Another 11-Year-Old Commits Suicide: Anti-Gay Taunts Cited

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday April 21, 2009

The April 6 suicide of an 11 year old boy who suffered ant-gay taunts and bullying at school marked the fourth such incident this year in which a student killed himself after suffering harassment.

Now the number has grown to five with the hanging death of Jeheem Herrera, according to an April 21 article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Herrera,a fifth grader, reportedly endured harassment and bullying at school despite Georgia law meant to prohibit it.

Moreover, schools in DeKalb, where Herrera's family resides, specifically forbids bullying (including "cyber-bullying" via the Internet), with strict penalties in place for infractions.

But that wasn't enough to prevent Herrera's suffering and suicide, reported the article, which cited the boy's family as saying that Herrera had endured "relentless" bullying at Dunaire Elementary School.

A school spokesperson was quoted as saying that anti-bullying laws and policies did not constitute "a vaccine" against such harassment.

Jennifer Errion added that such laws exist in the context of "a society that is often misguided. We've created the idea that bullying is a rite of passage, and I don't think it is."

Herrera reportedly hung himself with a belt after returning home from school on April 16. His younger sister discovered the body, the article said.

According to Herrera's stepfather, kids at school "called him gay and a snitch. All the time they'd call him this."

Herrera's mother told the media that when she asked her son's friend about the bullying Herrera reportedly endured, "He said, 'Yes ma'am. 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 took place the day before this year's "Day of Silence," which, as reported at EDGE was, in some places, dedicated to the memory of another 11-year-old suicide victim.

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

"Some students are holding the day this year in memory of Carl Walker-Hoover, an 11-year-old from Springfield, Mass., who took his life April 6 after enduring constant bullying at school, including anti-LGBT attacks," a news release from the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN) read.

"Carl, who did not identify as gay, would have turned 12 on the Day of Silence," noted the release from GLSEN, which is a national advocate of safe schools and GLBT youth.

The April 17 edition of The New York Times took note of the rash of suicides among middle and elementary schoolers, in a column by Judith Warner titled, "Dude, You've Got Problems."

Wrote Warner, "Being called a 'fag,' you see, actually has almost nothing to do with being gay.

"Words like 'fag' and 'gay' are now among the most potent and feared weapons in the school bully's arsenal.

"It's really about showing any perceived weakness or femininity--by being emotional, seeming incompetent, caring too much about clothing, liking to dance or even having an interest in literature."

Moreover, noted the EDGE article, "[A]s study after study has shown, a good deal of gay bashing comes from personal gay panic," or a fear by the individual attacking those perceived to be gay that he might be gay himself.

The EDGE article also referenced a YouTube video in which a 12-year-old claims to be an "ex-gay," or a person who has experienced same-sex attraction but "overcome" such attraction and "converted" to heterosexuality.

That young boy, the story said, had himself been harassed, with tormentors inviting him to kill himself.

The article also noted that a normal part of human sexual development includes a period of same-sex attraction--even for those who grow up to find themselves included by natural inclination in the heterosexual majority.

Such "gay panic" makes it hard to put relevant legislation and school policies into place in a timely manner. Even with such laws and policies in place, the question of enforcement is never a certainty.

To add to the confusion, there are some religious and conservative groups that appear to implicitly condone, if not approve of, anti-gay bullying in schools. In some states where anti-bullying legislation has been deliberated, anti-gay groups have objected on the grounds that law against attacking GLBT students might "promote" a homosexual "lifestyle."

Even the Day of Silence, in which GLBT youth and their straight allies observe a day without speaking at school to symbolize the lack of voice of gay students, has come under attack recently from conservative and religious parents who threatened to keep their children home on April 17 rather than allowing them to attend school on a day when some of their classmates might stay quiet in protest of anti-gay bullying.

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.