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 Clementi, Asher Brown, Raymond Chase, Justin “Chloe” Lacey, Seth Walsh, Billy 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.