Suicide comes in waves. One person kills himself. Others hear about it and imitate. An epidemic begins. Even talking about it can make the problem worse. DC had an outbreak of suicides on the Metro last year, partly because it’s difficult to hush up a Metro suicide.
The kids in the news who have been killing themselves all share a connection — each was bullied because of perceived or actual sexual orientation. I can only presume, prudently, that a network effect may be taking place, and it frightens me that I might become a part of it.
Outside that, it’s unclear to me why matters have come to a head just now. Gay teen suicide is nothing new. One third of all teens who commit suicide are gay. And those are just the ones we know about. If I’d killed myself as a teen, no one would have known I was gay. At the time I was planning it, I had no intention of telling.
So pardon my cynicism, but is there really a sudden outbreak of gay teen suicide? Or is it just a sudden outbreak of our media giving a shit? If it’s the latter, then great — except maybe that it’s leading more kids to kill themselves.
I’ve been watching a lot of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign on YouTube, and as you can probably guess, I’ve got mixed feelings about it.
On the one hand: Hell yes it gets better. I’ve got my own house, a husband, a daughter, supportive friends, and a work environment where I can’t even imagine getting the treatment I faced in high school. The haters still exist, but they mostly work in Congress or the hip hop industry, so I don’t have to deal with them on a daily basis.
On the other hand: It’s not enough to have a YouTube campaign with dozens of gay and lesbian adults coming forward and saying, “Yeah, high school is hell on earth. Everyone suffers there. It passes.”
It may offer hope, and hope is great, but it’s simply not enough that when you’re an adult, you get to move on. We need to face down the problem of high school itself. Rather than focus on the tragedies, let’s look at the deeply weird, deeply authoritarian place that is high school. Let’s look at how it’s set up, which seems designed only to foster cliques, to identify scapegoats, and to stomp out all individual differences. How a place like this can possibly be a good thing for our society is beyond me.
High school seems made to hurt, which is insane. I knew this back when I was in high school. I faced it every day. I also knew of social spaces for people my age that weren’t designed to hurt. I could never understand why I faced abuse by my schoolmates, but not by the friends I found outside my school. In time, we developed a social circle composed entirely of outcasts, and we had some great, great times together. But that only made me ask all the more insistently: Why is high school the way it is, not just for gay-identified kids, but for all kids?
I’m thrilled that adults are finally coming around and remembering that time in their lives, and looking at it without the usual romantic platitudes. (“The best years of your life,” my ass. If I’d ever believed that, I most certainly would have pulled the trigger.) But what can we do?