October 8, 2010 at 2:05 am EDT | by Lou Chibbaro Jr.
Spotlight on bullying after rash of teen suicides

Trevor Project fundraiser

Friday at 7 p.m.

Duplex Diner

2004 18th St., N.W.

$10 donation

The death by suicide of four gay male teenagers within a four-week period last month has triggered international media coverage of the topic of anti-gay bullying and harassment and prompted renewed calls for Congress to pass anti-bullying legislation.

Much of the media attention focused on the Sept. 22 death of 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, who leaped off the George Washington Bridge connecting New York and New Jersey.

University officials said Clementi took his own life days after discovering his roommate planted a video camera in his dorm room that captured Clementi and a male visitor “making out” during an apparent sexual encounter and then broadcast the video online.

New Jersey authorities have charged the roommate, Dharun Ravi, and one of his friends, Molly Wei, with criminal invasion of privacy, an offense that carries a possible five-year prison sentence.

A New Jersey prosecutor said Ravi, who shared the dorm room with Clementi, left his webcam-equipped laptop computer in the room with the intention of spying on Clementi, who informed him he planned to bring a visitor into the room. Ravi agreed to allow Clementi to use the room in private to host his guest.

Prosecutors said Ravi went to Wei’s nearby dorm room and used another laptop he owns to remotely turn on the webcam while Clementi and his male guest were in the room.

He then broadcast the video of Clementi and his guest live on iChat, according to technology blogger Kashmir Hill, who discovered separate online chat room conversations by both Ravi and Clementi talking about the incident.

Although the suicides of Clementi and the other three gay teens took place outside the D.C. metropolitan area, the head of D.C.’s Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, known as SMYAL, said a 2007 study showed that local LGBT youth are at great risk for suicide.

Andrew Barnett, SMYAL’s executive director, noted that the D.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is conducted under the supervision of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that 37 percent of D.C. high school students who identify as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported being bullied over their sexual orientation during the previous year. Only 15 percent of heterosexual-identified students reported being bullied, the survey found.

The same survey found that 32 percent of students identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual reported attempting suicide in the previous 12 months compared to just 8 percent of heterosexual students who reported a suicide attempt.

“That’s almost one in three,” said Barnett, in referring to the suicide attempts reported by the gay, lesbian or bi sample.  “It’s shocking. It’s devastating,” he said. “That’s not thinking about suicide, that’s actually attempting suicide.”

The 2007 survey, the most recent one conducted, did not cover transgender students. D.C. school officials have said they plan to add a transgender component to future Youth Risk Behavior Surveys.

According to Barnett and Laura McGinnis, communications director for the Trevor Project, a national LGBT youth suicide prevention group, the D.C. public school system has one of the nation’s most far-reaching anti-bullying policies.

However, Barnett said many LGBT high school students in D.C. who frequent SMYAL’s drop-in center on Capitol Hill report that teachers and school administrators often don’t enforce the policy. He said LGBT students from D.C. area suburban schools also report widespread incidents of anti-LGBT bullying and harassment.

“Unfortunately, bullying and specifically bullying targeting LGBT students very much happens in D.C. area schools,” he said.

McGinnis said the recent rash of gay teen suicides has prompted media outlets to report on the Trevor Project’s 24-hour telephone “Lifeline,” where trained counselors help LGBT youth grapple with bullying and other problems linked to their sexual orientation.

But she said media reports and public policy makers sometimes have misinterpreted studies similar to the D.C. Youth Risk Behavior Survey, nearly all of which show LGBT youth having a higher suicide rate than non-LGBT youth.

“A person’s sexual orientation or gender identity is not, in and of itself, something that makes you more likely to take your own life,” McGinnis said. “Just being gay doesn’t mean you’ve also got the suicide gene.

“But what it does mean is that you are more likely to be bullied or harassed,” she said. “You’re more likely to be rejected by your family or your church. You’re more likely to not feel welcome in your community. You’re more likely to have a number of ills associated with you, whether it’s being told you’re going to go to hell or being told that homosexuality makes you less of a person,” she said.

It’s these external factors, McGinnis said, that lead some LGBT youth to depression or suicide, not their sexual orientation.

The three other gay youth-related suicide cases occurring in September involved high school and middle school students.

Seth Walsh, a 13-year-old middle school student from Tehachapi, Calif., died Sept. 29, 10 days after he hanged himself in the backyard of his home. His mother reported that she offered him love and support when, as a sixth grader, he told her he was gay.

But she and others who knew Walsh said he had been subjected to relentless taunting, bullying and harassment by fellow students over his being gay, a burden with which he apparently could no longer cope.

On Sept. 9, Billy Lucas, 15, hanged himself at his home in Greensburg, Ind., after years of being harassed by fellow students who perceived him to be gay.

Less than two weeks later, on Sept. 23, Asher Brown, a 13-year-old in Harris, Texas, a Houston suburb, shot himself in the head after being subjected to taunting and bullying by fellow students who believed he was gay.

His parents told the media, including the Houston Chronicle and CNN, that school officials ignored their pleas that they intervene on their son’s behalf to stop the harassment. School officials dispute those allegations, saying the parents never reported their son was the target of anti-gay harassment.

A fifth incident of anti-gay school bullying in September received national attention when “Good Morning America” interviewed 11-year-old Tyler Wilson of Ohio, who suffered a broken arm at the hands of two fellow students who believed him to be gay and subjected him to anti-gay taunts.

Wilson, who has not disclosed his sexual orientation, said he was attacked after he joined his school’s cheerleading team, becoming the first boy to become a part of what had always been an all-girls group. Since returning to school after being treated for his injury, he’s been threatened with having his other arm broken, he told “Good Morning America.”

Local colleges sensitive to anti-LGBT bullying

Officials with Georgetown University and the University of Maryland said their schools were among several in the D.C. area that have campus LGBT resource centers and policies in place that prohibit bullying, harassment and other aggressive acts targeting students because of personal characteristics such as race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity.

“I know that American University and George Mason University have similar LGBT resource centers or offices that also address these issues,” said Sivagami “Shiva” Subbaraman, director of Georgetown’s LGBTQ Resource Center.

Subbaraman said Georgetown and several other D.C. area universities held vigils or special gatherings during the past week in honor of the gay teens who committed suicide last month. She said the Clementi case was especially troubling to her and LGBT students and their supporters at Georgetown because it showed that campus support systems at Rutgers University did not reach Clementi.

Both Subbaraman’s office and the University of Maryland’s Office of LGBT Equity issued e-mail statements to all students, faculty and staff discussing the September gay teen suicides and reminding students of the availability of mental health counseling services and LGBT student support groups on their respective campuses.

Amari Ice, president of CASCADE, a Howard University group that represents LGBT students, said Howard doesn’t have an LGBT resource center but has counselors and other support personnel who are trained to assist LGBT students in need.

Rutgers University President Richard McCormick issued a statement last week addressing the death of Rutgers freshman Clementi.

“We grieve for him and for his family, friends, and classmates as they deal with the tragic loss of a gifted young man who was a strong student and a highly accomplished musician,” McCormick said.

“This tragedy and the events surrounding it have raised critical questions about the climate of our campuses,” he said. “Students, parents, and alumni have expressed deep concern that our university, which prides itself on its rich diversity, is not fully welcoming and accepting of all students.”

McCormick noted that a gay student group formed on the Rutgers campus in 1969, becoming only the second gay group in existence at the time on any college campus in the country. He said the college has long been fully supportive of its LGBT students, but will arrange to meet with LGBT students and faculty in the coming weeks to discuss how the school can improve its status as place where all people “feel accepted and respected.”

In D.C., meanwhile, gay activist Trevor Thomas organized a fundraiser for the Trevor Project on Friday, Oct. 8, at 7 p.m. at the Duplex Diner at 2004 18th St., N.W., in Adams Morgan. A donation of $10 is requested.

The Trevor Project’s 24-hour, seven-day help line can be reached at 1-866-488-7386. More information about the group, including access to its online chat site for LGBT youth, can be accessed here.

Lou Chibbaro Jr. has reported on the LGBT civil rights movement and the LGBT community for more than 30 years, beginning as a freelance writer and later as a staff reporter and currently as Senior News Reporter for the Washington Blade. He has chronicled LGBT-related developments as they have touched on a wide range of social, religious, and governmental institutions, including the White House, Congress, the U.S. Supreme Court, the military, local and national law enforcement agencies and the Catholic Church. Chibbaro has reported on LGBT issues and LGBT participation in local and national elections since 1976. He has covered the AIDS epidemic since it first surfaced in the early 1980s. Follow Lou

  • After 23 years in juvenile court, I believe that teenagers often learn from the experiences of their peers, not just from being lectured by those in authority. Consequently, “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” was published in January, 2010.
    Endorsed by Dr. Phil on April 8, 2010 [“Bullied to Death” show], “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” presents real cases of teens in trouble over their online and cell phone activities.
    Civil & criminal sanctions have been imposed on teens over their emails, blogs, text and IM messages, Facebook entries and more. TCI is interactive and promotes education & awareness so that our youth will begin to “Think B4 U Click.”
    Thanks for looking at “Teen Cyberbullying Investigated” on http://www.freespirit.com [publisher] or on http://www.askthejudge.info [a free website for & about teens and the law].
    Respectfully, -Judge Tom.

  • Bullying has 3 parts. It is a learned behavior when that is the type of behavior a youth sees and attempts to emulate. Part 2 however, is Developmental Trauma Disorder. Children can be traumatized to the extent that social, problem solving, self-soothing, self-monitoring, and communication skills are delayed. When this happens, they do not develop empathy or reciprocity, which comes later in the developmental cycle.These are needed to prevent someone from becoming a bully. We have to be careful to not see bullying or its solution in simplistic terms. Stopping bullying can be difficult and challenging. art three is how well we, as a society, accept or reject those that are different from ourselves. Are our systems and our traditions inclusionary or exclusionary. Examples are: 1) Is there only one “right” religion or way to celebrate a religious holiday? 2) Is there only one “acceptable” student nationality, tradition, dress, gender identity, ethnicity, learning style, or political belief that should dominate a school. Others that think or look differently are not welcome or are belittled? 3) What examples do we set for settling differences of opinion?

  • I just finished watching Dear Evan Hansen at arena stage, and it reminded me of how lone some it felt being in highschool, and the bullying of anyone different. So I was wondering if anyone knows if there is someone or group I can talk to about helping to stop bullying and teenage suicide. I don’t have much money but I have time and effort to help anyway I can.

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