Rash of Youth Suicides Spurs Outrage, Response

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Thursday September 30, 2010

Asher Brown, aged 13. Seth Walsh, also 13. Billy Lucas and Justin Aaberg, both 15. And now 18-year-old college student Tyler Clementi, who attended Rutgers University, in Central New Jersey until his Sept. 22 jump from the the George Washington Bridge, which connects Northern New Jersey with New York City. All five killed themselves after suffering anti-gay harassment. Aaberg, Brown, Lucas, and Walsh had endured bullying at school for years; Clementi's roommate secretly recorded him having a sexual encounter with another man, and then posted the images online.

GLBT equality groups responded with outrage, citing not only Clementi's suicide, but also those of the others. "Today, as we heard news of the fourth apparent teenage suicide in recent weeks, following antigay bullying and harassment, we felt overwhelming grief and anger," a statement from Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg read. The statement was emailed to recipients on Sept. 29.

"Losing one young person because of bigotry and hate is too much," Gorenberg's statement continued, "but two, three, four? Each person and story is unique and tragic, but taken together, they deliver a powerful and painful message: We must act urgently and do everything in our power to end the prejudice and protect our youth.

"Our hearts and sympathies are with the families and loved ones of the four young people who took their lives," added Gorenberg. "Seth Walsh, 13 years old, of Tehachapi CA, who hanged himself; Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Indiana, who also hanged himself; Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, who shot himself in the head; and Tyler Clementi, a college freshman in New Jersey who apparently jumped off the George Washington Bridge after classmates allegedly violated his privacy and web cast live images of him in a sexual encounter.

"But sympathy is not enough--we all have a responsibility to take action, and to keep working until all young people are safe and respected, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity," Gorenberg added. "We must push for laws on the federal level and in every state that prohibit bullying and discrimination. We must hold people accountable, and use the courts when necessary. And most importantly, we must love and teach all our children to be their best selves and to respect and support others to do the same."

Garden State Equality chair Steve Goldstein called Clementi's suicide "one of the most unconscionable, hate-related deaths of a student in the history of the State of New Jersey." Goldstein went on to state, "There are no words sufficient to express our range of feelings today. We are outraged at the perpetrators. We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind. And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others' lives as a sport."

"Roommate asked for the room till midnight," a Sept. 19 tweet from Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, read. "I went into molly's [sic] room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

The images captured by Ravi's web cam were sent out for all to see. Ravi later attempted to spy on Clementi once again, according to a Sept. 29 New York Times article. A Sept. 21 message from Ravi invited readers to tune in once more: "I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12," Ravi sent out. "Yes, it's happening again."

Whether Ravi intended the violation of Clementi's privacy as an act of anti-gay harassment or simply as a prank is beside the point to those who see the situation as evidence that GLBT youth continue to face demeaning treatment at the hands of their peers. ""Had he been in bed with a woman, this would not have happened," Lauren Felton, a fellow student at Rutgers, told the media in a Sept. 30 Associated Press article. "He wouldn't have been outed via an online broadcast and his privacy would have been respected and he might still have his life."

"The notion that video of Tyler doing what he was doing can be considered a spectacle is just heinous," student Jordan Gochman said. "It's intolerant, it's upsetting, it makes it seem that being gay is something that is wrong and can be considered laughable."

Davi and another student, Molly Wei, both face charges related to invading Clementi's privacy. Moreover, "Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years," the AP article noted.

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.

"I actually thought he had the perfect life," said Aaberg's mother, Tammy Aaberg, who discovered her son's dead body on July 9. "I thought out of anybody I knew that he had the perfect life. But I guess he didn't think so." The article said that Tammy Aaberg had become an advocate of changing the school system's policy on sex ed, which states that, "Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations."

Rash of Gay Youth Suicides Continues

On Sept. 9--two months to the day after Tammy Aaberg found her son dead in his bedroom--a mother in Indiana found her 15-year-old son, Billy Lucas, dead in the family's barn, where he had hanged himself. Billy had suffered ongoing--and worsening--anti-gay harassment, even though he never said he was gay. But other students assumed that he was, 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 Dillen Swingo, a fellow student at Greensburg High School. "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."

Some students reportedly told the Billy to kill himself on the day he hung himself, the report said. Moreover, whereas the school's administration claimed ignorance about the harassment Billy faced, the students all seemed to know about it. "We were not aware of that situation," Principal Phil Chappel told the news station.

But anti-gay harassment and violence are nothing new at Greensburg High School. The news report quoted one alumnus--who asked to remain unnamed--as saying, "I was bullied several times because I was gay. I was called fag, queer. I was thrown up against lockers. I would tell the school officials about it and they would dismiss it." Added the former student, ""I can't help but take it personally because when all of this was happening to me I was the same age he was. I also attempted to commit suicide."

In Texas, Asher Brown, 13, was bullied at two different schools before he shot himself with his stepfather's gun on Sept. 23. His parents said that despite their efforts to get school administrators to intervene, their son suffered "relentless" bullying because he dressed differently. Asher's parents said that he came out to them as gay shortly before he killed himself.

California youth Seth Walsh, 13, hanged himself from a tree in his family's back yard on Sept. 19. He was taken to the hospital where he spent over a week in intensive care before dying on Sept. 27. According to his friends, Seth had been targeted for bullying and harassment because he was gay. The boy's friends also told the news channel that the school's staff and administration had not intervened on behalf of the boy.

A spate of suicides claimed victims as young as eleven last year. Georgia fifth-grader Jeheem Herrera hanged himself in April of 2009 after enduring anti-gay abuse at school. Herrera's mother told the media that when she asked a friend of her son's about the suicide, the friend said to her, "He told me that he's tired of everybody always messing with him in school." The friend added, "He is tired of telling the teachers and the staff, and they never do anything about the problems. So, the only way out is by killing himself."

Herrera's death followed the April 6, 2009, hanging death of 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover in Massachusetts. Walker-Hoover suffered anti-gay taunts at school despite his mother's reported "weekly" attempts to get the school's administration to intervene.

The rate of suicides among teenagers is higher for GLBT youths, according to a U. S. Department of Health and Human Services website. Recent efforts to counter the higher rate of LGBT youth suicide include "It Gets Better," a project launched by gay writer Dan Savage that collects videos of gay adults addressing teens with a message of hope: no matter how miserable high school may be, it's worth surviving into adulthood, when gay youths can claim their full potential and thrive in happy relationships.

GLSEN and GLBT-supportive national organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have recently launched a new initiative, the Claim Your Rights campaign, described at GLSEN's website as "a historic effort to empower students and their allies to report incidences of bullying, harassment, or discrimination to the Office for Civil Rights at the U.S. Education Department."

"The campaign launch coincides with the release of GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey, which found that nearly 9 out of 10 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) students report being harassed in school in the past year due to their sexual orientation or how masculine or feminine they are in appearance or behavior," text at the GLSEN site said.

"With fewer than 1 in 5 LGBT students saying their school specifically protects students from anti-LGBT bullying and harassment, it comes as no surprise that nearly two-thirds of LGBT students who experience harassment do not report the incident to school staff," Eliza Byard, the head of GLSEN, said. "The Claim Your Rights campaign provides students a safe way to report bullying and harassment."

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.