Winter 2004-05, Vol 8 No 2
Kids don’t kill themselves because they’re gay. That’s absurd. At least that’s what Roz Michaels used to think. Twelve years ago, her 21-year-old son Bruce jumped to his death at Grand Canyon’s No Name Point. He left a suicide note explaining he was doing it because he was gay. Until the note, Bruce’s family had no idea he was gay. But it wouldn’t have mattered to them. “It was so ridiculous. I wouldn’t have cared that he was gay,” says Michaels through tears. “This poor kid shouldered his secret all the years without telling anybody.”
According to Statistics Canada, close to 600 youth between age 10 and 24 die by suicide every year. Numerous studies suggest that among lesbian, gay and bisexual (LGB) youth, approximately 32 per cent contemplate or attempt suicide (compared to seven per cent of all youth). But researchers and LGB advocates say it’s not their sexuality that leads these kids down a suicidal path – it’s the stigma and discrimination they face in a heterosexual world.
“You learn that everything about you is wrong and hated,” says Rosemary Hardwick, chair and educator for the Toronto Suicide Information Alliance. “You internalize homophobia. You’re constantly monitoring everything about you, trying to pass as ‘normal.’” Hardwick herself is now proud to be “out,” but knows firsthand the disdain that LGB youth often face growing up. “I knew of one other gay person and I wasn’t going to be like that,” she recalls.
“Gay means to be outré, everything you should not be,” says Pierre Tremblay, a research associate with the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary in Alberta. “You’re positioned to be a defective being. These kids end up with a spoiled identity; they are damaged goods.”
Like many LGB advocates, Hardwick strongly believes factors experienced by sexual minorities need to be considered when assessing youth suicidality. But some, like Dr. Ritch Savin-Williams, chair of the Department of Human Development at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, disagree. He thinks only factors already determined as putting youth at high risk for suicide – previous suicide attempts, suicidal behaviour among friends and peers, a psychiatric disorder or family dysfunction – should be included in evaluating youth suicidality. He is convinced that LGB sexuality is not a contributing factor in youth suicide. He says the many studies suggesting this are flawed and are setting up LGB youth to kill themselves.
One criticism leveled by Savin-Williams is that study samples have not been random – taken, for example, from LGB support groups, which means that these samples represent only a select fraction of the LGB population. Savin-Williams also notes that in recent random high school surveys, the number of kids willing to admit they are not heterosexual (even on a confidential survey) is only about two to three per cent; most kids don’t come out in high school. He argues that since 10 per cent of the population represents sexual minorities, the margin of error in these surveys is great.
But the question is on what side does that margin of error fall? If only a fraction of kids admit to being LGB it’s possible that even more may be contemplating or have attempted suicide than studies indicate. Would Bruce have answered a survey truthfully? Perhaps not. And unlike Bruce, who revealed his homosexuality in his suicide note, many LGB youth take their secret to the grave.
“Dead gay kids don’t talk,” says Tremblay, who has made studying suicidality among gay and bisexual male youth his life’s work. He thinks that if anything, the risk of suicide among LGB kids is higher than studies suggest. He points out that if you take the average of the earlier non-random studies and compare them to recent random studies, the result is the same – about 32 per cent.
Sampling issues aside, Savin-Williams also finds the surveys’ line of questioning problematic. He claims that some of these kids are following what he’s dubbed a “suicidal script.” Since there’s been so much recent attention paid to LGB suicide, kids are thinking “I’m supposed to be suicidal if I’m gay,” and, says Savin-Williams, “they believe this is what we want to hear.” In fact, one student Savin-Williams interviewed reported he didn’t think he was really gay because he hadn’t attempted suicide yet. “This message is so much out there that kids are equating suicide with being gay,” says Savin-Williams, adding, “We are doing these kids a disservice by singling them out.”
But Tremblay thinks that one such piece of anecdotal evidence, although important, can hardly be generalized to all LGB youth and is certainly no reason to dismiss sexuality as a suicide factor. Comparing LGB youth suicide to the high rates among aboriginal communities, Tremblay asks, “Should we dismiss the aboriginal population as more at risk for suicide because if we ever get concerned about them, it will be our actual concern that will cause the problem? Suicide risk isn’t inherent, but certain populations are more at risk.”
The bottom line for Tremblay is that concern doesn’t kill kids – lack of concern does. Yet Savin-Williams disagrees and says kids are resilient and have to deal with all sorts of social pressure while trying to fit in with their peers. “I don’t think being called gay is so much worse than everything else kids get teased and bullied about,” he says. How is being gay any different or more terrible than other things kids get teased for – being called fat and ugly or being ridiculed for having severe acne?
“It’s much worse,” says Marilyn Byers, president and founder of the York Region branch of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). It’s worse because it’s institutionalized, accepted hate. “A child is not born with hate,” says Byers. “That’s a learned behaviour”. Byers has witnessed kids being verbally bashed for their sexuality and having food thrown at them. She lectures in schools on how to end homophobia. One school where she regularly gives talks has had three suicides in three years. One of the three kids was known to be gay.
Educating youth and normalizing LGB identity is one thing Tremblay and Savin-Williams do agree on. “Put LGB identity into the human potential, like it’s no big deal,” suggests Tremblay. This includes teaching it in sex-education classes in the same way that heterosexuality is taught, rather than discussing it as an alternative. Accurately representing LGB identity in popular culture is another way to normalize non-heterosexual orientations. “We need to make it a non-issue; let’s make it go away by simply being fair,” suggests Savin-Williams. Until, that happens, however, there are some protective factors to help LGB youth maintain confidence (see sidebar). It may sound simple, but having someone to confide in and talk to can make all the difference. For Rosemary Hardwick, her best friend’s mom and a school nun offered this support.
But for many, like Roz Michael’s son Bruce, it’s so hard to come to terms with their so-called demons that it destroys them. “Bruce was obviously ashamed. He couldn’t tell anybody and it grew into this monster that consumed him and then killed him,” says his mother. If only he could have shared his pain with her, she thinks Bruce would be alive today: “Sharing dispels. I really believe if Bruce had been able to tell, he would have realized that it really didn’t matter. If I had just had more insight.”
“Gay means to be outré, everything you should not be. You’re positioned to be a defective being. These kids end up with a spoiled identity; they are damaged goods.”
• Hatred in the Hallways (Human Rights Watch, 2001):
• Dead Boys Can’t Dance: Sexual Orientation, Masculinity, and Suicide by Michel Dorais (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2004)
Various suicide triggers specific to sexual minority youth include:
• questioning but being unable to articulate
• feeling different from the accepted heterosexual norm
• being shocked at having a crush on someone of the same sex
• being bullied at school for being a butch, dyke, fairy, fag or queer
• being the butt of jokes, graffiti and hate crimes
• not having a voice
• being confused over sexuality and having no role models
• using alcohol or other drugs to deal with the stigma of belonging to a sexual minority
• feeling shame, guilt or self-loathing about one’s sexual identity or gender identity
Protective factors that lessen the risk of suicide include:
• feeling connected to family and school
• having good problem-solving and coping skills
• being in good physical and mental health
• having a strong religious faith or believing that life has a meaning or purpose
• feeling part of a community and participating socially
• having a close friend, preferably an adult