Asking the Unasked Question About Gay Teen Suicide

Asking the Unasked Question About Gay Teen Suicide

Elliott batTzedek

On Coming Out Day, October 11, 1987, I was supposed to be in DC. Instead, I’d stayed in Madison, WI, and agreed to have my parents come for an awkward, difficult visit, spilling over with things not said.

That Sunday morning, after they’d left on Saturday night, I stood in my kitchen, my three-theophyllines-a-day in one hand, the whole bottle in the other. I took the bottle. I didn’t plan to, I hadn’t been contemplating suicide, I didn’t want to die. I got to the hospital, went through the horrible charcoal-swallowing, stomach pumping procedure, was put on suicide watch for 36 hours, and sent home.

No, I hadn’t been able to tell my parents I was a dyke, and yes, that was because of the intense homophobia I had always witnessed in my small home town. But I wasn’t a mess because I was lesbian. I loved being lesbian, loved everything about it, had no qualms, poured my whole self into the lesbian community. Seeing my parents made me fall apart because I’d been falling apart for months under the pressure of constant flashbacks of childhood sexual abuse. My mind was remembering images, my body remembering blows, my nose the smell of him. All of this was painful beyond my capacity to process, and I was desperate to just make it stop. Spending two days with my family increased that pain exponentially, and that morning I snapped.

Watching the coverage of gay teen suicide this fall, I am pushed back to that day. If I had died, would it have been spun as a “gay youth” suicide? If it were covered at all, I think it probably would have. And that would have been a lie about my life.

And because I know that would have been a lie, I wonder constantly about these teens. While I am generally dubious about any sort of statistical statement about what is suppressed, for the sake of argument I’m going with the stats as they stand – 1 in 10 kids is gay/queer/lesbian/gender queer/etc, but 6-8 out of 10 kids are victims of sexual abuse before the age of 18.

Who is counting the suicides among these 60-80% of children?

And of the gay kids who kill themselves, how many are also survivors of sexual abuse? Is bullying really THE issue here?

By which I mean this – I don’t doubt for a second that physical and psychological assault cause depression and can lead to suicidality. But what other assaults are we pretending not to see? How much easier is it to blame “bullies at school” than to really know what that child’s life was at home? Are we, yet again, looking for an easy exterior identified problem so we can as a culture go on lying about sexual abuse?

That is – is the current focus on “bullies” another form of Megan’s Law? Megan’s Law, and all similar laws, which unload the entire, vast, damage of sexual abuse of children onto the very small percentage of sexual predators who are unknown to their victims and “snatch them away from loving families.” Of course this happens, and of course it is horrible, but 90+% of sexual abuse of children is by an adult the child knows, usually is related to, and has been taught to trust. That’s a whole lot of social resources and fear-mongering for a “solution” which avoids completely the real problem.

The focus on “school bullies” is starting to feel the same to me in the way it is the evening news feed, the only explanation, the “we can fix this with laws and enforcement of laws” false surety. The single most dangerous place for a child is home; the most dangerous people are the adults given access to the child. When I count through everyone I know who has managed to kill themselves, or come damn close to it, every single one of them was sexually assaulted as a child, sometimes for years and years. No anti-bullying initiative in the world could have protected them.

And yes, some of them were also bullied, including me, my life in high school made miserable by my peers; bullies, after all, tend to repeatedly assault kids who are timid, who collapse in on themselves, who, in fact, act like prey. But what do you think would make a child, born whole, be acting like prey by high school, or middle school, or elementary school? Going after only the bullies who target vulnerable children is like blaming the vultures for eating the carcass of a deer killed by a hunter.

But it is so much easier to blame the vultures, who live out there somewhere, than to blame the hunters who live in our homes. And as long as we’re looking out there somewhere, and not inside the home, the sexual abuse of the majority of our children will continue to be accepted and acceptable, and children and teens will go on killing themselves or acting out their abuse on themselves and other children.

So, do we go for the feel-good media blitz of the 10% (if that) solution, or do we really, finally, try to save all our children?


So often now I’ve no idea

So often now

So often now I’ve no idea who’s
contained within this skin: woman, child
(boy or tomboy), horse. Polar bears
are said to shed their hides and live as humans;
peel my skin and you could find a bear.
What we are is merely social invention:
white, female, human, dyke, all labels
threatening to become as stale as celluloid.
Only a sense of myself seems solid—I’ve
failed at that before. What is the opposite
of shape-shifting? It is my shape that’s fixed,
a screen these movies move across, made
without directors, without a leading lady,
with a cast of thousands, each one an I.

consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem

There are no more two distinct brain sides than there are two distinct genders. Why would that surprise anyone who’s ever created anything?

from “A Moment’s Thought” by Ellen Bryant Voigt in her excellent collection The Flexible Lyric

The recent bicameral (and thoroughly Nietzschean) model—right brain for intuition, emotion, art, and music; left brain for logic, rational thought, and language—is already outdated; such neat divisions were never verified except in pathology. In its place has come the concept of “modularity,” of a lifetime of data not stored on labeled shelves in the closet but processed multiply by distinct networks of differing functions: this very sentence as you read it is dismantled by your brain into its component parts—one set of ganglions taking care of the nouns, another the verbs; another flashing up your own shelf, in your own closet at home, from the image depot; a separate hardwired board parsing out the syntax you may have been born to; the brain’s musicians tuning up to the lexical and syntactical repetitions I’m using; and a brand new neural pathway extending itself like algae shot with Rapid-Gro to accommodate this new word “modularity” and its baggage, “modules” and “modern” and “insularity” and “modular housing” and even, from the rhyming crew, “nodules,’ even “noodles.” Thought, it seems, is not the linear storage and retrieval system we know from computers. [So] consider what must be happening when we set out to produce a poem, a complex construct made from intuition, observation, experience, erudition, music, memory, and feeling—what Coleridge called “the blossom and the fragrancy of all human knowledge, human thoughts, human passions, motions, language.”