The New Poster Children: LGBTeens vs. Bullies
Bullied teens fighting homophobia and suicide have occupied the newsfeeds of 2011 and 2012. Interviewing youth, along with stakeholders in the community sector, Ottawa correspondant Sarah Newton reports on the new social phenomenon: the bullied teen as moral voice.
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The growing focus on gay rights and youth suicide in particular is poised to take a prominent role in the political and social agenda during 2012. With a sensitive and volatile climate made more visible by social media, the everyday battle is moving forward under a banner quite different from the shadowed ambiguity of yesteryear. For gay teens, the struggle is bittersweet and only just beginning.
Lesbian gender-queer high school student Adrian is well aware of the struggles facing gay youth. At 13, she was told by another girl that homosexuality is a choice. At 15, Adrian was verbally attacked by a stranger shouting explicit homophobic slurs as she walked down the street with her first girlfriend. She talked to 2Bmag about the indirect homophobia she encounters every day at school in Ottawa.
“While visiting someone in the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario’s mental health ward, that was the first time that I’ve ever seen queer youth in the majority,” said Adrian, who declined to provide a last name. She has had the opportunity to gain perspective on youth mental health issues, and plans to one day become a youth counselor.
Eighteen-year-old Benjamin Marmer, who identifies most closely as gay, faces a similar daily struggle against homophobia.
“It’s very socially acceptable, right now, to use that kind of language,” Marmer told us, adding that often critiques of homophobia are silenced and disregarded. He recounted the struggle of having to officially “come out,” something his straight peers never had to do, he admits that “it’s different for everybody.” But while specific experiences may differ, the pervasive sense of threat and prejudice amongst teens is a near constant.
For 19-year-old broadcasting student Sarina Hughes, bullying left a permanent mark on her high school experience. As a bisexual, she regularly faced homophobia from some of her peers.“There were a couple of different approaches to the bullying though,” Hughes said. “I mean, some people basically told me it was just a phase, and that I’d grow out of it. Some other people said that I only said I was bisexual because I wanted the attention. And a lot of people actually called me a dyke.”
Similar stories of casual, everyday homophobia and outright assault are common among LGBTQ youth. There are, however, those who believe a paradigm shift is occurring. Out of necessity, lawmakers are beginning to take notice of the situation. Kids everywhere, both gay and straight, are bending under the pressure of homophobic taunts; according to a 2011 study published on the Centre for Disease Control website, gay teens are five times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers.
Throughout 2010 and 2011, the US, Canada, and the world at large were moved by stories of gay teen suicide. These cases included 18-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, 14-year-old Buffalo, NY teen Jamey Rodemeyer, and Jamie Hubley, the 15-year-old local son of an Ottawa City Councillor. Each of these teens encountered homophobia and harassment, some on a daily basis. The focus on teen bullying in the mainstream media represents a marked shift from LGBT coverage in ’90s and 2000′s, when the fight for marriage equality took centre stage. We now have a new gay poster-child taking the spotlight, but few expected that it would come in the form of bullied teens using Youtube.
Most recently, Eric James Borges, 19, committed suicide early in the new year, ending a life of inspiring involvement within the gay community, but darkened by year of depression. Borges was a volunteer with The Trevor Project, an organization that works to prevent LGBTQ youth suicide. He also made an “It Gets Better” video as part of activist Dan Savage’s campaign to inspire gay youth to look to brighter futures for themselves. Borges’ story, which spread quickly over the internet, is gaining a great deal of attention as the wave of teen homophobia victims’ and survivors’ stories takes centre stage.
Nick Mulé, chairperson of Queer Ontario, puts the current media attention into context: “Over the past couple of years there indeed has been a marked increase in attention on LGBTQ youth, partly due to the rise of their representation in popular culture (i.e. TV series Glee), partly due to high-profile cases of bullied LGBTQ youth that have come out of both the US and Canada with a number of them ending in tragic results, such as suicide,” said Mulé, who works as a psychotherapist and associate professor in the School of Social Work at York University.
Mulé is not alone in his opinion, with many experts citing the advent of social media as an important reason for bringing attention to the plight of struggling teens. “The stories are becoming more prevalent, more young people are talking about their situations,” said Helen Kennedy, executive director of Egale Canada, an organization that fights for gay and lesbian rights. When asked whether she thought Jamie Hubley’s suicide would have gotten the same amount of media attention a year ago, she said she didn’t think so. “There were specific things that shifted the media towards Jamie,” Kennedy said. “He was very internet savvy.”
Queer Ontario and Egale, and Québec’s GRIS and Fondation Émergence are all part of a chorus for proactive change, along with some educational institutions that are slowly bending to pressure from human rights organizations and the public at large.
This past year, Ottawa has experienced a number of highs and lows in the gay community. In a show of solidarity, the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board made an appearance at the city’s 2011 Capital Pride march. In October, Jennifer Adams, the board’s director of education, called for a Gay-Straight Alliance in every school. At the end of 2011, Jer’s Vision, an organization working to address homophobic and transphobic bullying in schools and youth communities across English Canada, finally had the opportunity to deliver a talk at A.Y. Jackson Secondary School, the high school Jamie Hubley attended before his suicide.
“There has been a greater focus on homophobic and transphobic bullying, but there continues to be a serious challenge,” said Jeremy Dias, founder of Jer’s Vision. “Many media outlets focus on what LGBTQ people can do to create safer communities. What we need is straight communities to take the lead in addressing homophobic and transphobic bullying, as their mis-education is the dominant source of the challenge.”
One notable challenge includes the lack of, but ever-growing, research to determine what actions are needed to best meet the needs of the gay community, and LGBTQ youth in particular. In 2011, a study commissioned by the Egale Canada Human Rights Trust provided a climate survey on homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia in Canadian schools. In September, researchers at New York University and the University of Arizona announced that a three-year study will examine the causes behind suicide risk for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth.
“It needs to be brought to the attention of lawmakers and of the schools, and of the parents, and everybody who is involved in a teenagers life needs to be aware that this happens,” Benjamin Marmer concludes, taking the words right out of our mouth.
Photo: Queer youth Benjamin Marmer (Photo by Sarah Newton)