LGBT Students Remain Suicide Risks Despite Changing Attitude & Laws
Teen suicide is a serious problem, but among LGBT youth, it has been catastrophic. Although reliable statistics that break out LGBT students are hard to come by, advocates point to anecdotal evidence, news reports and their own experience in the field to highlight the seriousness of the problem.
So, in a age when "That's so gay" is becoming not cool, and there is a growing acceptance of gay, lesbian and even transgendered students, is it getting better?
It is certainly true that, despite discrepancies across ethnic, geographic and economic strata, overall, today's high school experiences are radically different--and generally better than--they have ever been. Viewing only the presence of gay youth in media and Gay/Straight Student Alliances, one might easily come to the conclusion that growing up gay is much easier than it was.
The whole picture, however, presents more nuanced shadings than that. Those experiencing high school as well as researchers in the field of teen suicide see the picture as improving--but with some deep fissures remaining in place.
Dr. Caitlin Ryan heads San Francisco State University's Family Acceptance Project , a community research, intervention and education initiative that studies the impact of family acceptance and rejection on the health, mental health and well being of LGBT youth.
FAP's recent findings show LGBT "young adults whose families were highly rejective [sic] of their identity during adolescence were more than eight times as likely to have attempted suicide at least once, compared with those who received no or low levels of family rejection during adolescence."
The project, culled from research conducted over the past seven years, is the first of its kind to create prevention efforts based on hard states gleaned from family situations. The study looked at how gay teens fared in being accepted or rejected by their families. "Our findings related to suicide were shocking across ethnic groups," says Ryan.
Interviews with families (Chinese and Spanish, as well as English), showed parents who, when presented with the results, were "shocked to think what they were doing with their children would make them feel so bad about themselves that they would like to take their own life."
Lack of Studies = Lack of Funds
FAP stands out in contrast to existing studies and points to a crucial information gap. Youth Risk Behavior surveys conducted by several states and a biannual national survey by the Center for Disease Control don't query sexual orientation, or how bullying and harassment contributes to suicidal thoughts or attempts among LGBT teens.
This Achilles heel in the CDC's statistics is well known among researchers, who complain of the lack of a clear national picture of the problem. All that would be academic were it not that clear stats are needed before legislatures or governmental agencies will commit funding.
Ryan describes the CDC survey as "very political in terms of what questions are included." Adding questions about sexual orientation would be a positive step, but "what happens at the state and local level is not just a question of politics, it's also a question of space. When something is added to a survey, something is changed or taken away."
The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (in collaboration with the CDC) conducted its own Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Its 2005 results found that gay teens had suicide rates nearly double those of their peers. They hurt themselves on purpose at three times the rate of other teens. They were four times more likely to attempt suicide in the past year.
Although specific only to the situation in Massachusetts, the results are useful tools in the effort to lobby for and receive state and city level funding for preventative programs targeting LGBT teens.
Joe Kosciw, research director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network, says that states mirror the national gap in providing comprehensive LGBT suicide information. GLSN's own 2007 National School Climate Survey found only 11 states and the District of Columbia protecting students from bullying and harassment based on sexual orientation, and only seven states and DC protecting gay or trans students.
"Younger students are reporting more harassment," Kosciw says. "It's more common in middle school than the older grades. Even in the higher grades, most of our students, a high incident of harassment and assault."
What Can Be Done
GLSN uses the results of its survey to encourage schools to create "safe schools" and anti-bullying policies. "That demonstrates to the school community that this is an issue they need to take seriously," according to a GLSN statement. "You may or may not be able to change people's hearts and minds, but you can the behavior. Diversity initiatives and interventions allow for the under sting of and exposure to different people and cultures."
Linda Goldman, author of "Coming Out, Coming In: Nurturing the Well-Being and Inclusion of Gay Youth in Mainstream Society", advocates for educating children when they're very young, about five or six. It's then, she says, that "they are learning that everyone needs to be respected--not when kids are 12 or 13." Before adolescence is the time, she says, to target them with the message that "everyone is unique and different and no one rally fits perfectly to society's stereotyping of what boys and girls should say, do, or wear."
That effort would take a lot of hard work in any circumstances. That's why it's crucial for school administrators to understand that when kids are teased or feel different or are keeping a secret, they quit learning. Equally important is impressing on everyone "from the bus driver to the woman who works in the cafeterias," she adds, "to let them know what to do when they hear a kid being bullied and teased and to be sure there's an administration that will back them up with consequences. If kids don't know there will be consequences for harrassment, it will keep going on."
Nik Castillo self-identifies as trans. "I identify with both genders, but I feel more masculine," he says. The articulate San Bernadino, Calif., high school junior was forced to relocate from another city, Kernville, Calif., because of the daily incidents. They got so bad, he stopped attending school altogether.
"I couldn't go into the bathrooms or walk the hallways without having things thrown at me or people yelling at me." recalls Castillo. "I didn't know I had any rights or know that I could go to someone and talk about it."
When he did, his gender dilemmas were met with indifference. When he told his two phys ed teachers he couldn't change in the locker rooms, "They just told me to deal with it. I though that if I went to the administration, they'd tell me the same thing." These days, "I'm educated about policies in California. I know about the complaint procedure and who I can talk to if I'm having trouble in school. I know what I can do if nothing is being done--and that's helped me a lot."
Castillo says his new school is very supportive of LGBT students. He looks back upon his earliest experiences and wishes his teachers "would have been educated and informed themselves. It was obvious I was getting harassed; some teachers were even harassing me. Someone could have told me I had rights. That would have helped a lot.
Jenny Viets, 17, a senior at Walkersville (Md.) High School, identifies as lesbian. Viets, who came out to her father a week after her fourteenth birthday, came out to her classmates when she began her freshman year at a new school. "If I got close to friends and then came out to them, it might change things," she recalls.
Viets describes her overall high school experiences as positive. But she still hears occasional negative comments. "But most," she adds, "have been from people I don't know and never had a conversation with. It shows that as you get to know those who identify as LGBTQ, you come to see they're actually people."
Viets started her school's Gay/Straight Alliance with two friends during her freshman year. Although the group is small in numbers, their recent participation in GLSN's Ally Week saw 208 out of the school's 1,200 students sign a pledge to not participate in LGBT bullying. This week, they're sponsoring an optional after school assembly featuring guest speakers who identify as trans. Viets has invited GSAs across the county to attend.
"My admin is really supportive for my area," she says. "My principle listens to what I have to say and met with me personally, and I told him what my goals were. Because we have such a great opportunity, my administration backs me, I can try to start changes that could expand to other schools in the area."
How Laws Can Help
Important anti-bullying laws to explain to list reasons a person may be tarteted, including sexual or and gender identity. Maryland is one of a handful of states that includes sexual orientation and gender identity in its bullying laws, which happened only in May 2008--in the face of opposition that the law would elevate gay students.
"Just knowing I am protected and my voice would be heard if something were to happen makes me feel a lot safer at school," Viets says. "I told everyone before we had our law, I just assumed if I was the one being victimized, someone would stand up for me, which I now know is not the case. If I had known I wasn't [protected] at that point, I would have had second thoughts" about coming out.
"A lot of it is people not targeting someone, but not realizing their words can hurt," Viets observes. "If people perceive them being weird, they're automatically called gay or queer. If a boy expresses feelings or has emotions assoc with the feminine, students will make a joke about them being a girl."
Viets experience contrasts sharply with Costillo, who luckily survived his ordeal. Many don't. Today, in at least one city, there is a school--the Harvey Milk School, run by the New York City Board of Education--where LGBT students at risk can learn in a supportive environment.
When such a school was proposed last year in Chicago (by the superintendent since elevated to a federal position in the Obama Administration), people arguments that "segregating" LGBT students wouldn't help them. No one cited any statistics about these students dropping out, hurting themselves or even committing suicide. Because, until very recently, those statistics didn't even exist.