Metro Weekly

Blowback on Bullying

Locals react and respond to suicides and LGBT bullying

Every 18 minutes, one person ”completes” suicide.

”We use the word ‘completed’ rather than ‘committed’ because committed makes it sound like a crime and that the person is a perpetrator, but they’re a victim,” says Charles Robbins.

Robbins is the executive director of The Trevor Project, a nonprofit organization that offers a 24-hour suicide prevention helpline for LGBT and questioning youth.

Seth Walsh
Seth Walsh

By the end of September, the stories of five young victims, who were gay or perceived to be, came to the nation’s attention. They were: Seth Walsh, 13, of Bakersfield, Calif., who hanged himself after being bullied; Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, who shot himself in the head after being bullied and accused of being gay; Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind., who hanged himself after being tormented for years, friends say; Tyler Clementi, 18, believed to have jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his Rutgers University roommate allegedly broadcast a sexual encounter between Clementi and another male on the Internet; and Raymond Chase, 19, a student at Johnson and Wales University, who hanged himself.

Yet Robbins says he wouldn’t call this rash of tragic suicides any new trend among LGBT youth, adding that 34,000 people complete suicide each year.

”It’s not indicative that this hasn’t happened throughout the year,” he says.

”There were certainly other LGBT completions during the summer and during the spring. It’s just that these seemed to have received national media attention.”

Renowned author Dan Savage reacted to the tragedies by launching ”It Gets Better,” a video project aiming to deliver a hopeful message to LGBT youth contemplating suicide, the third leading cause of death among youth.

Robbins says The Trevor Project is helping spread that message by offering a crisis line specifically for LGBT youth.

”Many of them feel that nobody will understand what they’re going through, like a regular crisis line, and that’s why we’re set up. We’re uniquely different in that regard.”

The Trevor Project is also involved with schools, promoting the lifeline as well as offering discussion around suicide prevention.

Taking a stand against bullying, lesbian California state Sen. Sheila James Kuehl attended a National Education Association (NEA) luncheon on Friday, Sept. 30, to present ”Safe at School: Addressing the School Environment and LGBT Safety through Police and Legislation.”

Kuehl co-authored the 49-page policy proposal over the course of a year with Stuart Biegel, a faculty member of the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies and the UCLA School of Law. Sharing that panel was Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and Ruben Murillo, president of the Clark County (Nev.) Education Association.

Biegel most recently released The Right to Be Out: Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity in America’s Public Schools.

Speaking to Metro Weekly, NEA Executive Director John Wilson said the event, in which Kuehl and Biegel presented their proposal and fielded questions, could not have been timelier.

”I think NEA has a long history of advocating for our students to be in a safe and nurturing environment,” Wilson said.

”There’s still a lot of bigotry outside of the institution that kids a lot of times bring to school because of adult influences and schools have to respond to that. Oftentimes, it’s a real tough path to navigate because of parents’ beliefs about things and imposing those on children. But [bullying] behaviors are unacceptable. Schools can control behaviors and what we’re saying is that behaviors that do undermine a safe environment are things that schools have to be responsible for on their watch.”

Speaking to Metro Weekly immediately after the event, Kuehl said she hopes to distribute the policy to state legislators and school districts around the country.

”I know there will be more suicides because it’s still very – very, very – tough times for LGBT youth,” she said.

”Especially in schools where they must go, and therefore they must go and be abused. I think that the hopeful part of it is that so many of us are trying to do the work to keep them safe. But it’s just like anything: If you’re the judge in a dependency court or whatever, you can’t save every single child from abusive parents or a gang, and what we have to do is just do our best to educate and put the laws in place.”

In D.C., the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League (SMYAL) offers support groups for youth and also works to ensure that D.C. Public Schools implement polices to protect LGBT students from harassment.

Attending the NEA event, Andrew Barnett, executive director of SMYAL, offered a positive note, advising that D.C.’s public school system already has ”robust policies in place protecting LGBT students and guaranteeing their equal treatment, protection from bullying and harassment.

”I think that SMYAL’s work is geared toward more the enforcement side in supporting students, because we know that although D.C. Public Schools has great policies on the books, all too often this bullying and harassment and discrimination and teasing are still happening to students in D.C. Public Schools. So our work is more about going out and educating groups of teachers and students that these laws exist, and how they can help ensure that they are enforced in their classrooms.”

Local lesbian activist Shannon Cuttle of the Safe Schools Action Network says the recent string of suicides did not surprise her.

”This is why I have been fighting for legislation and inclusivity in local school systems and colleges for a long time. It keeps cycling every year. And every year, unfortunately, safe schools [are] never a top issue for the community.”

Tuesday, Oct. 5, marked the National Safe Schools Day and the Safe Schools Action Network marked the day with a rally in D.C. at Franklin Square, followed by other events across the country.

”I think overall, the LGBT community, we need to come together more and rally for youth,” Cuttle says.

”It’s just as much a priority as ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,’ and just as much as the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. In order to have an inclusive safe school, we need the ENDA in order to keep teachers safe. … And then have safe-school legislation to keep the students safe.”

The Trevor Project’s toll-free 24-hour suicide prevention helpline for LGBT youth is 1-866-4-U-TREVOR (488-7386).