When rights differ, what messages do gay teens get?

October 7, 2010
This post originally ran in Newsday, 10/7/2010: We learned with sorrow last week about the death of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers student who jumped from the George Washington Bridge after someone streamed a video on the Internet of him with another man.  That we know of, Clementi was the fourth gay teenager nationwide that month to take his own life.  A few days later Raymond Chase, a 19-year-old Johnson & Wales student, became the fifth. Unfortunately, the negative portrayal of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and the rhetoric of anti-gay activists, especially in politics and in the media, not only tells these kids they matter less than their peers, it tells all young people that those who are (or are perceived to be) gay or bi are different or simply not good enough. By the time I graduated from Riverhead High School, I knew there was a good chance I was gay. Growing up, I didn’t know many openly gay people to turn to, and as I looked to my community and the media for guidance, the messages I got back made it very clear that being gay was something I shouldn’t want any part of. As an 18-year-old, I listened to graduation speeches full of promises of bright futures and endless possibilities. The idea that gay and lesbian couples could legally marry or that the media would portray gay and transgender people with dignity and respect — those things belonged in the same category as flying cars in my mind. Sure, someday. On the surface, it seems that “someday” is now. Gay men and lesbians can marry the ones they love in a few states. And overall, portrayals of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the media are more realistic and respectful.  But most LGBT teens are still getting the same message I did: “You’re not accepted.” We still live in a society that paints a painful and unsupportive future for young people who are gay or perceived to be. When New York’s marriage-equality bill was defeated late last year, I couldn’t help but wonder how thousands of gay youth in our state felt seeing their future being debated and witnessing the subtle and not-so-subtle signals about their value and worth.  In fact, thanks to the way anti-gay activists have used the lives of lesbian and gay people as a campaign issue over the past decade, that message might be heard even louder now. And gay and transgender teens aren’t the only ones hearing it. Bullies receive the message that gay people should be made to feel unwelcome.  When gay people aren’t afforded full equality, that’s society’s way of saying, “Here are the outcasts, now cast them out.”  Too often, this is done quite literally. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force says between 20 percent and 40 percent of all homeless youth nationwide identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. A landmark study published in March in the American Journal of Public Health reported that lesbians and gay men in 16 states experienced a 248 percent increase in general anxiety disorders after their states banned their marriages. With the debate playing out in newspapers, talk shows and churches, young people are hardly immune. According to the group Youth Pride, gay youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual young people. And the suicide prevention network The Trevor Project says that number could be as high as four times. Nearly half of young transgender people have seriously thought about taking their lives, with one-quarter reporting an attempt. If elected representatives make light of the harms gay people face- if the media refuse to depict the truth of LGBT lives  — our society is not only telling them that they’re not welcome, it’s painting a target on their backs for the bullies to see. Despite the progress we’ve made, too many young gay people feel that those messages of “endless possibilities” don’t apply to them. We saw that at least five times last month. But by holding our leaders accountable in politics and the media, we can let our young people know they’ll be accepted and protected. We must learn from these tragedies together, honor those we’ve lost, and show our children that there is a future full of possibilities, no matter who they are. Read the original post in  Newsday.