Stopping Gay Teen Suicide
Searching for a Way Out
"I never had a low self-esteem that would make me gay. At one point, though, the reverse happened. Being homosexual led me to have a loss of self-esteem when I first became aware of society's attitudes about homosexuality." --Aaron Fricke, Reflections of a Rock Lobster
For a number of years, researchers have known that one-third of all teenagers who commit suicide are gay. In one sense, this statistic is incredibly shocking because, according to the Kinsey Report, gay teens only comprise one-tenth of the teen population. This means that they are 300 percent more likely to kill themselves than heterosexual youth. In another sense, it is predictable that gay teens kill themselves more often than other young people simply because their life chances are so limited by social and legal discrimination. Only when this discrimination is eliminated will these shocking statistics change.
Examples of discrimination are ubiquitous. In 42 states, gays have no legal protection from employment or housing discrimination. Worse, laws put on the books during colonial times still criminalize homosexual acts in 25 states. These laws were upheld in 1986 by the Supreme Court in the Bowers v. Hardwick case.
Thus young gay individuals realize that they must hide their identity for fear of social and legal consequences which can destroy their lives. Homosexuals can be fired, evicted, kept from their own biological children, restricted from adopting children, and imprisoned for sodomy. The homosexuality of historical figures has been systematically left out of education in the public schools, giving gay youth the false impression that gays have never affected history in a positive way.
Also, on a purely social level, many gay teens run the risk of losing their friends or being thrown out of their homes if they either come out or are inadvertently outed. Admittedly, there is a direct relation between the social perception of gays and the rights accorded to gays. Many Christians and Jews believe that God considers homosexual acts sinful. Others believe homosexuality goes against nature. These beliefs continue to fuel legal discrimination against gays. Many just don't realize that these legal loopholes leave gays completely vulnerable to homophobes.
But laws should not be based on public prejudice. Our country has a long history of discriminating legally against groups that were stigmatized socially; the Chinese, the Irish, and Blacks are examples. Both the social front and the legal front must be addressed. It is more important to have the legal protections in place first. To compare this to African-American history, one reason that de facto segregation could be fought was that de jure segregation was found illegal in 1954. The legal protections enable the social discourse to continue peacefully.
For a brief moment after President Clinton's election, gays and supporters of gay rights were hopeful because they thought he would lead the battle for gay rights. One of his first acts after lifting the moratorium on fetal research and the "Gag Rule" was an attempt to lift the ban on gays in the military. But when President Clinton met resistance, he showed his true colors. When the pressure was on, he backed down on gay rights and agreed to a weak "don't ask, don't tell, don't pursue" policy which was struck down last month by a federal district court as a limit on free speech.
The Republican victory in the 1994 elections has given the conservative Right the false impression that they have a mandate to trample on the rights of gays. They are winning votes and support through fear. They rely on old myths and stereotypes that homosexuals are promiscuous and pedophilic.
These accusations are ludicrous: A study released last year stated that a child's risk of being molested by a heterosexual may be more than 100 times greater than being abused by a homosexual, lesbian, or bisexual. Another myth is that AIDS is a gay disease or that gays are responsible for the epidemic. AIDS affects nine times as many heterosexuals as homosexuals worldwide. It was American gays who brought the disease to the public's attention, not the Reagan Administration, who would not even mention the word AIDS until 1987. And it was gays who lobbied for research money and the distribution of information to the public.
All of this discrimination has hurt young gay teens. Their futures are still uncertain because of various legal and legislative battles across the country. Right now gays are most threatened at the federal level. On the first day of the 104th Congress, Jesse Helms introduced a bill to stop government agencies from using taxpayer funds to "encourage its employees or officials to accept homosexuality as a legitimate or normal lifestyle." Newt Gingrich has promised a hearing on the possibility of withholding federal funds from schools that "promote homosexuality."
Debating gay rights in Congress brings with it the risk that all the progress that has been made on local levels could be erased. Gay rights are a patchwork of different ordinances; therefore, an act that is protected in one state is criminalized in another. The risk is if Gingrich and Helms have their way with instituting anti-gay legislation, it could override local ordinances that protect gays from all sorts of discrimination. Also, the Supreme Court has agreed to review Colorado's Amendment Two decision in Evans v. Romer which affirmed gay rights. This too could put gay rights in jeopardy nationally since the court has a conservative majority.
The Federal level is not the only place gays face jeopardy. Almost any right wing coalition can get an anti-gay initiative on local ballots. The most recent blow to gay Americans came in Montana in late March. The Montana Senate approved with a voice vote a measure that would put gays and lesbians in the same category as violent felons. If this measure passes, gays and lesbians would be required by law to register their location with the state for the rest of their lives. Also, California Governor, Pete Wilson, has changed a state policy so that, starting in March 1995, gay couples can no longer adopt children. Similarly, Nebraska will no longer place children with people who identify themselves as homosexual.
But the news is not all bad for America's gays. In Massachusetts, for example, Governor Weld has formed the Commission of Gay and Lesbian Youth to come up with strategies to stop gay teen suicide. Last year the only two anti-gay initiatives on the ballot were rejected in Idaho and Oregon. Hawaii may soon legalize gay marriages. Minnesota, New Jersey, Vermont, and Wisconsin have gay rights protections.
The battle for gay rights has always been a Sisyphian struggle: winning rights in one place while losing rights in another. But each battle is important because the fate of 25 million Americans lies in the balance. As Newt Gingrich and his lesbian half-sister show, discriminating against gays usually involves discriminating against one's own friends and family.
If suicide is going to cease to be so high for gay teens, then the country must make spaces in which it is safe to come out. This means removing discriminatory statutes in the workplace, real estate, and the political arena. Activists can still hope that this will be the gay '90s, but the battle for legal and social equality must rage on.
Last Updated: 14 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD