We all know that suicide rates among gay teens are much higher than the rest of the population. Regrettably enough, it even makes a certain amount of tragic/perverse sense, particularly in cases where these kids have been bullied and ostracized, in some cases for years (as in most of their lives) before giving up. These are the kids who have been making the news lately, their deaths always heartbreaking, yet at the same time -- like so much of the news -- sensationalized and perhaps even mundane, like it doesn't really even shock us anymore to read about an 11-year-old kid in Kansas ending his life, simply because it's already been done so many times before. Or maybe we're just repulsed by the almost comical/disgusting hypocrisy of a not-out news celebrity covering the death of gay teen, taking a "hard look" at the circumstances that led this kid to end his or her life, as if we didn't all grow up in the modern era. [Note that for purposes of this post, "gay" is meant to include anyone who's LGBT/queer/non-heterosexual, etc.]
Of course, suicide is not limited to gay teens, but is a big problem (and obviously let's assume we don't want people to kill themselves, and DO want everyone to feel like they have something to offer society until death arrives in a more natural manner) among all age groups and social strata, ranging from the elderly and impoverished to internationally acclaimed artists who at least superficially seem to lack for nothing. And that's not even counting the many, many more who kill themselves without having ever come out -- and we can assume that this number dwarfs the number of "out" gay suicides, in the same way that the numbers of closeted people dwarf their counterparts -- meaning the people who take this must fundamental secret, this key to their existence (as sexuality always is), to their graves.
With the understanding that gay kids being bullied (or really any kid) is a serious issue that deserves every ounce of our collective attention and compassion and is something that NEEDS TO STOP, it's really these latter groups I want to discuss here, meaning those who were NOT necessarily bullied as teenagers but who were nevertheless instilled with what I would still describe as a "suicide impulse" that often leads to a kind of emotional exhaustion that makes the thought of going on with life unbearable; it's an impulse that can lie dormant for years, but once created may reappear at any moment to trump personal measures of success or even a broader, logical understanding that things really are "getting better," whether in terms of the comfort we feel in our own skins, the presence of friends/lovers, or even unprecedented gains in civil rights and in media, with more laws being passed to protect gays and to promote equality in traditional areas of discrimination (housing, employment, marriage, health care, and so on), and the increasing possibility to turn on the television/open a book and to actually see gay people (and not, umm, straight actors just pretending) interacting with or entertaining the world in ways that what we can probably agree are constructive or "healthy." Not to mention various outreach/support networks that (while financially strapped, in most cases, like every non-profit these days) would still have been pretty much unimaginable even twenty or thirty years ago. Which is not to say we're approaching an ideal state of affairs; there's obviously a very long road in front of us, but in many respects, things really do seem to be getting better, which is an argument that may or may not hold water for those who are suffering.
The problem -- and I believe it's one that afflicts EVERY gay person, whether we were bullied or not, unless you happen to be the rare soul who was able to come out at the age of six or seven and suffered no ill consequences from your friends and family (which if that's you, I want to hear about it: seriously) -- is that we are already on very intimate terms with death (or at least its conceptual appeal), just by virtue of having been denied as children/adolescents the same opportunity to express ourselves as our non-gay counterparts. What I'm saying here is that every gay kid (past, present, and for the foreseeable future), by growing up in our culture AS IT EXISTS NOW is instilled with a suicide impulse. We might imagine it as a kind of (symbolic) sickness, wound, monster, or perhaps ticking bomb, which in any case once present can never disappear -- the damage has been done -- and which eventually may make the act of killing oneself seem not only preferable to life, but also palatable. (And I'm not saying that being gay is the only way to get it, but if you're gay, you will have it.) Obviously, most gay people don't kill themselves, but the impulse is always there, and it's really a question of how we react to it as our lives evolve. For many, it will assume the role of a quiet, whispering presence or weight, reminding us that the unrelenting pain life seems to bring may not outweigh the rare moments of joy or love, and that there's a relatively easy way out: all we have to do is follow through on what feels almost as instinctive as the will to live, given that we have known it since almost the beginning of our conscious lives (arguably around 6-7 for most people, or what under the law is called the "age of reason"), meaning when we begin to have a sense of right and wrong, and understand that -- just by virtue of being attracted to a certain kind of person -- we are basically slated, no matter what else we do, always to be part of the wrong.
My own memories, which have been more or less confirmed by others, is that kids start to actively "date" around the ages of 8-10, or roughly speaking, fourth and fifth grades. I'm not saying they're getting "physical" in adult ways (although they might be, depending), but they are certainly by this point mimicking adult rituals of courtship and divorce in serious and dramatic ways, pairing off, "going out," "breaking up," and so forth. What's important to note from the perspective of a gay kid is that in 99.9 percent of cases, these rituals are heterosexual, and this sort of pairing off is considered "normal" and explicitly or tacitly encouraged/rewarded in a million different ways, from the ads we see on television to our biological parents to the fact that most teachers are also heterosexual, just as a matter of numbers, to the constant barrage of questions kids inevitably field from possibly well-intentioned but often misguided relatives, acquaintances, and strangers about the state of their romantic interests. How many times did I hear, "Oh, just wait until you're [insert age] -- the girls are going to love you!" Or field winking questions about whether I "had a girlfriend." And so on and so forth ad nauseum. Which if you are a person who makes presumptuous comments like this to kids, let me be the first to say, CUT IT OUT. You're not helping anyone, you're really not, and if you continue, rest assured that when you hear about this kid/adult you once knew and maybe even loved throwing in the towel of life, some of the blood will be on your hands. (Sorry if I'm mixing metaphors, but you know what I'm saying.) Of course there are growing numbers of exceptions to what I'm describing (the same-gender parents, the gay elementary school teacher, gay relatives who know better than to assume, the straight parents who also don't assume, etc.), but these examples are still rare enough to be statistical anomalies, though if someone has more than anecdotal evidence to the contrary, I'd love to hear about it.
Let's return to our hypothetical eight-ten year old kids, all on the cusp of adolescence, basically brimming with energy and creativity and longings --and okay, angst and worry and insecurity -- they are just starting to decipher. It's a given that some are/will be gay. Those who are NOT gay will have established channels through which to channel their energies, meaning (in the case of boy) he will actually be able to say that he "likes" a girl and to actually mean it, or to be told (again, if you're a boy) that a girl likes you and to feel flattered as opposed to utterly terrified or revolted by the prospect, as if she's somehow betraying you by singling you out for attention or that you're somehow damaged because you know you can't possibly like her back. And let's not pretend that gay kids feel anything but terrified by the prospect of what's unfolding in their bodies and psyches at this age; just as they are keenly aware of which products and toys and clothes are "cool," they are hyper-aware of what kind of sexuality is considered "normal" and what kind is reviled; moreover, they generally do not have the strength of character at this stage to say, "fuck the lamestream, I'm going to follow my own path." The stakes are obviously enormous.
Put yourself in the shoes of that eight-year old gay kid: are you going to explore your feelings, are you going to enter the gossip mill that is every elementary school by saying that you "like" someone, or are you going to pretend these feelings don't exist, or hope that they go away? And again, I should emphasize that this process may not happen in terms that are crystal clear: it's not as if a nine-year old boy is necessarily going to say to himself "oh wow, I really like boys but given the hatred I detect raining down upon me I'm going to pretend to like girls," but the result is the same, meaning that the kid is going to feel at least vaguely dishonest when he claims to "like" a girl and certainly will want to turn off or shut down that part of himself that feels otherwise.
Which is basically how and when the suicide impulse gets implanted.
Again, it's important to remember that this process begins to unfold at the age of eight or so, which means that even if kids are coming out at 12 (never mind 16 or 20 or 30 or later, and despite the certainty that it's better late than never) it's basically too late; just for having been denied during this critical two-three year period the opportunity to explore and express their inner lives, they will be on intimate terms with self-mutilation, self-degradation, and self-destruction, all of which are implicit in the suicide impulse. The seed of destruction has been planted, to again put it somewhat melodramatically.
Gay kids react to this soul-shattering reality in different ways. Recently I was having dinner with a friend, someone who was remarkably open about coming out in the 1970s, and did so around the age of 12. In some ways, her situation was ideal; she had liberal, educated parents and she lived in the West Village, where older gays had a strong but informal system of mentoring kids coming out. Yet despite these advantages, she described what she called a three-four year period during which she basically just "shut down" emotionally and became very depressed/incapacitated, and often felt as if she were removed from her body, looking at it from afar, not really understanding why it wanted to do the things it wanted to do. What she experienced went far beyond the expected turbulence of adolescence and into a kind of extreme self-abnegation that leads you to question the value of your life and decide that well, actually, it really isn't worth very much, if anything at all. I have another close friend who in one breath voiced his opinion that my theory was extreme, but in the next described a period in his life when his self-esteem was so destroyed that he could not even bring himself to walk on the sidewalk, thinking he didn't deserve the same treatment as the rest of us who walk on sidewalks, but rather felt compelled to walk in the gutter.
I don't think either of these stories are unusual. Basically, there are two types of gay kids in our country: those who display stereotypically effeminate traits (if they're boys) and vice versa (for girls) and who (with some heroic exceptions) are belittled, bullied, tormented, ostracized, and beaten (sometimes to death); and those who are able to hide their nascent desires, and in 999,999 out of 1,000,000 cases do so for obvious reasons. Both types of kids are equally destroyed, however, from the perspective of not being able to explore the same feelings and actions as their non-gay counterparts, and as a result, often end up in a position when they basically want to kill themselves.
In my case, I grew up in the 1970s suburbs (of Pittsburgh), which like every other part of the world was not exactly a mecca of openly gay life (at least as far as kids were concerned). I was the youngest of five children in a large, extroverted family; my father's business was thriving, I lacked for nothing in the material sense or even what you might expect to be delivered emotionally from parents at the time. (Meaning in no way do I wish to implicate my parents in anything related to this piece; they were as sensitive and responsible as I think was possible under the circumstances, which just goes to show how big and menacing the opposing forces were, and, arguably, still are.) Throughout elementary school, I was a good student. I never got in trouble with teachers and was generally popular and well-liked. I had plenty of close friends with whom I regularly did stuff like playing with Hot Wheels, Lego's, video games, Ping-Pong, board games, or just horsing around outside, playing trap or wiffleball or street hockey. I was a serious ice hockey player -- I was on one of Pittsburgh's best "travel teams" -- and during this phase (meaning when I was ten) was one of the better players around (not bragging just saying). I was one of the fastest runners in my grade, which held a lot of cachet in fifth grade because we would regularly have races during gym or at lunch, and there's no arguing with speed. I could kick the shit out of a kickball and was generally one of the first kids picked in any sport.
In short, I wasn't a "girly" boy and nobody ever called me a "sissy" (the word was not part of our lexicon, unlike the older generation, I think, in which it was pervasive) or a "fag" (except in the general sense that we all called each other fags, in the manner of "don't be an idiot.") I was never bullied or singled out for abuse; there were a few times in seventh grade when the eighth graders at my school rounded us up in groups and made us run laps around the basketball court, cut us with plastic knives, stole our lunch money, and generally terrified us with threats (and in some cases, acts) of actual violence, for example if you made the mistake of wearing white on "8-A" day, you could expect to have your face punched in or suffer some similarly alarming fate. (I didn't wear white that day, not even my underwear, which probably meant going without.) Like I said, though, I was never singled out; my terror was part of a collective.
What really terrified me, however, was the certainty that I was different, and not in a good way. Some of the girls could be counted on to "like" me and I -- terrified by the prospect, but not quite willing to admit why -- would generally react to them with aloof coldness until they lost interest. Moreover, because I tended to gravitate toward more traditionally boyish activities, it was assumed I would be traditional in the most traditional of ways, and so I felt a fair amount of pressure to join the game (but never felt anything but dishonest or at least perplexed as I did so.) My point is that despite possessing pretty much every advantage imaginable, I STILL wanted to kill myself, beginning in fifth grade. And I don't mean like "OMG I want to kill myself because this television show is soooo boring," I mean that I actually wanted to end my life.
Fifth grade was a tough year for me, not only because of the kind of looming despair I felt watching my classmates start to pair off (not that I made the explicit connection, it was more of a severe discomfort and unstated reluctance to engage in the unfolding rituals), but also because I happened to have a very macho teacher, a physically intimidating and heavily cologned man who liked to regale us with stories about his hot dates with ladies and who (when he wasn't screaming at us about under-perfoming on a test) would often reference the gossip making the rounds about which boy was dating which girl and so on and so forth. I really hated him for reasons I wasn't able to elucidate at the time, but which from my current perspective seem quite obvious, namely, I was a fairly sensitive kid who liked to toe the lines of authority, which triggered a kind of unprecedented dissonance: namely, why would I want to please this guy, and what was wrong with me that I found him so offensive? On some level I can still barely acknowledge, I was probably attracted to him (I mean, physically), which at the time made him seem all the more repugnant. As I think about him now, I wonder if he was a closet-case himself, which of course is not unusual in men who like to brag about their exploits with the ladies.
My burgeoning existential despair reached a low in January of fifth grade, not long after Christmas vacation, which was the time of year I loved best because my older siblings (much older, and all in college or beyond by that point) had all come home. As I did every year, I felt awash in their exciting lives and happiness; they were gods who for a week or so would grace me with their presence. They all had serious heterosexual relationships, which gave me hope for myself. Naturally there was an emotional hangover after they left, and the thought of returning to fifth grade and everything that represented (not that I could think of it in any kind of terms approaching what I'm offering now) was seriously depressing, to the point that I began to have difficulty getting out of bed. I also began investigating ways to actually kill myself, really in the most ridiculous ways imaginable, such as combing through the cleaning supplies for poison (e.g., I may have sipped some Windex or whatever else had the poison symbol) or longingly caressing the kitchen knives and cutting my arms and hands (but only on the top, since I lacked the courage to really slit my wrists). I wrote long suicide notes in red pencil (to symbolize blood), leaving specific wishes to my siblings (I remember encouraging one bother that he should follow his dreams and "play Division One" college hockey, for example/LOL, so I guess he wasn't quite yet in college, but at a boarding school playing hockey, as I would do a few years later.) I don't want to seem flip or make light of the situation, because at the time I was legitimately depressed, if depressed means feeling like you had a hole blown through your chest that nobody else could see, and the contours of which even you couldn't quite imagine. Remember, I was ten.
Or well, my mother could at least detect it, because she and my father arranged meetings at the school with the macho teacher, the principal, and the school psychologist, all of whom were equally nonplussed as to the reasons for my condition, given my outward measures of success. Which only made me more depressed, because I knew on some level that they were right. (Except of course they weren't right at all, which is not to say they had any kind of bad intent, and again, in no way do I wish to hold my parents accountable for circumstances that were COMPLETELY beyond their control. Seriously, they can only be commended for what they tried to do, which was to help me in the most sensitive manner they could imagine.) What's clear to me now is that the reason I was suffering -- beyond perhaps an Irish-derived inclination for the melancholic side of life (with apologies to anyone who's genuinely Irish and thinks that the melancholy thing is basically a horseshit stereotype) -- is that I was gay, and understood, albeit on a very unconscious level, that I was about to enter a new phase of life in which I would be more than different, I would (assuming I ever admitted it, which wasn't even in the orbit of possibility) be reviled and loathed and unnatural and not even worthy of appearing on the shittiest low-budget ad for anything, never mind a serious television show or movie or book (I loved to read). As my friends and peers began to explore their own sexual longings and urges, I -- and in this respect, I believe that I'm still like 99 percent of gay kids at the age of 10 -- felt like I had to basically turn that side of myself off, or to put it in gardening terms, cut off the bud from the stem of my life. Which if you think about it is really just another kind of suicide, or maybe a partial suicide, or at the very least a horrible form of self-mutilation, and arguably one from which you can never fully recover.
Eventually my father had a "man-to-man" talk with me when he basically told me that life was hard and that it was a matter of finding the strength to simply plow through the bad times in anticipation of the good. (Which is actually pretty good advice.) He came and sat on the edge of my bed, the same bed where I had spent several days immobilized and under the covers of which I had hidden several knives, with the hope that perhaps I would roll over onto one of them and end my inexplicable misery. I'm not saying anything I did at the age of ten was logical or well-planned, I just want to convey the certainty that life had ALREADY lost its magic enough for me that I was at least fantasizing with some regularity/seriousness about ending it, and even taking steps to do so, however half-hearted they may seem from a more adult perspective. Nor do I think that my situation was unusual; I think it was (and still is) more the rule than the exception. I obviously survived fifth grade, and -- following my father's advice -- found the will to at least get by, which is not to say that I didn't continue to feel dishonest and vaguely terrified/ashamed by the direction my life was headed, but like many kids, I learned to compartmentalize these feelings, to put them in a box with a thought to deal with them later or ideally -- as I hoped at the time -- never.
I'm not saying that life can't have its happy moments or that gay kids can't go on to achieve great success as adults in whatever field you want to mention -- from the financial to the emotional/familial -- but the wound remains; the suicide impulse is there. It's like at the age of ten you insert a knife into your side and spend the rest of your life walking around with it; some have an ability to ignore this pain, some are even able to derive a certain strength or beauty from it, whereas for others, the temptation to slide it in a bit deeper is too much to resist, especially when half the work has already been done. Or even if you don't end up actually killing yourself at the age of ten or twelve, there's often a great temptation to do it more passively, through time-honored methods involving drugs, alcohol or similarly self-destructive behaviors. Another common scenario: you come out at 16 or 18 or 20, after which you spend the next twenty years being social and extroverted, only to realize at the age of 40 (when there's a natural tendency to turn inward) that this life was also a lie for not reflecting how damaged you felt as a kid, and you are left with nothing but the same bleeding impulse to kill yourself that you first developed thirty years earlier, but which you no longer have the strength or energy or desire to ignore.
I still think about suicide quite a bit now; I mean, doesn't everyone? (Half-kidding.) Many days it feels nothing but reasonable (and I don't mean to sound blasé or flippant, I'm just trying to be honest here). More seriously, in my case, and as much as I understand the temptation, I'm lucky enough to have a partner and family and friends (and cats!) who I love deeply, and who I'm sure would be devastated by my actions, in the same way I would be devastated to lose any of them. I also have a natural curiosity about the world and my place in it: I want to figure some things out during the time that remains to me. (Which was not something I would have been able to express until recently.) Like many out gays, I've also come to terms with my condition in a way that I'm sure will resonate with anyone viewed by mainstream society as crippled/abnormal/deviant/etc. but who has carved out a life of meaning, which is to say I value my difference, I'm proud of it, I wouldn't give it back even if I could, etc. etc. But that's another issue, which though not completely unrelated to the topic at hand is only worth mentioning in passing as we return to the question of suicide.
Almost as important (and perhaps more important in terms of the general message I want to convey), I'm philosophically opposed to suicide; borrowing from Arthur Schopenhauer, the great German Romantic pessimist, I think that to be born entails an obligation to endure the pain life has to offer, because it's really through this pain that we learn and grow and love and create, which together are really the best things life has to offer, even if these sorts of blessings come in very fleeting doses. You'll note that this philosophy is divorced from any expectation that things will "get better," because all too often (and as much as I appreciate the sentiment and can only hope that it prevents people -- and especially kids -- from killing themselves) things don't actually get better. If anything, as life passes, it can be counted on to become more difficult and more complicated in ways that make suicide seem all the more enticing. For those who haven't digested Schopenhauer, however, it can be a lot to expect of someone to reconcile the idea of "it gets better" with the emotional wreckage and disarray that we can almost assume is a given for any gay person growing up in our culture, just by virtue of what happened to us as kids. Many of us, in other words, lack the intellectual and emotional frameworks (and both are important) with which to resist the impulse to give up. I mean, once the impulse is there -- and let's assume that it is -- you really have to figure out a way to live with it, value it, or counteract it, etc., which no matter how you slice it will involve a lot of heavy lifting, whether it's emotional, spiritual, or intellectual (or some combination).
What's perhaps most maddening about gay suicide (in its many forms) is that it really does affect everyone, or at least everyone with children (or anyone who knows/loves children enough not to want to see a certain percentage of them rounded up and led to the abattoir). Actually, no, what's really most maddening are those who act as if they're immune to the problem, or that they just KNOW that their children aren't gay. Because news flash: I'm sorry, parents (and other concerned adults), but we don't know. You may think you do, but unless you can read minds -- or really, souls -- you don't. And if you're an adult who thinks you DO know if a kid is gay or not-gay, I'd really like to hear exactly why you're so much better informed than the millions of other adults who thought they knew and didn't, because these are the kinds of conversations we need to be having RIGHT NOW. And for the record, I'm not only talking about the Mitt Romneys of the world: I read essays ALL THE TIME by politically liberal writers who talk about how their eight-year old son is (for example) going to one day get married to a woman (and vice versa), and so on. Ditto with countless people I've met over the years, to whom I inevitably want to say (but never do, because I'm not looking for a fight), "How do you really know your kid is straight?" because the truth is, they don't, and the harsher truth is that their kid might already be caressing the knives, which is harrowing to consider but something we should start acknowledging as a real possibility for every single one of them.
It's that simple, and it's that complicated, meaning we all need to STOP ASSUMING and start recognizing the certainty that most gay kids are STILL PRETENDING and by doing so are destroying/mutilating a critical part of their lives. Until gay kids are given the same respect and encouragement to develop their emotional lives as their straight peers -- and this is a process that has to begin before they are even cognizant of any such desire (if such an age even exists) -- we will continue to inflict our children with the suicide impulse, which some tragic percentage of them, sooner or later, will be unable to resist. Finally, here's a picture of me at nine or ten -- the year is 1978 or 1979 -- when (trust me) nobody knew.