The last few weeks have seen a flurry of stories about the supposed rise in queer suicides, particularly by youth and young adults. But while the deaths are undoubtedly tragic, they are by no means unusual and have not increased in number; they are simply being reported on more often. The exact reasons why the press would, at this time, take such an interest in queer suicides are the subjects of a future piece. For now, I want to complicate the narratives and stories about queer youth that are being spun in the media and in our cultural discourse.
It is necessary to pay attention, as we have been doing, to why queer youth in particular are more than four times as likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. It is even more important to pay attention to how we deploy and even, on occasion, distort their reasons for doing so. Attempts to provide both reasons and solutions for the problem are often shamelessly manipulative and display a rank ignorance of the many multiple contexts in which queer youth live and die.
Take, for instance, the short but hyperbolic video by Sarah Silverman, where she says: "Dear America, When you tell gay Americans that they can't serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you're telling that to kids, too. So don't be fucking shocked and wonder where all these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves … because they learned it from watching you."
Kathy Griffin takes this even further on a PSA for the Trevor Project where she says, "That's why it's so important that Prop 8 gets thrown out by the Supreme Court and 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell' gets repealed. Because right now the message the government is sending our young people is that it's unacceptable and inferior to be gay."
No. Those are not the reasons why queer children and youth kill themselves. In 2009, 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover killed himself in Massachusetts after being taunted, on a daily basis, for being gay. Walker-Hoover did not identify as gay. He lived in a state where gay marriage has been legal since 2004.
There are, of course, several instances of queer-identified youth killing themselves after being bullied on account of their sexuality. And, certainly, the extreme right's hostility to gay marriage or gays in the military does create a climate where there is at least a segment of society used to engaging in hateful rhetoric about queers.
But none of this justifies a logistical leap to the point of arguing that allowing gays to get married or join the army will somehow make people hate queers, or people they think of as queers, less. When a queer gets bashed, the basher isn't thinking, "I hope this person isn't the married kind because THEY would be all right." The issue facing us is not how to make the bigots love us, but the bigotry they express. Which is to say: twisting and turning gay marriage into a solution for queer suicides is an abhorrent tactic to bolster the cause of gay marriage, on which there is no consensus in the LGBTQ community. The simple truth is that people hate us and will cause us harm. They may hate us because they secretly see themselves in us and are terrified of what that means, or they may hate us simply because they see us as the evil to be wiped out. But they hate us and they will cause us harm. The fact that we might be able to marry will not make a bit of difference to such deep-seated hatred.
To say otherwise is to make a political point—and make no mistake, gay marriage is a political matter—and the Trevor Project, for which Griffin was acting as a spokesperson, has no business mixing politics into its messages about queer youth. When someone commits suicide because life as a queer or being perceived as a queer is so unbearable, it's not because they simply dream of being married someday. It's because their lives are living nightmares.
My 22-year-old friend Hans Anggraito probably put it best: "Just as anti-depression pills are being handed out like candy to people in my generation, gay marriage is offered as the magic bullet to solve all of our gay woes."
I have no doubt that, despite the problems with the Griffin PSA, the Trevor Project is doing vital and important work. But what of preventive measures before that happens? What are the conditions in which students live? For that we need to turn to local organizations staffed by local activists who understand the issues. More importantly, we need to understand that queerness is not all that defines these youth.
Chicago has the most militarised school district in the country and there is tremendous pressure on the schools' minority populations to join the army. The DREAM Act, which would give a chance at citizenship to undocumented youth brought here by their parents before the age of six, has a military option: students can enlist for two years in order to gain a path to citizenship. The districts' military schools already heavily recruit African-American and Latino/a students, building on a prevalent idea that students of color are more likely to need discipline that they supposedly lack in their families. In addition, military service is offered as an economic ladder, promising upward mobility to these students. Students also face tremendous violence in their school neighborhoods: In 2008, more than 500 schoolchildren were shot in Chicago.
When I raise these issues in relation to queer youth, I am often told that these are not queer-specific. But queer youth are also undocumented, at risk of being shot and live in a district where they are preyed upon by the aggressive recruiting tactics of the military. All of these circumstances are a result of the violence of the state, which promises liberation through the possibility of being killed but will not guarantee that students might go to school without the same possibility. Being harassed for being queer only compounds matters for these students.
There have been cases of undocumented youth committing suicide for fear of being deported. And surely it is also possible that some of the suicides we hear of come about because a combination of poverty and lack of support in schools. Yet, sociologists and cultural critics rarely acknowledge poverty as a cause of death while "sexual orientation/gender identity" is a cause that they find easy to grasp. When the undocumented are discovered to also be queer, the media focuses on the idea that they face the possibility of violence in their countries of origin, bolstering the myth that a state so violent as to refuse legitimacy to these youth can actually now provide protection from the presumed repression of another state. But students, like anyone else, do not live in vacuums where only their sexual identities define their existence. They are acted upon by multiple issues. More importantly, they are also capable of political will and agency. Would queer students want to join a military that will not allow them to serve openly? For that matter, would they even want to serve at all?
Students, queer or otherwise, participate in immigration rallies, sometimes under threat of being expelled. Youth of color enter Boystown only to be told by merchants and residents that they have no right to be there and that they make the neighborhood look too dangerous. They participate in anti-war marches. At a meeting organized by queer youth to address the ongoing problem of racism towards youth of color in Boystown, business owners spoke condescendingly about the lack of resources on the south side. One youth stood up and shot back words to this effect: "We do have places on the South Side, you just don't choose to fund them." Youth are not stupid, and they know when they're being lied to.
The point is that queer bullying cannot operate in a vacuum. A school that is hostile to queer youth is not likely to be safe for many of its other students. The logic that queer suicides have to do entirely with sexual identity erases the complicated realities of what it means to be an LGBT or queer youth, and it turns queer youth into apolitical people who just need to be rescued.
The current rise in the reports of queer youth suicides does not signify either an epidemic or a crisis. What we are witnessing is the ongoing reality of what it means to be queer in a world where we forego complicated, systemic analyses of our issues in favor of simplistic and sentimental rhetoric about love and bravery conquering all. The Trevor Project is a hotline, not a program. While it performs an important service, the long-term work of preventing these suicides in a systemic way can only happen if we consider queer youth as more than just queer. If we are to address the issue of queer suicides, we need to think long and hard about actually addressing the depth and complexity of the problem without resorting to magic pill arguments.