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Out Cry: Ending Violence Against LGBTQ Youth

Out Cry: Ending Violence Against LGBTQ Youth

After Spirit Day, the memoriam for LGBTQ suicides, the president and the executive vice president of the Ms. Foundation for Women call on us to fight the cultural messages that cause vulnerable teens to turn violence inward.

Another week, another name to add to the list of gay children dead by their own hands. The newest entry: a young woman by the name of Aiyisha Hassan.

Aiyisha was 19 years old. She was black, a former student at Howard University. Though media reports describe her as a lesbian, friends say she was struggling with her sexuality—struggling to come to terms with expressing a sexual identity that often leaves young people feeling ostracized. Acquaintances put her in touch with a group that might have helped her find a community of loving support, but for whatever reasons, Aiyisha Hassan still felt terribly alone. And last week, she became the latest headline in the rash of reports detailing the suicides of LGBTQ teens.

Aiyisha Hassan: Gay—and dead at 19.

Would that she were the only one. In the past five weeks, nine LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer) teens, including Aiyisha, have taken their lives out of what we can only imagine is the greatest desperation about what life as a gay individual might hold. In many cases, these were young boys who had been taunted mercilessly about their “effeminate” demeanor; they were children who had been bullied to the point of breakdown, and who—often despite the best efforts of their parents—were offered little protection by teachers and school administrators, who harbor their own beliefs about who and what is acceptable when it comes to sexuality and gender expression.

It may be true that, today, more Americans than ever have been exposed to the existence of LGBTQ individuals—on television, in their workplaces and in their families. But the growing ubiquity of gayness in the media and elsewhere has not yet erased our culture’s insistence on a set of strict, often crushing “rules” about what it means to be a “man” or a “woman.” Boys continue to be expected to behave one way; girls another. The penalty for violation of those rules is swift and often frighteningly violent. In a culture that continually mocks and diminishes the lives of those who live outside these restrictive norms, how can we honestly be shocked that so many LGBTQ youth have turned this violence inward, on themselves?

Every single day, and in myriad ways, gay teens are delivered devastating messages about their value to society. From the persistence of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell to the refusal of many states and the federal government to legalize gay marriage; from the torture of young gay men in the Bronx to the many, tiny cuts delivered by anti-gay rhetoric on television, in film and in print—LGBTQ tweens and teens learn early and forcefully that their lives are worth less than those of their heterosexual peers. As others have pointed out, there should be nothing surprising about the fact that when you deny a group of people their humanity, eventually, the most vulnerable among them come to devalue their own lives. This is almost certainly what happened to Aiyisha, and to Tyler ClementiAsher BrownRaymond ChaseJustin “Chloe” LaceySeth WalshBilly Lucas and the other gay youth who have ended their lives in recent weeks. For them, it must have seemed that there was no way out, so little to look forward to, and so much to fear.

Changing this reality for LGBTQ youth must be the business of all of us who consider ourselves citizens of the human race. At the Ms. Foundation for Women, we believe this starts with investing in young people as leaders and agents of change. Groups like Odyssey Youth Center in Spokane, WA, FIERCE in New York City and Beyondmedia Education in Chicago, IL, often led by youth themselves, organize in their communities to create safe spaces for gender non-conforming adolescents. They challenge policies and constructions of gender and sexuality that leave youth so dangerously at risk of experiencing—and perpetrating—acts of violence. Their goal is to transform our broader culture into one that is accepting of the full range of gender expression. Amidst the deep and continued suffering of so many in the LGBTQ community, these organizations insist on ensuring that gay youth can lead lives full of celebration, possibility and hope.

With National Coming Out Day just behind us and LGBTQ Youth Awareness Week on the horizon, now is as good a moment as any to make sure that you’re playing a positive role in improving the lives of LGBTQ youth. If you’re gay, maybe that means going back to your school and being a role model for those younger than you. If you’re straight, it may mean doing exactly the same thing, proving to young gay people that there will be straight people who love them no matter who they are. Or maybe it will mean supporting an organization that is working to build a culture where LGBTQ lives and experiences are considered as precious as those of their straight counterparts, and where gender-based stereotypes are finally a thing of the past.

It’s a dream Aiyisha, Tyler, Billy, Seth, Asher, Raymond, Justin—and many more— never lived to see made real. Together, we should be doing everything in our power to make sure they are the last of their kind to die so soon.

This post first appeared on the blog of The Women’s Media Center.  The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author alone and do not represent WMC. WMC is a 501(c)(3) organization and does not endorse candidates.

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by NatalieMay on Flickr/Creative Commons
By Sara K. Gould and Susan Wefald

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38 comments

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3:02PM PDT on Oct 28, 2010

The Q means queer or questioning. Sometimes two Qs are added. I am a woman who self identifies as queer but I wouldn't make anyone else use any term they do not like. Self identification is very personal.

I am so thankful that I grew up in a family that wasn't full of judgment even though much of my city was.

4:50AM PDT on Oct 28, 2010

I don't think the suicide rate is increasing, as one member suggests above, I think we are just hearing lots about it now, which is very important, so that those of us who thought it was ok to just sit back and not be negative realize that we need to be more than that...we need to be pro-active.

1:37AM PDT on Oct 28, 2010

Now those who call themselves religious are perpetuating the insult with something they're calling "A Day of Truth" or some such bullshit, where they actively shame and bully kids in the name of their god and tell them that they can "change" and not be gay. Another reason for them to hate themselves. So if you hear anything about this Day of Truth anywhere near you, don't let them bring that bullshit around you and your friends. More harm has been done to the LGBT world in the names of Jesus and Mohammed than for any other reason and it's time for it to end.

8:18AM PDT on Oct 27, 2010

The Q in LGBTQ stands for questioning not queer.

1:21AM PDT on Oct 27, 2010

Thanks

12:43AM PDT on Oct 27, 2010

I can appreciate the concerns of those who resent the use of the word 'queer' by our own people. But I think it went a long way towards taking the sting out of the term, as used by bigots. As for the bullying, it is apparent that much of the blame lies with the attitudes & acceptance by religious leaders, leaders in education, & parents with backward ideas. Laws must be implemented & enforced, protecting the LGBT segment of the population. In the past, the safety & tolerance of minorities has required laws 'crammed' down the throats of those opposed. The same holds true here.

11:49PM PDT on Oct 26, 2010

I resent the Q being added to the list. I am not QUEER, I am a lesbian. The definition of queer says it all (via Merriam Webster): a. worthless, counterfeit. b. questionable, suspicious, differing in some odd way from what is normal. Mildly insane.

6:20PM PDT on Oct 26, 2010

These suicides are a direct result of bullying and the bullying has been partly a result of homophobic language, lies and fear being spread by the abuse of scriptures in the name of religion, family and social conservative politics.

This past weekend, I wrote letters to key political and religious leaders urging them to speak out against homophobic language by others and to give messages of support to LGBT youth and those heterosexual youth who are also victims of homophobic bullying. I also wrote to one particular religious group that is very negative to LGBT people on their website, very political and yet still claims charitable tax status for political advocacy. I urge others to do likewise.

3:10PM PDT on Oct 26, 2010

I wish I had an answer to this ever increasing suicide rate. I can tell you one thing, this stupid recent phrase:"It gets better" is not those who are suffering NOW.

2:14PM PDT on Oct 26, 2010

More help for the brain-dead christians.

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