Elliott’s story: How 1 teen survived bullying, suicide attempt

When classmates beat him up for being gay, this Ennis teen and his mom reported it. But the principal told Elliott he brought it on himself

DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer taffet@dallasvoice.com

IN MEMORY OF ASHER  |  Brian Carter, left, and Sharon Ferranti stand on the corner with signs as the buses let out of school during a human rights demonstration outside of Hamilton Middle School in Cypress on Tuesday, Oct. 5, to protest the treatment of Asher Brown, a gay eighth-grader at the school who killed himself at home Sept. 23. Brown’s parents blamed his suicide on two years of anti-gay bullying they say he had suffered at the school. (Karen Warren/Associated Press-Houston Chronicle)
IN MEMORY OF ASHER | Brian Carter, left, and Sharon Ferranti stand on the corner with signs as the buses let out of school during a human rights demonstration outside of Hamilton Middle School in Cypress on Tuesday, Oct. 5, to protest the treatment of Asher Brown, a gay eighth-grader at the school who killed himself at home Sept. 23. Brown’s parents blamed his suicide on two years of anti-gay bullying they say he had suffered at the school. (Karen Warren/Associated Press-Houston Chronicle)

The suicides of as many as six LGBT youth over the past month have focused a spotlight on the issue of anti-LGBT bullying in schools and online, and the correlation between bullying and teen suicide.

According to a 2003 study by the National Crime Prevention Council, six out of 10 teens witness some form of bullying at least once a day. And much of that bullying is directed at teens who are — or who are perceived to be — LGBT.

The Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network has reported that students hear anti-LGBT epithets an average of 25 times a day, and that in 97 percent of the cases, teachers fail to respond to the comments.

Various studies have shown that LGBT teens are two to four times as likely as their non-LGBT counterparts to attempt suicide, and according to a report to the Secretary’s Task Force on Youth Suicide, 30 percent of all completed youth suicides are related to sexual identity.

And GLSEN’s 2003 National School Climate Survey reported that more than 64 percent of LGBT students say they feel unsafe at their schools because of their sexual orientation.

The statistics are overwhelming. But for one North Texas gay teen, anti-gay bullying and suicide attempts are far more than just statistics.

Elliott, who lives in Ennis, is 17 now. But he almost did not live that long after enduring bullying that started, he said, when he was in first grade. After years of enduring the abuse, Elliott said, he tried to commit suicide at age 15.

“I live in a small town,” he said. “I’m a ballet dancer. I stuck out like a sore thumb.”

Elliott said he was on the only one in his school being bullied, a fact that left him feeling totally alone.

And the bullying didn’t stop at words. When he was a freshman, Elliott said, a classmate followed him into the restroom at school and beat him up.

Elliott told his mother what happened. She went to the school and spoke to the principal, who told her he would do something about it.

What the principal did was tell Elliott that he had brought it upon himself.

The bullying wasn’t just at school: “I was dealing with a lot of problems,” Elliott said.

His older brother was having drug problems and tormented him at home. He had an abusive stepfather who let his own two children get away with things that he grounded Elliott for.

“He’d ridicule me for being gay,” Elliott said of his stepfather, “and it turned out he was bi.”

So Elliott started cutting himself on his ankles and his wrists. He was never hospitalized, but a nurse noticed the cuts. He told her he injured himself when he fell out of a tree.

Elliott took what he called a “safe overdose,” of a prescription drug, but recovered. He said that was the last time he tried or even considered suicide. But he said he understands how the young suicide victims that have been in the news felt. And it scares him that he came close to meeting the same fate.

Elliott said things began to get better at home for him by the end of his freshman year. His mother finished her degree, started teaching and divorced his stepfather.

His older brother very recently became sober.

For his sophomore year, Elliott transferred to arts magnet Booker T. Washington High School in Dallas. That’s where he first learned about Youth First Texas.

“I took a DART bus over [to Youth First] and I loved it,” he said, adding that for the first time in his life, he was with other people like him.

“It made me feel amazing,” he said. “Whenever I’m not in Ennis, I’m at Youth First Texas.”

Elliott joined a survivors group at Youth First in which LGBT youth discuss how they feel during times of distress. He worked with the fundraising committee and became a member of the Youth Board. He entertained with a YFT group at the Creating Change conference in February and the Gayla Prom in June.

Elliott also modeled in the annual YFT fashion show at the Rose Room and was a runway model for DIFFA.
Elliott began his activist career in April when he participated in Day of Silence in school and Breaking the Silence at Rosa Parks Square in Downtown Dallas. This summer he attended Activist Youth Camp at University of North Texas. An ACLU representative told him that had he reported the principal’s comment about bringing the beating on himself, they would have investigated.

“Just knowing I can do that is important,” he said. “I didn’t know I could do anything about it.”

His mother has become an active volunteer with YFT as well. He called her his biggest supporter.

“A lot of the others are neglected by their parents,” he said. “She acts as a mom to everyone. She gives everyone hugs. She talks to everyone and is there for everyone.”

He said he’d like to see more LGBT community involvement from other organizations.

For his senior year, Elliott is back at Ennis High School. He said the environment is different now, although it’s still difficult to walk down the halls and see other students who tormented him for years.

For protection in school, he said, “I’m starting to repopulate my girl-posse.”

Activist camp left Elliott feeling empowered and safer in school. He said he is not afraid to face the principal who told him he brought on his own beating.

Elliott said he has no personal life in Ennis, although he does teach ballet at a dance studio in town. His students are 6-to 8-year old girls.

“It intrigues them that there’s a male teacher,” he said.

A former Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader owns the studio. He said she’s proud to have a male teacher on staff. Now when he goes to into a store and sees one of his students, he said, they call out, “Hi Mr. Elliott!”

After graduation, Elliott plans to attend Navarro County Community College to take his basic courses. Then he’d like to transfer to a school in Dallas to study dance and continue to be involved at YFT.

He said the recent suicides have affected him terribly. “I printed out the headlines,” he said. “It really bugs me.”

Elliott has advice for other teens who have considered suicide: “Whatever you’re going through, it just makes you a stronger person,” he said. “Whatever you go through makes you capable of doing things others can’t.”

And he wants school staff to know how much bullying hurts.

“Everything you say affects someone,” Elliott said. “I want teachers and staff to know it really hurts. Everything you say affects someone. Teachers and principals are ignorant to that. If you ignore it, it will fester.”

……………………………………………

Where to get help

• Youth First Texas
3918 Harry Hines Blvd.
Dallas, Texas
214-879-0400
YouthFirstTexas.org

• The Trevor Project
866-488-7386
TheTrevorProject.org

• The Promise House
224 W. Page Ave.
Dallas, Texas
214-941-8578
or 214-941-8670
PromiseHouse.org

• National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK
SuicidePreventionLifeline.org

• Suicide Prevention Help
SuicidePreventionHelp.com

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

Hope is a dangerous thing …

… And the LGBT community must find a way to give hope to youth struggling against bullying, bigotry and discrimination

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” a line from the movie The Shawshank Redemption, is a concept our community should embrace.

Like you, I have been deeply disturbed by recent reports of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender teen suicides.

As heartbreaking as they are, the greater tragedy may be that such suicides have been happening all along, but no one has paid any attention.

Studies have shown repeatedly that LGBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide. But, until recently, that has been a statistic without faces and names. Perhaps now these young men will force our country to pay attention.

That is faint consolation, but it does mean their lives and deaths won’t be in vain.

It is tempting to rail against fundamentalist religions of all stripes that have given the “moral” justification for an atmosphere of bullying and abuse. Fundamentalist Islam leads to suicide bombers, and fundamentalist

Christianity leads to suicidal teenagers.

Our anger at them is justified, but, ultimately, it doesn’t do much to help the problem.

So what can we in the LGBT community do? How can we help?

Well, this is where hope comes in.

For 22 years, I was a leader at the Cathedral of Hope. Although I am no longer there, the memories I relish most are the times I talked to people who discovered that what their fundamentalist parents or church had said about them had been a lie. They were angry, angry enough to get involved and do something.

Too often our anger turns to cynicism, so we practice “horizontal violence,” taking our anger out on one another. Rumors and gossip and catty remarks aimed at one another will not change the world or heal our own wounds.

We are also prone to turn our anger inward, and all too many members of our community struggle with depression.

It is well past time that we put our anger where it belongs. Let it energize us to volunteer, write letters, post Facebook rants and come out. (After all, Monday, Oct. 11 is National Coming Out Day.) We must use the energy of our life to change things.

All of us have had times when we felt rejected, oppressed and depressed. Most of us overcame those feelings.

Remember how you did it and then figure out a way you can help others.

Are there places you can volunteer where, as an openly gay or lesbian person, you might give hope to a child who is growing up feeling different? Isn’t it past time you spoke to your family and told them the truth about how right-wing policy and fundamentalist religion is hurting you personally?

Next time a co-worker makes a homophobic joke, pull them aside and tell them that, while you aren’t thin-skinned, it worries you that those kinds of remarks are why so many gay and lesbian kids commit suicide.

I have a dear friend named Daryl who turned 50 this week. He has had AIDS for almost 30 years. At his party, we played that Gloria Gaynor song, “I Will Survive.”

He is my hero because, even before there were any treatments for HIV, he fought the disease and led small group programs for men who had only their attitudes to see them through. He came out as a person living with

AIDS in a day when there were no protections and much bigotry.

It wasn’t enough for him simply to survive; he worked to help others who were in the same boat.

You and I are in the same boat as those teenagers. It isn’t enough for us to have survived to adulthood. We have a moral obligation to challenge and confront oppression every chance we get.

Oh, yes, it might cost us. Many years ago, I was fired as a pastor for being gay and, later, I was fired as a therapist for speaking at a gay Pride rally. I’ve had my tires slashed and the paint on my car scratched nearly off. Two churches I served were firebombed. I have been picketed and spat upon, and have had numerous death threats through the years.

Yes, this fight can cost you, but my only regret is that I wasn’t able to do more.

Hopefully, there is still time. Hopefully, there is still time for you, too.

We can, and must, change the world in which teenage lesbian and gay people are growing up. We must do so in a public way so that they have hope.

It will terrify our fundamentalist and right-wing friends because, “Hope is a dangerous thing.”

The Rev. Michael Piazza is president of Hope for Peace & Justice, a nonprofit organization that is equipping progressive people of faith to be champions for peace and justice. He also serves as co-executive director of the Center for Progressive Renewal, which is renewing progressive Christianity by training new entrepreneurial leaders, supporting the birth of new liberal/progressive congregations, and by renewing and strengthening existing progressive churches. He served the Cathedral of Hope for 22 years, first as senior pastor and later as dean.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 08, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas