Dying for acceptance

By now you have probably heard of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who killed himself last week by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcast a live feed of him having sex with another man over the Internet.

One week later, the media is acting as if they just discovered the epidemic of gay teen suicide. By next week they will be touting some other, supposedly more pressing issue. But that’s okay; that’s the nature of the beast. We are glad that for a little bit of time we get to shine a light on this genuinely important issue.

Make no mistake; the problem of gay teen suicides did not begin last week with the tragic case of Clementi. It has been an issue for years, so much so that several organizations have grown to address them, the Trevor Project being one worthy example.

Statistics show that gay and lesbian teenagers are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.

But why are these things true? What makes an early shuffle off this mortal coil so much more attractive for these people? Well, it’s because this world to which they are saying goodbye is cruel—often just as much, if not more so, than they perceive it to be.

The evidence of such a claim? It’s all around us—in our schools, on our televisions, in our religious institutions and too often in our law books.

Consider that last week Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), a probable candidate for senate majority leader if the Republicans take control of the Senate this November, made headlines by suggesting homosexuals should not be allowed to teach in public schools. The message is explicit: DeMint does not like gay people. The message is implicit: one of the most powerful men in American government doesn’t think schools are a safe place for gays and lesbians. Imagine being someone as prepared for life as a gay 13 year old and hearing that statement.

It is laughably absurd and profoundly insulting. DeMint has accused at least 5 percent of the population as being unfit based on assumptions that have no basis in fact. If the sixth and fourteenth amendments ever had social corollaries, then clearly DeMint has trampled them to within an inch of their useful lives.

We could attempt to excuse his comments by writing them off as another strong, lazy election-year pander to the right. Except that the evidence suggests otherwise. DeMint is opposed by Alvin Greene—the most unlikely of dark horse candidates—who he leads by 40 points in the polls. If anyone could afford a pause from campaigning to observe human rights, or simply to restrain his own propensity to slander, surely it is DeMint. These seem to be his actual beliefs, which are not exactly what you want to hear in a back-away-from-the-ledge speech.

But these kinds of messages are sent to gay youths all the time. Often not just by a single senator acting alone; sometimes a majority of both chambers jumps on the bandwagon, giving their anti-gay beliefs the full force of law.

How else are we to interpret the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act? That act, still on the books, defines federal marriage as a heterosexual union of one man and one woman. It was designed to nip any notion of national marriage equality in the bud. For this a large number of Democrats reached across the isle to vote with Republicans. In modern legislative parlance we would call it bipartisan—too bad if you are a bisexual.

Imagine our hypothetical 13 year old’s reaction to once again being told, "You are equal, but…" Whatever else this message does, it does not tighten his or her attachment to society or increase verve for life.

And just what was Congress trying to accomplish with that title? The idea that marriages needed to be defended assumes a rather injurious notion that gays and lesbians are some sort of barbarian tribe, lurking at the gate. Just how injurious we may never know, but since 1996 the sounds of one hand slashing have not quieted.

Envision two individuals, A and B, and who are both equal and deserving of respect. But assume that person B cannot serve in the military, cannot marry, cannot adopt, can be fired for no reason in several states and who’s label has become a universal pejorative for anything we would be willing to pay to avoid. While lip service may be mightily paid to the idea of equality between A and B, we all know that B will receive less respect and will be bullied more often. That is the undeserved state of gays and lesbians in America today; they are equal, but…

Perhaps the most convincing argument is literally right in front of our faces: our noses. Scientists have demonstrated that gay men react to smells the same way that heterosexual women do, and the same for lesbians and heterosexual men. Who among us knew before we arrived nicely packaged into our own consciousnesses that we would be the people we have become? Isn’t it enough to rejoice in the fact that we get to be here, with each other? It should not really be a matter of grave concern that one brain revs up—letting loose torrents of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine—at the first whiff of Clinique Happy, while another prefers Aqua de Gio. Is that really something to die for? More importantly for straight America: is that really something to kill for?