Top 10: Teen suicides put spotlight on bullying

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NOT FORGOTTEN | Suicide victims, back from left, Seth Walsh and Billy Lucas, and front from left, Raymond Chase, Zach Harrington, Asher Brown and Tyler Clementi. (Kevin Thomas/Dallas Voice)

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“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” We’ve heard the adage practically all our lives, but 2010 proved beyond any doubt that words can, indeed, be lethal, as a wave of teen suicides grabbed headlines and focused attention on an epidemic of anti-gay bullying in schools.

And for the first time, it seemed, mainstream America came to terms with the reality of statistics showing that LGBT youth are three to four times more likely to take their own lives than their straight peers.

On Sept. 28, media across the country picked up the story of Asher Brown, a gay 13-year-old from Houston who days before shot himself to death with his stepfather’s gun. That same day came word that Seth Walsh, a gay 13-year-old from Tehachapi, Calif., had died after spending nine days on life support after he hung himself in his own backyard. Both boys endured months of anti-gay bullying at school, and both families said officials had ignored their repeated pleas for action. But by the time candlelight vigils took place around the country in memory of the victims, two more names had been added to the list: 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., committed suicide after months of being bullied at school; and 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and another student secretly videotaped him having sex with another man and broadcast it on the Internet. On Sept. 29, 19-year-old Raymond Chase hung himself in his dorm room at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island. Then there was Cody J. Barker, 17, of Wisconsin, who died Sept. 13; Harrison Chase Brown, 15, of Colorado, who died Sept. 25; Felix Sacco, 17, of Massachusetts who died Sept. 29, and Caleb Nolt, 14, of Indiana, who died Sept. 30.

Finally, there was Zach Harrington, 19, of Norman, Okla. Harrington’s family said the young man had attended a Sept. 28 City Council meeting that included a public hearing on a resolution to recognize October as LGBT history month. A number of residents attended to speak out against the ordinance — which was eventually passed by the council — and Harrington’s parents said their son was so hurt by the hateful rhetoric that seven days later he took his own life.

Gay journalist and blogger Dan Savage had already started an online video project called the “It Gets Better Campaign,” in which people of all ages, from rock stars and actors to government officials to other gay teens sitting in front of their computers in their bedrooms, told their own stories of overcoming struggles and surviving to see their lives get better. They urged young people considering suicide to hang on and not give up hope.

Then on Oct. 12, one week after Harrington’s death, gay Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns took time during a meeting to address the issue. His voice choked and strained with emotion, tears running down his face, Burns read a speech he had scribbled down hastily during his lunch hour that day. He told of growing up gay in Crowley, Texas, and the bullying he endured, and how he, too, had come close to taking his own life.

But, Burns said, “It gets better,” and he continued by talking about how he had survived and thrived, about his loving family, his husband and how wonderful his life has become.

By the next morning, video of Burns’ speech had been posted to YouTube and was collecting thousands of hits. And Burns was invited to appear on The Today Show, Ellen and more. He had become the face of efforts to end the bullying and save young lives.

Around the same time, the Dallas school board began discussing how to improve its own anti-bullying policy. Activists noted that while most of the suicides making headlines involved LGBT youth, the district’s proposed new policy didn’t specifically protect those young gays, lesbians and transgenders.

Meanwhile, Andy Moreno, a female transgender student at North Dallas High School, was fighting to run for homecoming queen.

Moreno had been nominated by classmates, but school administrators said she couldn’t run because she was officially enrolled as a boy.

Although Moreno herself said she hadn’t experienced bullying by her classmates, LGBT advocates pointed out that she was being bullied by administrators because of her gender identity, and that school district policies did not specifically protect her.

On Nov. 18 the DISD board approved a fully inclusive new anti-bullying policy. Officials with the Fort Worth Independent School District announced that they, too, would be revising their policies to specifically protect LGBT teens.

As December began, State Sen. Wendy Davis of Fort Worth announced she had prefiled legislation to address bullying in the state’s public schools, and that unlike a similar bill prefiled in the house by Rep. Mark Strama, her bill was fully inclusive of LGBT teens.

On Dec. 16, Equality Texas held a press conference in Austin, releasing results of a poll on LGBT rights that showed nearly 80 percent of Texans support inclusive anti-bullying legislation.

Chuck Smith, Equality Texas’ deputy director, said that anti-bullying bills had been introduced in the Legislature each session since 1997 but none of the measures had ever passed. But this time, as the death toll has continued to rise and the country has been forced to acknowledge the ongoing damage, Smith said he believes inclusive anti-bullying legislation has its best chance ever of passing in Texas.

— Tammye Nash

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition December 31, 2010.

—  Kevin Thomas

National spotlight focuses on Burns

As Fort Worth councilman’s staff, volunteers continue to field e-mails, calls from bullied teens seeking help, Dallasites stage a 2nd vigil to remember teen suicide victims


DAVID TAFFET  |  Staff Writer
taffet@dallasvoice.com

PROUD COUPLE  |  Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, right, and his partner, J.D. Angle, march with the city’s contingent in the Tarrant County Pride Parade earlier this month. Burns has garnered national attention with the “It Gets Better” speech he delivered during the Oct. 12 Fort Worth City Council meeting. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)
PROUD COUPLE | Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, right, and his partner, J.D. Angle, march with the city’s contingent in the Tarrant County Pride Parade earlier this month. Burns has garnered national attention with the “It Gets Better” speech he delivered during the Oct. 12 Fort Worth City Council meeting. (Tammye Nash/Dallas Voice)

Joel Burns has been a familiar name and face in North Texas since 2007 when he was first elected to the Fort Worth City Council, becoming Cowtown’s first openly gay council member.

But in the last two weeks, thousands have learned Burns’ name and are hailing him as a hero of the LGBT community and the battle against bullying and teen suicide.

Fort Worth City Council’s Oct. 12 meeting started out as usual. But then Burns took his turn during that part of the meeting in which councilmembers routinely offer recognition to individuals and events in their own districts. But this time, Burns took on a national topic.

Struggling to choke back tears until finally giving up and letting the tears run down his face, Burns talked about several teenagers who were LGBT, or at least perceived to be LGBT, who had recently taken their own lives after enduring months, sometimes years, of anti-gay bullying and harassment.

And then the councilman told his own story, how he had himself been bullied as a teen and had contemplated suicide.

By the time he finished, everyone in the Council Chamber had risen to their feet to salute him with applause.

But it didn’t stop there. Burns posted the official  Fort Worth City Council video on YouTube as part of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign to encourage and reassure LGBT teens — and suddenly, Burns was an Internet sensation.

Newspapers around the world posted the video on their websites and it went viral on YouTube. Before he knew it, Burns was being asked to be on, first local and then national and international news programs, including The Today Show with Matt Lauer. On Wednesday, Oct. 20, Burns was a guest on Ellen DeGeneres’ television talk show.

During an appearance on Ellen, Burns said that the best part of the last two weeks has been the number of teens from around the world who have e-mailed him and contacted him on Facebook.

“The countless number of kids from around the world … who said, ‘I was in a really, really bad place and I was making plans to take my own life,’” he said. “The fact that they have reconsidered — that makes it worth me crying at City Council, the heartache for my mom and dad, worth every bit of all that because they’re still alive.”

While Burns has been traveling coast-to-coast speaking out against bullying on all of the network morning shows in New York, on cable news and on Ellen in Los Angeles, a team of volunteers has been sorting through thousands of messages pouring into his e-mail inbox at Fort Worth City Hall.

By Monday, Oct. 18, more than 20,000 e-mails had arrived after the video had been streamed 1.3 million times. On Thursday, Oct. 21, the number of YouTube hits passed 2 million, and the e-mail and Facebook messages continue to pour in.

The YouTube page has logged more than 27,000 comments.

Actually reaching Burns or his office this week has been almost impossible. His office phone switches to directly to voice mail.

The Fort Worth City Hall media office said they would pass a message to his office to contact Dallas Voice. But spokesman Bill Begley said he’d walk a message down to Burns’ office himself.

Will Trevino in Councilmember Kathleen Hicks’ office said that former staff and volunteers in Burns’ office had been working overtime trying to keep up with the flood of messages.

Remembering the lost ones
Wednesday was Spirit Day, designated to remember young people who have committed suicide as a result of bullying. Many wore purple to show solidarity for efforts to stop the bullying based on actual or perceived sexual orientation.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton joined the call for an end to bullying by releasing an “It Gets Better” video earlier this week and wearing purple on Spirit Day.

More than 200 people gathered in the Caven parking lot off Cedar Springs Road and held a candlelight vigil marching to the Legacy of Love monument at Oak Lawn Avenue.

Marchers carried purple signs that read “Hope” and “It Gets Better.”

At the monument, organizer Ivan Watson read the names of recent suicide victims and a moment of silence was observed for each one.

Watson said he was inspired to organize the vigil after hearing about Asher Brown, the recent Houston suicide victim.

Organizer Steve Weir of DallasGay-Agenda.com billed the event as a peace march and vigil in memory of those who died and a stand against bullying D/FW area. He said that school policies must change to make schools safe for LGBT youth.

Rafael McDonnell from Resource Center Dallas said he searched bullying policies of school districts across the state and found none that specifically addresses bullying based on sexual orientation. Austin’s comes closest, he said.

McDonnell also said that Philadelphia’s school system passed a comprehensive anti-bullying policy that specifically addresses sexual orientation and sexual identity.

“It’s in Lew Blackburn’s hands,” McDonnell said.

Blackburn is the DISD trustee who has shown the most interest in crafting a policy that will protect LGBT students and those perceived to be.

The “It Gets Better” campaign continues. Randy Potts is the grandson of evangelist Oral Roberts. His uncle was gay and committed suicide. He is recording an “It Gets Better” video this weekend.

To watch video from Wednesday’s vigil, go to DallasVoice.com/videos

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 22, 2010

—  Kevin Thomas

2nd Dallas vigil for gay teen suicide victims planned Wednesday on Cedar Springs

If you missed last week’s vigil on Cedar Springs to honor gay teen suicide victims, there’s some good news. You’ll get another chance to break out your glowsticks and candles on Wednesday night.

A Peace March and Vigil in Memoriam will begin at  6:30 p.m. on Wednesday in the paid Caven parking lot behind Zini’s and Skivvie’s near the Cedar Springs strip, according to co-organizer Steve Weir.

The vigil will be one of many similar events across the country on Spirit Day, Oct. 20, when we’re all supposed to wear purple.

“We’re expecting about 200,” Weir said. “I think after the Joel Burns thing, people started to say, maybe I could take a minute and go do this. Hopefully we’ll have a pretty good turnout and some people who are actually moved.”

Weir said he doesn’t think a lot of people knew about the previous vigil hosted by the DFW Sisters on Sunday, Oct. 8. Besides, who’s to say we shouldn’t have another?

Weir said Beaux Wellborn and a representative from Dallas Stonewall Young Democrats are slated to speak, before a march down Cedar Springs Road to the Legacy of Love Monument.

UPDATE: Here’s more on the vigil from co-organizer Ivan Watson:

Hello to all of you! I am so overwhelmed by the positive response this event has generated! I hope that it can educate, inform, inspire and empower all of the participants, as well as show the community that we care about each other. Can’t wait to see you there, just wanted to give you a run-down of what to expect. I am asking everyone to gather in Caven’s pay lot tomorrow at 6:30, the actual short program will not start until 7. We will have three speakers, who will speak briefly about the purpose of the rally, some ways to get involved and help those who are victims of bullying, or for the younger attendees, how perhaps you can get help in your own life, and also we will talk about some legislation that we need to support to get some things changed. After the short program it should be pretty close to dark, and we can light candles and have a silent march down Cedar Springs to the Legacy of Love monument where we will conclude there with a 10 minute candlelight vigil, a minute to remember each teen who took their life during the month of September due to anti-gay bullying and harrassment. Once again, I can’t say thank you enough to all of the help and assistance that I have received in planning this event, especially Steve Weir, thank you, and I hope it all goes well! If you have any questions, please ask!

Thanks,
Ivan Watson

—  John Wright

Rally to support gay youth Friday in Oak Cliff

A rally is planned Friday afternoon in Lake Cliff Park to bring attention to the ongoing gay youth suicide crisis, according to Damien Duckett, secretary for the Dallas Gay and Lesbian Alliance.

“The purpose is to bring attention to the tragic loss of gay teens to suicide and highlight legislative opportunities to help bring an end to bullying in our schools, and also to direct participants to various volunteer opportunities as it relates to the mentoring of our GLBT kids, teens and young adults,” Duckett said.

Duckett said the rally is joint effort between DGLA and several other groups and individuals, including Youth First Texas,  LULAC #4871, the Cathedral of Hope, Resource Center Dallas, Equality Texas, Dallas County Schoools President Larry Duncan, State Rep. Roberto Alonzo and Dallas City Councilwoman Delia Jasso.

“They will all be at the rally,” he said. “Most of the organizations will have representatives who speak.”

Below is the flier, and as you can see, attendees are encouraged to wear purple. Duckett said Dallas County Schools will provide a free shuttle to the event beginning at 5:30 p.m. from the DART station at 8th and Corinth to the park, and then back to the station after the event ends.

—  John Wright

WATCH: ‘A Vigil for the Lost’ on Cedar Springs honors victims of anti-gay bullying, harassment

The names of gay suicide victims were read during a brief ceremony at the Legacy of Love Monument.

About 100 people gathered on the Cedar Springs strip Sunday night to pay tribute to the many young victims of anti-gay bullying and harassment who’ve taken their own lives in recent weeks.

Turnout was surprisingly strong given that the vigil had been publicized primarily on Facebook. However, the Dallas Voice appeared to be the only media outlet present.

“A Vigil for the Lost,” organized by the DFW Sisters, began in the parking lot of the Oak Lawn library, where the Sisters passed out programs, glowsticks and ribbons. The Subway store on Cedar Springs donated 200 sandwiches.

One of the Sisters was wearing a “Veil of Tears” that was laid over the back of a pickup truck in the parking lot. People were encouraged to use Sharpies to record on the veil anti-gay epithets that have been used against them. Attendees scrawled things like “Faggot,” “Fucking Queer” and “God made AIDS to kill faggots.” The Sisters said the Veil of Tears would be burned following the vigil.

From the library, the mourners walked silently down the north side of Cedar Springs Road, taking up more than a full block at times, to the Legacy of Love Monument at Oak Lawn Avenue. Revelers outside bars on the strip asked what the vigil was about as the marchers walked silently past.

At the monument, the names of youth who’ve committed suicide were read, between refrains of “Stop the Bullying” and “Never Again,” during a brief ceremony. Video and more photos from the vigil are below.

—  John Wright

Dallas vigil for gay suicide victims

It’s about time someone organized something locally to honor the many recent gay suicide victims, and we can’t think of anyone better to do it than The DFW Sisters. According to their Facebook page, the Sisters will host a candlelight vigil and silent march on Sunday night on Cedar Springs Road. More info on the Facebook page. The Sisters, whom you’ve probably run into if you’ve been to any gay event in Dallas recently, “are a modern, communal order of 21st century nuns dedicated to community service, fund raising, outreach, advocacy, education for safer sex awareness, and to promoting human rights, respect for diversity and spiritual enlightenment.” The first such group was the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence in San Francisco.

—  John Wright

Yet another gay teen suicide?

Alec Henriksen

Another teen who may have been gay has taken his own life — and this time he was from Utah, where a Mormon apostle just a few days ago called same-sex attraction “unnatural” and “impure” and said it can be changed.

We’ve long been saying on this blog that those in positions of power who spew homophobia have the blood of gay teen suicide victims on their hands — and we can only hope the reality of this will finally take hold in the mainstream.

PrideInUtah.com reports that 18-year-old Alec Henriksen, a Utah native who was a student at Earlham College in Indiana, was found dead on Sept. 30:

Alec Henriksen was a brilliant young computer programmer. And while suicide is always a terrible idea, I want to use his death as a call-to-action for anyone who cares for these young people. Please, help them. Love them for who they are. Put them in touch with the Trevor Project if possible.

PrideInUtah.com adds that the website from which it obtained the information about Henriksen’s suicide — and presumably about his sexual orientation — has since been taken down.

However, Instant Tea found this statement on the Earlham College website confirming Henriksen’s death. The statement says his body was found on property belonging to Earlham Cemetery, and that no foul play is suspected. We also found Henriksen’s obituary in the Salt Lake Tribune.

If it turns out that Henriksen was not gay, our point remains. And if he was gay but someone is trying to cover it up, it would be typical of how Mormon culture deals with gay teen suicide — which is a big problem in Utah.

If Henriksen was gay, his death would bring to at least six the number of gay teen suicides that have been reported nationwide in recent weeks. Of course, it’s safe to say the real number is considerably higher.

—  John Wright