No suicide has a single cause, but family members believe verbal harassment was likely a risk factor in a 13-year-old Troy girl’s tragic decision to end her life in March. Although a police investigation found no bullying-related crimes happened before her death, the stigma of difference is evident to students in all our schools and communities.
Her family’s report that this young woman was questioning her sexuality underscores this tragedy, highlighting the reality that LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning) youth comprise an unacceptably large percentage of youth suicides in Maine and nationally.
It is difficult to gather reliable statistics about this correlation, since sexual orientation is rarely noted after death by suicide. The Trevor Project — the leading national organization providing suicide prevention services to LGBTQ youth — reports the following:
• In U.S. surveys, lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents and adults have two to six times higher rates of reported suicide attempts compared with straight people.
• Two key suicide risk factors for LGBTQ people are individual-level factors, such as depression and experiences of stigma and discrimination, including anti-LGBT hostility, harassment, bullying and family rejection. There is growing evidence that the two factors are linked.
Middle schools are the newest institutions coping with our changing culture. At increasingly younger ages, our country’s youth are exploring their own sexuality. Research has taught us that differently gendered or oriented children know they are different before the age of 10. The need for training for our school teachers and administrators on the sexuality issues of this younger age group is considerable.
With the increasing acceptance of LGBTQ Maine residents, LGBTQ kids have a chance to thrive in American communities. Currently our schools remain the most hazardous environments for LGBTQ youth with supportive families. Schools are where young people spend their days, and the support — or lack of it — from peers and professional staff has a defining role in building the protective factors that help prevent kids from self-harm.
Maine’s new anti-bullying legislation is an important first step. Yet, bullying is often not recognized until there is a physical attack. All children who are verbally harassed, regardless of the reason, need adults who are willing to take notice, step up and speak out at the first sign of trouble.
It is not only LGBTQ kids who are bullied by phrases like “you’re a faggot” or “that’s so gay.” This pervasive language creates fear, self-doubt and lowered self-esteem for all our kids. Homophobia creates suffering for anyone who does not conform to someone’s expectations about gender.
Bullying is often accomplished without any individual targets; one case of name calling can affect the behavior and esteem of many bystanders. A phrase like “That’s so gay ”— used to degrade — reinforces the message that to be gay is to be devalued.
For LGBTQ youth, we need to provide visible and audible reminders that LGBTQ people are well represented in our communities: teachers, other community leaders, authors, inventors, bankers, etc. They need safe spaces that provide a place for them to explore who they are and how they can stand tall in our communities. They need help and support in finding their voices and how they can best contribute to our community at large.
Fortunately, the large majority of young people harassed in school do not harm themselves, and bullying is a risk factor, not a cause, of death by suicide. More and more LGBTQ youth are organizing gay/straight/trans alliances, which provide leadership and sponsor events like the national Day of Silence. More and more young people are making this yearly pledge in their schools to end the silencing of their LGBTQ peers. And teachers and administrators are identifying themselves as allies with Safe Space stickers.
In the midcoast, Out! As I Want to Be provides affirmation, support, guidance, advocacy and education to LGBTQ young people and their allies age 14-22 in the midcoast area and its offshore islands. We offer an evening drop-in for members in Rockland every Wednesday and Friday. We are often a lifeline for isolated rural youth through our number: 800-530-6997, our website www.outmaine.org or our Facebook page.
Out! is working to establish gay-straight alliances and Safe Spaces in all of our schools. Join us in our work to build communities where all of our kids can thrive. Together, we can build on our state’s support for equality for all to make our schools and communities safe, supportive environments for each and every youth.
Dora Lievow of Camden is president of the board of Out! As I Want to Be. In 1973 she co-founded The Community School’s Residential Program in Camden, where she was director for 37 years. In 1991 she co-founded Shira, the midcoast’s only lesbian a capella singing group.