Four LGBT teens commit suicide in three weeks
Wake up call.
I keep getting these stories in my newsfeed. All these suicides, all these bullied queer kids. They are happening one after the other. I've had people try and tell me "it's not so bad for kids these days...times have changed." How many more kids need to die before this sick culture wakes up?
That comment came from a (straight) reader of an early draft of my novel. He didn't buy that in Iowa, in the early 21st century, that a teenager would struggle this much with her sexuality. Okay, what about in California? Or Texas? Or New Jersey? Or Indiana?
But you know what? This post isn't about my novel. All this "news" shakes me to the core; it isn't about my novel, and it's about the deepest source from which my novel springs.
This fear. This fear of being known, being seen as different, being shunned for it.
And what response can I have? Keep writing? Keep hoping that one day this novel will be a light and a solace for young adults? (At least that's what I pray it can be.)
I am too restless for that. I know that I have to sit alone in a room for 10,000 hours to master my craft, and I can be patient.
Luckily, my day job is working with youth. Community college students. There is a big age range, but the median is 18-21. It's the age I love to teach the most--right when the Big Questions about life, society, identity come CRASHING into their brains, and I am happy to be the shepherd of these texts--Marx, bell hooks, Paulo Freire. I am unbelievably lucky to do this work.
And Kushner. I used to teach Kushner (Lambda folks, I'll spare you my aside, but I think you know what I'm thinking). It was so important, and I got a few really heartfelt thank yous. But I also experienced a lot of personal discomfort from several students' obvious homophobia. I taught an article on gay marriage and had to endure hateful conversations--Student A (argument flailing, speaking to the class at large): "You know in your heart it's wrong!" Student B: "I don't know that, I don't know that in my heart!" Again, I try to have patience. Patience is important. And the homophobes seem to be outnumbered.
But I told myself--okay, for my own sake, I need to scale back on the gay talks. Because it would wreck me when I would hear the hate. It would awaken the trembling youth in me, hiding inside her baggy t-shirts, flannel shirts and Birkenstocks, dorky French Horn knocking against her knobby knees, eagerly exchanging notes with those BFFs. Ahh, the repressed love for the Oklahoma high school BFFs. By some shot any of you are reading--don't worry, I'm over it. ;)
But today, after the fourth suicide in three weeks (and the thing that isn't being said is that of course, this is just reportage--this is a consistent, ongoing tragedy for LGBT youth) I am DONE being a "polite queer"--even, and perhaps especially, in the classroom.
I started wearing a rainbow button to work on my bag (well it says "GEEK" in rainbow letters--double outing) but I could do more to be more visible.
I need to scale UP. I need to keep doing this work--the work that engages these central questions of identity. Yes, it's tough and dicey to talk about gender and sexuality. So I step up my game. It's worth it. It doesn't mean I ignore the other topics, but this is urgent. This is close to my heart, and so I shied away. Because it is close to my heart, I must engage.
The LGBTQQI youth in my classrooms need these conversations like water. Fuck fear--the phobes need to deal. That's the only way we can change it. Fuck patiently waiting for privilege and bias and hate to unravel, year by year, generation by generation. This is life and death. And yet, the place where I tremble, where I hesitate: it's a cliche for a reason, but many of the "bulliers"--they might be struggling with their sexuality too. What is the right approach? Different for every age. By 18-21 I think I can safely say: get a grip, be respectful, be tolerant, maybe you have your own shit to figure out, but don't throw it on other people. E
I would also like to add: While I appreciate at some level what Ellen did in her video, An Important Message from Ellen about Bullying--it bugs me that she frames it as about bullying, not the dire consequences of harassment of LGBTQ teens. One could argue that the world sees Ellen, they know she's gay, she doesn't have to be explicit about the underlying message.
Yes we do need to be explicit. To say or behave otherwise is to bend to a culture of hate, silence and invisibility.