In a tragedy that occurs far too often, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old gay university student, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge in New Jersey on September 22. Clementi's roommate and another student had set up a web camera and live streamed him having sex with a man, outing him online.
In Clementi’s case, the two students that caused him to feel his only way to escape his situation was death have been charged with invasion of privacy, which holds a maximum jail term of five years. But this is unusual with queer suicides.
In the past month in the US, three other young gay men have killed themselves. Two were 13 years old — all suffered intense bullying at school. Despite telling school administration about the abuse they were enduring, nothing was done to stop their tormentors.
Counterpunch.org reported on October 1 that, in the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota alone, four queer youths had committed suicide in the past year due to homophobic bullying.
Sexual diversity is not taught in the district and the bullying goes without punishment.
When asked to explain why, district spokesperson Mary Olsen said that because opinions about sexuality are diverse in the district, it was too sensitive an issue for teachers to intervene — teachers were asked to remain neutral.
To avoid offending homophobes, the boys were abandoned to physical and psychological assault.
There is no neutral ground here. Renowned Brazilian educator Paulo Freire summed it up when he said: “Washing one's hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”
In the Minnesota cases, no charges are expected to be laid. In one of them, police said no crime had been committed.
These suicides are not an isolated event in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. A 1998 study published in Youth Studies Australia found about 30% of all queer youth attempt suicide. Figures like this are astounding, but they’re hardly surprising in a society that holds people’s sexuality up for scorn and ridicule.
In Australia, the same-sex marriage ban legally classes LGBTI relationships as different and lesser, and the mainstream media habitually mocks people’s sexuality. Phrases like “that’s so gay” are used to express dislike, disdain and derision.
This is culturally accepted by sections of our society. It legitimises and reinforces the harassment and violence that leads so many young LGBTI people to attempt suicide like Clementi.
Intense social pressure puts queer youth at higher risk of mental illness. They have higher rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and suicide. The discrimination queers face getting and keeping a job contributes to higher rates of homelessness.
Another reason the rate of homelessness is higher for LGBTI people, particularly young people, is because many young queers are kicked out of home after coming out.
School, supposedly a safe place for students, is the place queer youth are most likely to face abuse.
The 2005 Australian Writing Themselves In report found that 74% of the abuse LGBTI youth experience happens at school.
By instructing teachers to “be neutral”, the Anoka-Hennepin school district spokesperson was in effect condoning this status quo — the status quo that killed four students in one year alone. Apparently, in Anoka-Hennepin school district, four gay youths being driven to suicide is less abhorrent than offending some homophobic thugs.
But the status quo is being challenged. In Australia, the equal marriage rights campaign has brought LGBTI issues into the spotlight. Support for marriage equality has swelled from 38% in 2004, according to an SBS News poll, to 60% in May 2009, according to a Galaxy poll.
This is the strength of a vibrant, public queer rights movement.
Although we are yet to win marriage equality, the campaign has had many wins that have advanced queer rights in Australia. Most recently, these include the passing of reforms in NSW that now permit same-sex couples to adopt, and Tasmanian legislation giving legal recognition to same-sex marriages performed in other countries.
These wins strike a blow against homophobia. They undermine the cultural legitimacy it has enjoyed for so long, and take us one step closer to a future where LGBTI people are never in a position where they feel their only option is death.
By building an inclusive, democratic, vibrant movement, we can change the culture of homophobia that devalues LGBTI people. We are already changing it.
Resistance is fighting for a future where the torment that Clementi suffered does not happen and no LGBTI youth feel that suicide is the only way out. We fight for a future where sexuality and gender diversity are accepted.