Gay California 13-Year-Old Dies--Youth Hanged Himself After ’Years’ of Bullying

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 29, 2010

A 13-year-old boy who attempted suicide by hanging succumbed on Sept. 27 after nine days in intensive care. The boy, Seth Walsh, lived in Tehachapi, Calif., and had endured "years" of bullying by schoolmates, reported local news channel KGET the following day.

The article reported that Seth was harassed even on Sept. 19, the day he hanged himself in his back yard. Police said that after investigating the boy's suicide attempt, they determined that no criminal charges would be brought. "Several of the kids that we talked to broke down into tears," the town's police chief, Jeff Kermode, told the news channel. "They had never expected an outcome such as this." Seth attended Jacobsen Middle School. Tehachapi lies 35 miles east of Bakersfield, and has a population of about 10,000.

The article said that, according to his friends, Seth had been targeted for bullying and harassment because he was gay. They also told the news channel that the school's staff and administration had not intervened on behalf of the boy.

As Seth lay in the hospital, a relative created a YouTube video with messages of support. "Seth Walsh," text read, "the best person ever." Other messages read, "He's my bestest buddy," and "Stay positive and pray he will up and running around soon!"

"Don't ever bully again," text on the video implored viewers.

Following his death, Seth's grandmother told the media, "He passed away in a natural death. He is in the process of being an organ donor," reported Tehachapi on Sept. 28. "He was different. He knew he was different," Seth's grandmother added. "He was a very loving boy, very kind. He had a beautiful smile. He liked fashion, his friends, talking on the phone. He was artistic and very bright."

The article said that a memorial was planned for Oct. 1.

An earlier article, posted at the site on Sept. 24, said that Seth's family called for calm. "A negative action... by adults and children... will not solve or help anyone!" the family's statement read. "Violence is not the answer. Please everyone, be kind and love one another!"

The boy's death was one more in a grim succession of GLBT youths--and straight youths harassed for being gay even though they were not--ending their own lives rather than continuing to endure torment. Even as Seth lay in intensive care, a Texas boy named Asher Brown, also 13, shot and killed himself on Sept. 23, using his stepfather's gun.

Asher Brown was a straight-A student, but he came in for harassment at school because he was gay, because of his religion, and because he didn't dress the way some of his peers expected he should, reported the Houston Chronicle on Sept. 27. Asher's parents told the media that their son was "bullied to death" by schoolmates, and said that the harassment Asher endured even took the form of simulated sex acts forced on the boy in gym class. The bullies, the bereaved parents said, were "relentless" in their torments--even as Asher's parents attempted on numerous occasions over the last year and a half to get school administrators to intervene.

Nationally, children as young as 11 have committed suicide in recent years, after having endured relentless bullying at school. The bullying often takes the form of anti-gay taunts and harassment, even when the children being bullied are not gay. Groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) seek to provide educational materials in order to promote a safe learning environment in the schools, but some schools have policies in place that deny students classroom learning about human sexual diversity.

In two separate incidents in different parts of the country, two youths, both 15 years old, hanged themselves after enduring anti-gay bullying at school. A news anchor at a CBS affiliate WCCO in Anoka, Minnesota, reported on Sept. 13 on the hanging death of 15-year old Justin Aaberg, a student in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, who had come out as gay two years earlier and endured anti-gay harassment at school. The anchor said that there had been "a record number of suicides" in the school district, "mostly among gay students." The article cited a teacher--who commented anonymously for fear of reprisal--who said that he thought three of the students who had killed themselves were struggling with their sexuality.

Two Anoka-Hennepin School District teachers were accused last year of tag-teaming a student whom they harassed, insinuating that he was gay and embarrassing him in front of his classmates. The student, who was not gay, eventually transferred to another district and brought suit against Anoka-Hennepin. The district settled with him for $25,000. The teachers in the case were placed on leave, and remain on leave currently.

Anti-Gay Religious Groups Protest Safe Schools Efforts

As the rash of student suicides has continued, school districts around the country have taken steps to provide a safe learning environment for all pupils. But anti-gay groups have stepped up pressure on schools and lawmakers not to provide specific protections for LGBT youth, saying that such protections would "sideline" and "belittle" religious students and their parents.

Anti-gay group Focus on the Family told the Denver Post recently that as society in general--and public schools--begin to comprehend that gays and lesbians are a normal and natural part of human diversity, anti-gay religious views may be shunted aside and no loner hold sway in the classroom.

"We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled," the FOF's education expert, Candi Cushman, said.

Christian groups in recent years have targeted LGBT youth by pressuring schools not to allow the national "Day of Silence" to be observed. The Day of Silence is marked by students who refuse to speak while outside of class, in order to express a sense of powerlessness and lack of voice, or to show sympathy with gay youths who experience that sense of disenfranchisement.

Handbooks on countering the Day of Silence, distributed by anti-gay religious groups, recommend that parents pull their children from school rather than attend on a day when LGBT youth and their straight supporters make a conspicuous show of quietude. The handbooks also offer talking points for parents and students who wish to confront school administrators or Day of Silence participants, including claims that homosexuality is a "chosen" behavior and not an innate characteristic.

The head of GLSEN, Eliza Byard, told the Denver Post that Focus on the Family had it partially right. "Yes, we want LGBT students afforded full respect," Byard acknowledged, going on to say, "Bullying is a serious public health crisis in this country, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

GLSEN tracks anti-gay harassment and violence in public schools. A 2009 survey of more than 7,200 middle and high school students conducted by the group demonstrated that about 9 out of 10 GLBT students had been harassed at school, with about two-thirds reporting that they feared for their safety while at school. This led about a third of GLTB students to cut school at least once per month. Others dropped out of school altogether. Despite efforts at educational outreach and higher visibility of the problem of bullying in the public schools, physical attacks are as prevalent against LGBT youth as ten years ago--even as the use of homophobic slurs has decreased.

"In 1999, GLSEN began data collection on the school experiences of LGBT students in order to fill a critical void in our knowledge and understanding of the ways LGBT issues play out in schools," Byard said in a press release detailing the report's findings. "It could not be clearer that there is an urgent need for action to create safe and affirming schools for LGBT students." Added Byard, "As our nation seems to finally be taking bullying more seriously, it is crucial that LGBT students are no longer left out of efforts to address this public health crisis."

But the efforts of anti-gay groups to gut or obstruct safe schools initiatives continue to play out against a backdrop of violence and death. On Sept. 9--two months to the day after Tammy Aaberg found her son dead in his bedroom--another mother found her son had hung himself. In Greensburg, Indiana, 15-year-old Billy Lucas killed himself in his family's barn after suffering ongoing--and worsening--anti-gay harassment, even though he may not have been gay. He never said that he was, but other students assumed him to be gay, and taunted him for it, reported Fox news station WXIN in Indianapolis on Sept. 13.

"People would call him 'fag' and stuff like that, just make fun of him because he's different basically," said a fellow Greensburg High School student, Dillen Swango. "They said stuff like 'you're like a piece of crap' and 'you don't deserve to live.' Different things like that. Talked about how he was gay or whatever."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.