Any growing tolerance of a person’s right to his or her own sexuality that is evidenced in the mainstream culture has yet to impact the Lord of the Flies scenarios that exist for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, or questioning students in many schools across the country—something that is comically but bitingly portrayed in the Fox hit series, “Glee.”
Proof that modern student life in America is not a Rainbow coalition comes from several areas, including a 2009 survey of 7,261 middle and high school students that found that nearly 9 out of 10 LGBTQ students experienced harassment at school in the previous year. Almost two-thirds (60%) said that they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation and 40% said they felt unsafe because of how they expressed their gender; 40% were physically harassed at school within the past year and about 20% were physically assaulted.
Further, Dr. Elise D. Berlan of Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, and her colleagues recently found that in a study of more than 7,500 adolescents, gay males were twice as likely to report being bullied and mostly heterosexual males were almost 1.5 times as likely to report being bullied, as compared to straight males (J. Adolescent Health 2010; 46: 366-71). Their findings among LGBTQ young women were similar. Dr. Berlan and colleagues advised doctors who are taking care of gay and bisexual youth to ask about teens’ experiences with violence and bullying, probe how they were doing with those experiences, and try to determine if there is anything that could be done to support them.
Tragically, gay teen suicide and suicidal ideation are nothing new—I should know, I tried my best to find a way out as a gay 17 year old. But a recent spate of highly publicized gay teen suicides, noted even by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, has catalyzed a remarkable grassroots movement that may provide a new tool for doctors to help at-risk gay teens cope, especially in those bleak hours when no one seems to notice, much less counsel them.
Importantly, the movement speaks the language that they may best accept and understand—the voices of gay men and women, beloved celebrities from their favorite TV shows and movies and iTunes downloads telling them “It Gets Better.” The campaign uses the social media in which these teens are already immersed—YouTube, Twitter, MySpace, Tumblr, SocialVibe—and includes a 24/7 hotline staffed by trained counselors ready to take on the tough questions and sorrows of troubled gay teens when there may be no one else around.
If you are not of a certain (young) age, a hopeless lover of musical theater and schmaltz, gay, or just nostalgic for high-school glee club, or have a child in any of those categories, you may not be aware of one of the movement’s new poster boys, Chris Colfer.
On October 5, Colfer, a 20-year old out gay actor who plays a 16-year old gay teen on “Glee,” released a public service announcement for The Trevor Project, an LGBTQ youth support organization. Although the Project has been around since 1998, their involvement in the “It Gets Better” campaign has struck a chord, making it more relevant than anything going in today’s world for pointing at-risk gay teens to the support they desperately need.
Emmy-nominated Colfer, who plays Kurt Hummel, an effeminate, bullied, yet triumphantly out gay glee-club “loser,” is perhaps the most popular gay youth icon on the planet today. On his Twitter page, which has more than 318,000 followers, he was asked in late September if he would do a video for the Trevor Project; he tweeted back that it was in the works. His PSA hit YouTube on Oct. 5 and rapidly became one of the most tweeted and retweeted PSAs in the project’s history—so much so that it became the face of the project’s website and has a YouTube hit count of nearly 300,000 views (in less than 3 days online), far above that of Daniel (THE Harry Potter) Radcliffe, a Trevor Project supporter who happens to be straight. If you are into comparative battling, the hit count for Radcliffe’s YouTube PSA hovers around 38,000.
Colfer’s own story is well known among his fans—a gay kid bullied throughout his school years, especially for his high-pitched speaking voice, which however wonderful for a juvenile cast member who can hit the high notes of a counter-tenor on a hit musical “dramedy,” is a deadly trait for most teenaged boys.
Heightened by the recent spate of gay teen suicides, The Trevor Project’s “It Gets Better” campaign has gone viral in recent weeks, in part helped when Dan Savage, a syndicated gay columnist, began his own YouTube channel last month. Inspired by Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old high school student in Indiana who committed suicide after being taunted by his classmates for being gay, Savage has asked famous and non-famous alike to record messages of hope to gay teens who are being bullied, and more importantly, thinking about suicide.
The difference between these announcements and the impassioned attacks against gay bullying by the likes of Ellen DeGeneres and straight celebrities such as Joe Jonas, is the fact that they are not ABOUT gay kids, they are messages TO gay kids, saying, “Hang in there. It is wretched now, but if you can make it, things DO get better.” And this from the very people they most respect, fantasize about, and who are living proof of survivorship. Gay celebrities and gay-friendly icons who have made their own “It Gets Better” videos, include such out luminaries as actor Neil Patrick Harris and fashion guru Tim Gunn, who detailed his own suicide attempt as a gay youth.
Perhaps if you don’t know how to help that gay teen in your office who’s bullied, depressed, or withdrawn, or what to tell that kid’s parents who desperately ask what to do about their “strange” son or daughter, you can use your 15-minute slot to let them know about “It Gets Better.” Let them know they are not alone and that there is hope.
“It Gets Better” may be especially important because it is a resource that these kids can turn to when they’re are most alone—in the middle of the night staring at their computer screens, reading the inevitable anti-gay bile being spewed in comments posted on any gay news or entertainment items, or in the early morning, when they wake up, terrified of facing another day of bullying at school. If they can’t access the campaign on a computer at home, tell them to go to the library or their school computer room—but to watch who might be looking over their shoulder and delete their browser history if they feel they’ll be bullied because of it. At the very least, give them The Trevor Project Lifeline number: 866-488-7386.
If the kid isn’t out (at least not to you) or if the parents aren’t willing or able to deal with that kind knowledge or suspicion, perhaps you can slip some links into a generalized list of resources for troubled teens. If the kid is LGBTQ, he or she WILL follow them and likely be grateful for the secret high sign.
October 11 is National Coming Out Day. Many who should be will not be here to see it. Maybe you can help do something about the next batch of gay or questioning youth at risk. They may be shy. They may speak in monosyllables. They may be painfully polite or wryly sarcastic. And you may actually be patching up the physical or mental results of gay bullying or gay self-hate without realizing it, because they probably won’t tell you what really happened to them.
Don’t let them scare you off. Educate yourself as best you can. Help them if you can. And tell them, from me, that it does get better.
—Mark S. Lesney
Other related resources for LBGTQ teens include Matthew’s Place, named in honor of murdered gay teen Matthew Shepard and the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which promotes education and lobbying for gender equality in schools. And for these and other teens being bullied for whatever reason, visit Stomp Out Bullying and the National Center for Bullying Prevention. PFLAG – Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays – is a good place for parents and families of LGBTQ teens to find valuable information. To learn the names and faces of the recent suicides, go here.