WHEN THE INVISIBLE BECOMES VISIBLE
Recently, gay youth suicide reached the media landscape in an unprecedented way. Initially one suicide made headlines as a result of bullying then another then another till five names were regularly repeated. Within several weeks it had been reported that Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself in his backyard. Asher Brown, 13, shot himself after coming out of the closet. Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself on the same day a group of students tormented him. Tyler Clementi, 18, jumped from a bridge because his roommate videotaped him in an intimate relationship and uploaded the images to the Internet. Raymond Chase, 19, hanged himself in his university dorm. The list goes on. Cody J. Barker 17 being the next. A tragedy to lose such young precious lives.
Of course for many of us in the LGBT community this comes as no surprise and something we have come to live with daily. Hence what had been relatively invisible to many suddenly became visible.
But this is not some new phenomena or epidemic; it’s been going on for decades. Whilst at Hunters Hill High School in the 60’s two of my fellow students took their lives. Harassment, name calling and bullying; contributing factors. When I was growing up, being a ‘homosexual’ meant you were imprisoned or treated with horrific practices to cure you such as aversion therapy or lobotomies; considered perverts. One would think that in this day of greater understanding and acceptance that these things would not be occurring.
Shamefully, awareness-raising has been previously resisted even amongst some suicide prevention organisations in Australia. Apparently the high rate of suicide amongst LGBT youth was not considered worthy of special attention or funding.
I remember when my autobiography was first released and I began doing media work, being told constantly by interviewers and producers that it was policy to not talk about the issue of suicide and that I shouldn’t mention it.
Front page stories and high levels of media attention moved many into action. Hundreds of faith leaders signed on to an anti-bullying statement and pledge to action leading up to Spirit Day in the US, which grew into a national day of remembrance for those who have lost their lives to the despair of bullying. Celebrities and TV shows such as the Today Show, The View, The Talk and Ellen DeGeneres were among those ‘Going Purple’ for Spirit Day. In Australia Wear it Purple Day was created.
A wonderful initiative was the It’s Gets Better video project where those that have moved through those harrowing teenage years encouraged young people to hold on, seek help, talk to others and shared how wonderful their lives and accepting their families had become. There's a gay cop and an ex-Mormon, a young Muslim from a conservative Pakistani home, gay parents showing off photos of their kids and an openly gay Baptist minister. This is one of my personal favourites. President Obama added his voice. From the comments of current and previous Prime Ministers about gay and lesbian people it’s difficult to imagine that happening here in Australia; even with recent reforms.
Another benefit has been that traditionally anti-gay groups such as Exodus have had another wakeup call about the damaging impact of their position. Exodus has withdrawn its support from the Day of Truth held on the same day as the Day of Silence. On the Day of Silence, students take a "a vow of silence to bring attention to anti-LGBT name-calling, bullying and harassment in their schools," according to a web site run by the event's sponsor, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). The Day of Truth “was established to counter the promotion of homosexual behaviour and to express an opposing viewpoint from a Christian perspective," according to a manual for this year's event published by Exodus International.
Alan Chambers, President of Exodus International, the group that sponsored the event this year has now said. "All the recent attention to bullying helped us realize that we need to equip kids to live out biblical tolerance and grace while treating their neighbours as they'd like to be treated, whether they agree with them or not." That’s better. I sent him an email saying thanks.
In typical insensitive and callous fashion, right wing Christian groups have called the media attention to the suicides ‘opportunistic manipulation to sway young people's views of homosexuality and pro-gay propaganda’. God forgive them for responding to such tragedies with the accusations of hidden agendas and conspiracy theories. In Australia a mildly well know Christian activist group (which shall remain nameless as I don’t think they deserve any promotion from me) responded to the Victorian governments announcement of a 'new initiative' (their quote marks) of a "Safe Schools Coalition" by saying ‘this move is all about promoting homosexuality and giving money for the establishment of 'gay-straight' alliances in schools and training teachers to combat 'homophobia'….and ‘we should be combating any form of bullying - not emphasising one particular aspect as this program does. Write a letter of opposition to The Age about this development- firstname.lastname@example.org ‘….they add.
WHAT ARE THE TRUE FIGURES?
The impact of sexual orientation and gender identity has been an area of research for some time. We hear a variety of figures of LGBT youth being twice as likely, four to six times more likely and up to 300% more likely to think about, attempt or actually suicide. Obviously the latter figure comes from people incorrectly handling data and being poor mathematicians.
What the research repeatedly shows is that this is a genuine area of need and concern. Considering that some factors which increase the potential of self harm for teens are victimisation, bullying, isolation, unsupportive family life and feeling like you don’t fit in it is pretty obvious to see what LGBT youth are at a much higher risk.
One study of male twins where one twin reported having had sexual relations with men and the other did not. Gay twins were two times more likely to report thoughts of death, more than four times as likely to report suicidal ideation, and more than six times as likely to report attempted suicide than their heterosexual twin brothers. The risk is very very real.
The suicides are tragic enough but this is only a part of the problem. Behind the bullying and discrimination lie lots of other negative outcomes such as depression, low self esteem and poor achievement in school and other areas of life. Behind every suicide there are 100’s more who experience suicide ideation and attempts.
I have been endeavouring to create awareness particularly within the LGBT community that LGBT people from faith backgrounds are one of the highest risk groups of many things including suicide.
The problem began to be very visible to me in the emails I began receiving when my autobiography A Life of Unlearning first edition was released in 2004.
Here is an extract from one of the early ones which arrived in my inbox in April 2005 from BF.
When I discovered I was gay I was horrified. My Catholic family always spoke of these people as abominations. As a teenager I converted from Catholicism and attended a charismatic church where I was informed demonic spirits caused homosexuality. I was commanded to undergo exorcisms. The first two didn’t work as apparently I had unconfessed sin in my life. I was assured the third worked. Sadly I soon realised nothing had changed. I hated myself for years and believed God hated me also. I pleaded with him constantly to heal me and make me straight. Eventually I was commanded to go to the Exodus endorsed program Living Waters. The program left me feeling suicidal and more unworthy than ever. After 3 suicide attempts I came to the conclusion I was an abhorrent and detestable human being unworthy of anyone’s love. Your book was like a ray of sunshine. The first time I read it was in a city bookstore and I was in tears and couldn’t put it down. The next day I went back and bought and have devoured it ever since. Thanks to God and people like yourself I have come to understand and accept who I am and that God does love me. …and that I am a gay man equal to every human being on the planet. Worthy of the same respect and love.
And another in June 2004 from David. Like you I travelled the religious pathway but became a Baptist minister and in 200 I made my exodus from marriage, the ministry and community upon the declaration of my being gay. At 43 years of age I attempted suicide only to be discovered in the Royal National Park by a ranger. I believed I was a worthless abomination to God.
I used to keep all these in a folder but eventually it became too hard to keep a track.
The Freedom 2 b[e] website and forum which now gets over 4000 visits a month has also made this visible. In the Telling Our Stories section you can read things like this. What was invisible has become visible.
16 year old Gettingthere said….. I too have battled suicide although I never attempted it. I struggled with constant suicidal thoughts from year 7 to year 11. Even though I had accepted myself as gay by year 9 and 10. I still wanted to kill myself in order to get other people to know how badly I was hurting.
Scott 18 said…… I began self harming, binge eat then stick my fingers down my throat only to bring it up again. As 2005 came to an end I was slipping further into a deep depression. I became suicidal and those thoughts ruled much of what I did.
Shan 19 said….. I was planning on killing myself for good last night. (this was his third attempt).
Trebor said….. My wife discovered I was not being completely honest with her. This was devastating for both of us and within a year our marriage was over. Our children were now teenagers, when they needed me most, I was not able to be there for them. My life was ruined and I had ruined their lives too. It wasn't worth going on - so one night I decided to end it......
Broken Dreams and God’s Love said. …….On Tuesday afternoon of July 2nd, 2002 I had decided I could not go on living like this and with the feelings I had for men. In one more desperate attempt I prayed one more time that God would work a miracle and intervene. I prayed harder then I had ever prayed before, screaming to the top of my lungs and bawling uncontrollably. I had the feeling in my heart that all the praying I had done was in vain and God had turned His back on me and wasn’t listening anymore. I pulled out a pistol I had in my desk and knew once and for all this was the only way out. I knew my parents would be devastated as well as some of my friends, and my congregation, but they would recover in weeks, months and years to come. Besides it was better I die this way than for them to know I was ever gay.
These are only a small portion of the stories.
Anthony Venn-Brown is the co-founder and former leader of Freedom 2 b[e], Australia’s largest
network of LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) people from Christian
backgrounds. He is also an educator
and consultant on LGBT/faith issues and leader in deconstructing
the ‘ex-gay’ myth. Anthony’s autobiography 'A
Life of Unlearning', details his journey from married, high profile
preacher in Australia’s mega-churches to living as an openly gay man. Anthony
has been twice voted ‘One of the 25 Most Influential Gay and Lesbian
Australians’ (2007 & 2009) and this year was one of four finalists for the
ACON Community Hero Award. He is also the founder and director of Ambassadors
& Bridge Builders International ( www.gayambassador.com ) .
In my next newsletter I will talk about The Invisible (Part Two) and the one after that The Hidden (Part Three).
Labels: a life of unlearning, ex-gay, freedom 2 b[e], gay pentecostal, married and gay