Adolescent suicide is not uncommon. Neither is suicide by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community. And after six gay teenagers committed suicide in one week, it’s time that changed.
We know their names and faces, how they took their lives, and what caused their deaths. All seven boys, whose ages ranged from 13 to 18, were bullied by their classmates. In some instances, we know exactly who to blame. The tormentors of Rutgers first-year Tyler Clementi have been arrested on charges of invasion of privacy, and both face up to five years behind bars.
Many people have reacted in anger and called for harsher sentencing. Dharun Ravi, who placed a webcam in his room to record Clementi’s date, as well as his friend Molly Wei, both 18, have been called murderers. And, on message boards and talk shows across the country, there have been calls for death sentences for the pair. Anger and grief are justified reactions, and no one can fault another for seeking justice, but no amount of revenge will bring back these victims of bullying. The energy, time and resources spent hating Ravi and Wei will, simply put, come to nothing.
And, as many have already discovered, we are in a position to channel our grief and anger into preventing the loss of any more lives.
Rather than vilifying the bullies, it is important to consider who created them.
Teasing starts young, and classmates like those of another victim, 13-year-old Asher Brown, who committed suicide after being bullied, learned their behavior somewhere.
It is important to consider the role adults play in shaping children’s views of others. We must consider the impact of the offhand joke made by a parent, the comment from a teacher that reinforces a stereotype or even the legalized discrimination against LGBTI people in the military.
These behaviors cannot be tolerated. If we don’t take casual homophobia seriously, people like Ravi and Wei won’t understand the severity of their actions. If Mom laughs when Dad calls his coworker a “fairy,” their child might not understand that that word, but when repeated on a playground or a Facebook page, it may drive a person to commit suicide. And it doesn’t necessarily matter if there is hatred behind these words.
Having gay friends and watching “Will & Grace” doesn’t mean you’re allowed to make homophobic jokes. Your behavior justifies the same in others.
Instead of focusing our energy on hating the bullies, we can look at what we can do in our own lives to stop creating them. And, while we’re at it, the time spent ranting about Ravi and Wei can be devoted to reforming federal anti-bullying programs to include sexual orientation and gender expression.
Or supporting organizations like the Trevor Project, which provides resources for suicidal teens or Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, which was created in late September and specifically targets LGBTI youth. Or any of the growing number of groups devoted to preventing suicide, homophobia and bullying of all kinds.
We’ll get further by treating the cause of bullying, not punishing children for displaying the symptoms.