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High-Profile Suicides of LGBTQ Youth Lead to Calls for Action, New Advocacy Efforts

A recent series of high-profile suicides by youth are believed to be the result of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) targeted bullying. Friends and family of at least seven of the nine publicized cases in September have suggested that the suicides were directly in response to discrimination to their actual or perceived sexual orientation. All nine were students in their teens. Several of the cases have prompted investigations by local police and district superintendents.[1]
The tragic deaths of these students is even more disturbing when coupled with recent reports outlining the widespread nature of the problem. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network’s (GLSEN) 2009 National School Climate Survey found that nine out of ten LGBT-identified students experienced harassment at their middle school or high school in the past year and almost two-thirds felt unsafe due to their sexual orientation.[2] Another report, conducted by Campus Pride in partnership with Iowa State University and Pennsylvania State University, concluded that LGBTQ-identified college students and employees face significant harassment where lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals are twice as likely to be harassed as heterosexual peers and transgender and gender-nonconforming respondents were three times more likely.[3] A smaller study released by the District of Columbia Office of the State Superintendent of Education also reported significant harassment and disproportionate school absences among LGB-identified middle and high school students in DC. The same study reported that LGB students are also more likely to engage in drug use and an alarming 29% of LGB students reported at least one attempted suicide.[4]
These reports underscore the need for education and support efforts that demonstrate the validity and diversity of human sexuality. The GLSEN report noted that having a Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) and the presence of a supportive staff were related to students having a more positive experience, greater sense of belonging, less absenteeism, and greater academic achievement. Furthermore, positive representations of LGBTQ people may “promote a general tone of acceptance.”[5] Combined with comprehensive anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies, there is evidence that targeted bullying, harassment, and assault can be reduced, positively affecting overall mental and physical health and reducing the number of suicides.[6]
Unlike the majority of suicides by young LGBTQ-identified individuals, those in the month of September gained an unusual amount of media attention in part due to the significant trangressiveness of the bullying and the response by advocates. Advice columnist Dan Savage created a video project with the intent to let young LGBTQ individuals facing bullying know that their lives and circumstances would improve. The project, titled It Gets Better, started with a video by Savage and his partner enumerating the bullying they were subject to in their youth and the fact that their lives have gotten better since their high school days. The project invited others to create their own video messages on YouTube and has attracted a myriad of celebrities in addition to voices composed of a diverse group of gender, orientation, faith, race, and geographic experiences.[7]
While the It Gets Better project provides emotional and anecdotal support and focuses on life after individuals move away from their bullies, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network took the initiative one step further and created the Make It Better project to provide tools for youth, adults, LGBTQ individuals, and allies to improve their current environment. Organizations and advocates involved in the Make it Better project, including the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States (SIECUS), hope that these efforts will also help garner support for legislation such as the Student Non-Discrimination Act (H.R. 4530/S. 3390) and the Safe School Improvement Act (H.R. 2262/S. 3739), which will provide safer schools for LGBTQ students.[8]
“SIECUS joins our colleagues in expressing our sorrow at the recent deaths. Our hearts go out to these young people who have shown that disparity, discrimination, and stigma lead to negative health outcomes, whether in physical health or mental health, and that bullying and harassment can exact a huge price,” comments Jen Heitel Yakush, director of public policy for SIECUS. “These events reaffirm our commitment to the importance of education in the fight against discrimination. If all young people had a foundation of comprehensive sexuality education, from their families and schools, it would go a long way to combating the ignorance, prejudice, and stigma that often comes from a lack of information on issues regarding sexual orientation and gender identity,” she continued. “LGBTQ youth or those who do not fall into society’s stereotypes of gender expression should have every opportunity to live the happy and healthy lives that all of our youth deserve.”

[1] “Many Gather for Anti-gay Bullying Vigil,” Fox 25 News, 5 October 2010, accessed 14 October 2010, <>.

[2] Joseph G. Kosciw et al., The 2009 National School Climate Survey (New York, NY: GLSEN, 2010), accessed 14 October 2010, <>.

[3] Sara Lipka, “Gay Students and College Employees Face Significant Harassment, Report Says,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 14 September 2010, accessed 14 October 2010, <>.

[4] The DC Center for the LGBT Community, “DC OSSE’s 2009 LGBTQ Youth Risk Behavior,” 30 September 2010, accessed 14 October 2010, <>.

[5] Kosciw et al., The 2009 National School Climate Survey,66.

[6] Ibid.,61.

[7] Dan Savage “Give ‘Em Hope,” Savage Love Advice column, The Stranger, 23 September 2010, accessed 14 October 2010, <>.

[8] Make It Better Project, “Take Action,” accessed 14 October 2010, <>.