozny, $900,000.

A Safe Haven

Some gay-rights advocates contend that until anti-discrimination laws apply to gay students in every school, separate institutions ought to be available for homosexual teenagers. In the same spirit in which historically black colleges were founded to serve African-American students, a New York City educator and psychologist established the Harvey Milk School—named after the slain San Francisco city supervisor and gay-rights activist—15 years ago to serve the educational needs of gay youths.

Christian Luckie, now 19, was 16 when he transferred to the school in 1997 after a campaign of anti-gay harassment by other students compelled his parents to find a different learning environment for him.

“It was hard to think, ‘Am I going to get cut or burned today?’ and then try to concentrate on my grades at the same time,” the teenager said recently. “Before I came here, I was going to drop out. This school was like winning the lottery.”

But people who work with gay youths say that even if those students attend the most welcoming school, gay teenagers also need a safe place to be after school, particularly if they feel ostracized at home.

The Gay and Lesbian Community Center, a six-story converted warehouse, is a gathering spot for more than 300 gay and lesbian teenagers in New York City. On a recent afternoon, a small contingent of teenagers was busy composing first-person articles for the center’s snappy newsmagazine, Out Youth. Another group was squeezed into the small computer lab, working on homework.

Bridget Hughes, who runs the center’s youth programs, said newcomers to the center are often wary of adults. Many are runaways, or homeless, and some have harrowing stories of prostitution or taking refuge with adults who have then exploited them for sex.

Ms. Hughes said she keeps a list of referral agencies handy to consult when a suicidal youth needs professional psychological help, medical attention, or just a safe place to bunk for the night.

“Sometimes, the kids circle the building five times to decide if they want to come in. But then they calm down when they see I don’t have horns and this isn’t a dungeon,’’ said Ms. Hughes, who takes pride in the transforming effect the center seems to have on gay teenagers. “It only takes a few months from a kid thinking their life is over to being somebody who is reaching out to take care of somebody else.”

Editor’s Note: At their request, the names of the students at City as School have been changed. All other names are real.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Homosexual Students: A Group Particularly Vulnerable to Suicide


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