This past week, my inbox has been flooded with messages from colleagues about how “we must do something” to show our outrage at the five suicides of gay teens that have occurred in the past three weeks in this country.
That’s right—five young gay people who killed themselves apparently in response to homophobic bullying and harassment by their classmates. By now the names of these five young men are etched into our collective consciousness. Asher Brown, 13, of Texas; Billy Lucas, 15, of Indiana; Seth Walsh, 13, of California; Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who threw himself off the George Washington Bridge; and now Raymond Chase, 19, a student in Rhode Island.
Ellen DeGeneres made a video calling these deaths a sign that teen bullying is an epidemic. Dan Savage decided to put a call out on YouTube to stop queer youth from killing themselves. The campaign, entitled It Will Get Better, invited queers and other outcasts to “talk” to suicidal teens through videos about how different life gets after high school. Video after video discusses how the idiots who bully you in high school grow up to be miserable nobodies while you can grow up to be as fabulous as you want to be. Many schools and universities are responding to the suicides with vigils, speak-outs, and other forums for marking this national tragedy.
But the sociologist in me keeps deleting all those urgent e-mails. After all, anti-queer violence and bullying is not “news” to me. But the e-mails tell me we must respond right now because five is an extraordinary number of gay teens killing themselves. Really? Five gay teens killing themselves is five too many, but ultimately it is the news media that has decided this is an unusually high number. Suicide among queer youth is quite high, with some estimates that queer youth are four times as likely to commit suicide as their straight peers.
So what makes this story “news” and why are we being urged to action rather than the thoughtfulness that these young men’s lives deserve?
Perhaps it is because there is something powerful about narratives that posit an innocent victim pitted against evildoers. And even when the hero of our story dies, or perhaps especially because the hero of the story dies, we just can’t wait to hear it over and over again.
But there’s something else too that we like to hear. That there’s something wrong with kids today—not the queers, but the bullies. They’re meaner than we were. They have access to Twitter and other technologies of “cyber bullying.” Pathologizing youth is a story we’ve been telling for a long time. Kids today, why can’t they be like we were, accepting of sexual and gender diversity? Remember how fun junior high and high school were? Especially if you were queer in anyway? Yeah, right. Classic displacement. We were totally evil to anyone who was different in any way, so we conveniently forget that and panic over how awful kids are today.
Finally there’s the other story, the one that has been told at least since earlier sexologists tried to save the sodomite from jail by marking him as “sick” and not “criminal.” This is the story of the pity of those in power, the sexual elites, for the poor, sad sexual minorities who are such tragic figures. Pity them; do not punish them. The fact that way more than five queer teens had an amazing month, had their first love, their first encounter with the richness of queer culture—from drag to politics—is not a story we want to hear as a culture. The fact that hundreds or even thousands of queer kids stood up to a bully, injected queer consciousness into a classroom or a family dinner, and generally lived technicolor lives over the rainbow rather than locked down in some black and white Kansas is lost in the news cycle. We prefer our queers as victims. They’re easier to support and much less scary that way.
So maybe I’m an incredibly hard and cold person to not want to jump on the “queers are more victimized than ever” bandwagon, but I just can’t help thinking that there’s a lot more going on for queer youth than bullying.
The fact that schools and universities are not enforcing anti-bullying laws and that this has fatal consequences is a tragedy. The fact that anti-queer rhetoric is so commonplace that “fag” practically means “Yo what’s up” in some circles is a tragedy. The fact that the same news media that decides queer youth are a tragedy gives plenty of airtime to hate-spewing homophobes in politics and religion is a tragedy.
But the queer youth of today—out in middle school, showing up at their local queer youth center, making fabulous lives outside of heteronormativity—are not a tragedy. They’re a triumph.
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