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|LGBT youth suicides spark calls for change|
|Written by Dyana Bagby|
|Friday, 15 October 2010 00:00|
When Gabriel Haggray was a ninth grader at Salem High School in Conyers, Ga., he said he was bullied incessantly and would often go home after school and sit in his bedroom sobbing alone, feeling worthless.
“It was horrible. In gym class they would take my gym shorts or when I was in my gym clothes they would steal my street clothes,” he remembered. “One guy would always take my lunch, call me a fag and ask why I was still around.”
At first, Haggray said he “just took it” — he just put up with the bullying. Eventually he got tired of it and sought someone to listen to him as he dealt with the insecurity of being gay as well as finding a way to stop being bullied.
Fortunately, Haggray was able to find an empathetic counselor who presided over peer mediation with two of the boys who were bullying him, he said.
And after that, the bullying stopped. But during his senior year in high school, after he was completely out to his classmates and teachers, he ran for student council president. Someone went through the halls of the school and wrote “fag” and “homosexual” on his posters.
But because he had found a tight group of friends and support from teachers, the anti-gay vandalism didn’t hurt as much as it would have when he was in the ninth grade, he said.
“It’s very important to have good friends. They helped me through everything,” he said.
Now 22, Haggray is studying psychology at Georgia Perimeter College and volunteers at YouthPride. He praises the non-profit organization for its Evolve! counseling and suicide prevention program that offers free counseling from licensed therapists daily by appointment as well as a 24-hour, seven days a week hotline. This resource is extremely valuable as the national media has picked up on so many recent suicides from LGBT young people who were impacted by anti-gay bullying.
“The biggest thing at YouthPride is we are able to be who we are and there is free counseling,” Haggray said.
“Hearing about all the suicides across the nation — it’s frustrating because the only way to escape bullying is through help and the resources aren’t there for schools,” he said. “Those who live life as a bully need to stop it. This is real. This is not a movie where there is a jock, a nerd, a bully and then everyone gets over it. This is a very serious issue.”
How serious? The Trevor Project, a national organization focused on crisis and suicide prevention efforts among LGBTQ youth, reports that suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15 to 24-year-olds; suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses; lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers; nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives and one quarter report having made a suicide attempt.
“The recent suicides don’t necessarily mean more people are in crisis, but more people are reaching out,” said Laura McGinnis, spokesperson for the Trevor Project.
‘A call for change in our culture’
Abby Drue is an Atlanta lesbian and founder and executive director of the Ben Marion Institute, which works with schools and others on how to stop bullying. Reading reports about the recent suicides is breaking her heart, she said.
But the suicides are not new, she said. Queer young people have been killing themselves for many years because they don’t have the mental skills or sometimes the support to help them through rough times.
Today’s bullies have many more resources to commit acts of bullying, such as the internet, than years ago, Drue added.
“Kids are much more equipped with triggers. We are a meaner society now,” she said.
When states pass state constitutional amendments banning gay marriage, when the federal government refuses to allow gay people to serve openly in the military, when gay people are not allowed to adopt — these messages trickle down into the collective conscience of all people, including young people.
“All these different things give the message that gay relationships are inferior,” she said. “Nothing changes unless it changes at the top. In schools, not until school administrators and families stop sitting by and letting this happen will young people stop killing themselves.”
The Trevor Project has seen a significant uptick in requests from schools wanting their anti-bullying resources, said McGinnis.
“Last year we had a request for 600 of our survival kits. In the past week and a half we’ve had requests for 1,200,” she said Oct. 12.
“The major news coverage of the teen suicides is a call for a change in the country’s culture that has allowed LGBTQ youth to be bullied, turned out of their homes, churches, just because of who they are,” she added.
The “It Gets Better” video campaign started by gay journalist Dan Savage and the resulting news coverage is helpful in increasing awareness of what gay students face.
Videos featuring openly gay celebrities and others urging young people to seek help rather than consider suicide have gone viral. Facebook campaigns asking people to wear purple or pink as part of an “Anti-bullying Day” on Oct. 20 have hundreds of thousands of fans.
Finding an end to what is being called an epidemic of gay suicides must first start at the local level, within schools and local school boards, McGinnis said. But there must also be support for the federal Safe Schools Improvement Act.
This bill, still stuck in Congress, “would amend the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act (part of the No Child Left Behind Act) to require schools and districts receiving federal funds to adopt codes of conduct specifically prohibiting bullying and harassment, including on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The Act would also require that states report data on bullying and harassment to the Department of Education,” reports the Human Rights Campaign.
“Right now we have piecemeal policies in schools,” McGinnis said. “Other federal legislation would be helpful as something to let young people know they have something to look forward to and they don’t have to give up their dreams.”
Anti-bullying measures passed in Georgia
In Georgia, the legislature passed an anti-bullying statute that must be implemented by all schools in the state by Aug. 1, 2011. While the law, authored by Republican Mike Jacobs, does not specifically protect LGBT students, it does require teachers and administrators to step in and stop bullying when they see it happening.
Jacobs has said he was motivated to write and pass the bill after the death of Jaheem Herrera. Herrera was a DeKalb County fifth grader who hanged himself April 16, 2009, after his parents said he endured relentless bullying, including being called “gay.” A school system investigation said Herrera was not bullied and students reported that when they used the word “gay,” they thought it meant “happy.”
The Atlanta Journal-Constitutuion reported Oct. 12 that Herrera’s 12-year old sister says she is now being bullied at her Lithonia school about her dead brother. The DeKalb School System responded by saying it does not tolerate bullying, according to the AJC.
At an informal education summit on Oct. 10 prior to the Atlanta Pride parade, Jacobs spoke to some 40 education and legislative grand marshals about the bill and urged people to call their school board members to make sure anti-bullying bills are put in place in their schools.
Anneliese A. Singh, assistant professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services at the University of Georgia and a founder of the Georgia Safe Schools Coalition, said the recent media attention focusing on gay teen suicides must be balanced with the good that is going on in schools as well.
“One of the things you might have noticed in the news is bullying is getting a lot of press, but unfortunately safe schools are not getting enough press,” she said.
The GSSC partners with Georgia Equality to advocate at school boards and at the district level. It is also important to work with youth advocates, she said.
One success story is the anti-bullying policy passed by the Cobb County School Board in June that includes sexual orientation and gender identity, said Maru Gonzales, a founder of GSSC who also attended the summit on Oct. 10. The hope is that school boards across the state will pass the same anti-bullying policies by next summer’s deadline.
“The media have really been paying a lot of attention to the recent suicides … but we all know this is nothing new,” she said.
“There has been a lot of talk about how it gets better but we can’t always assume it gets better — instead of hoping it gets better we need to work together and make it better in Georgia,” she added.
Top photo: Gabriel Haggray, 22, was bullied in high school but found a supportive counselor to help him. (via Facebook)
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