“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.