Mourning at Howard [Updated]

Former student commits suicide, seemingly related to sexuality, though father says she was not bullied directly

Adding to the troubling series of recent suicides by young LGBT or questioning people, seemingly as a result of bullying, another young person has taken her life. Aiyisha Hassan, 20, was found dead Oct. 4 – an apparent suicide – by her brother, with whom she was living in his Southern California home, according to her father. 

Aiyisha Hassan
Aiyisha Hassan
(Photo by Rev. Kamal Hassan)

Hassan was a former biology student at D.C.’s Howard University. As reported by the university’s student newspaper, The Hilltop, students there held a candlelight vigil for her Oct. 7, the Thursday following her death. According to The Hilltop, Hassan attended Howard from 2008 to 2009.

Amari Ice, 22, president of Howard’s LGBT organization CASCADE (Coalition of Activist Students Celebrating the Acceptance of Diversity and Equality), said Hassan was a lesbian who attended his group’s meetings regularly.

“It’s devastating, to say the least,” Ice told Metro Weekly. “It’s been a lot to deal with, especially with all the other youth suicides that have been happening. It’s just fuel to the fire. It brought the national issue very, very close to home.”

Lauren Morris, 21, a senior at Howard, who lived in the same building as Hassan when she lived in D.C., said she introduced Hassan to CASCADE. Morris added that friends have reported Hassan’s suicide was related to her struggles with her sexuality.

“She was having a lot of trouble with a lot of different things, but mainly her sexual identity and just trying to express that,” Morris says.

Hassan’s father, Rev. Kamal Hassan of the Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church in Richmond, Calif., says those struggles may not have been primarily societal.

While declining to discuss details of his daughter’s suicide beyond mention that her brother discovered her body, Rev. Hassan said Oct. 12 that he does not believe bullying or harassment played any role in his daughter’s suicide.

“She got into a relationship with someone that just was not a healthy relationship for her,” Hassan said. “That relationship came to an end and she was planning to move back home.”

Hassan said Aiyisha was accepted and loved by her family as a lesbian, and that she was raised in a welcoming household while growing up in Marin County, Calif.

“I can understand how people who don’t know Aiyisha and don’t know her family life could uncritically link her death to the tragic suicides that have been happening among gay and lesbian youth,” he said. “I can see how people could mistakenly make that link, but the death of every gay young person isn’t necessarily for the same reason. She was not under any heavy bullying or harassment that I knew of. She never spoke of it if she was.

“I think her death had more to do with some internal dynamics in the relationship that she was with and the fact that she was suffering and struggling from depression.”

Prior to speaking with Metro Weekly, Rev. Hassan posted a comment to the magazine’s Oct. 9 online story of his daughter’s death.

Students mourn Hassan’s death
Students mourn Hassan’s death
(Photo by Ryan C. Hamilton for The Hilltop)

“Aiyisha grew up in a household where we taught against homophobia and heterosexism,” he wrote, in part. “She was not the victim of any specific, targeted bullying that we knew of, and she did not seem to be overly driven by the opinions of others in the way she lived her life. But, like all parents, we did not know everything. 

“We believe that Aiyisha’s death was caused by a complex interaction of factors that had to do with her struggles with clinical depression and the ending of a really toxic relationship with her most recent partner….”

Rev. Hassan last spoke to Aiyisha Hassan on Saturday, Oct. 2, and says she gave no indication that she was suicidal.

“We didn’t know,” he says. “It just came as a total surprise.”

“She was the kindest, the most fearless, the most honest and brilliantly gifted person I ever met,” he adds. “Losing her is a great loss for all of us. We’re thankful for those at Howard who are remembering and honoring her.”

While Hassan’s death may not be obviously similar to the recent string of suicides among LGBT youth, Sterling Washington, co-founder and former president of CASCADE’s predecessor, BLAGOSAH (Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay Organization of Students at Howard), says there is a connection between a society’s treatment of a certain community and the way that treatment impacts young people in those communities.

“I absolutely think that [LGBT youth suicides are] connected, in a way, to the failure of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ to be repealed,” says Sterling, who graduated from Howard in 2004. “What happens in a large group trickles down to the junior members.” 

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