Want to Prevent Gay Teen Suicide? Legalize Marriage Equality

Asher Brown

Asher Brown (1997-2010)

Growing up as a gay kid, life is a difficult puzzle. You keep getting crushes on the wrong people. If you’re a girl, you’re supposed to be going all gooey inside for Matt and Jason, the hotties on the lacrosse team. And if you’re Matt, you’re supposed to be pining for Ashley or Jessica — not yearning to run away to a jam-band festival with Jason.

You also have to learn to feel comfortable with your newly discovered identity despite the fact that the word gay — for the current generation of kids — is the synonym of choice for lame, clueless, dorky, and generally loser-ish. That’s the thing about the notion that being gay is a “lifestyle choice,” as the Tea Party-anointed Republican candidate for Senate in Colorado, Ken Buck, reiterated last week. What painfully self-conscious, acutely socially aware teenager (i.e., any kid) would make the choice to get ridiculed on a regular basis?

When I hear the phrase “lifestyle choice,” I visualize a couple of tanned, toned, and mustachioed men sitting around reading brochures so they can make a truly informed choice. On one brochure, a suburban family piles into a cream-colored SUV on the way to Wal-Mart to stock up on toilet paper and Pringles. On the other brochure, a crew of oiled-up muscle studs in Speedos sip from coconuts at a pool party while the DJ takes it up a notch. After browsing through both brochures, one guy finally says to the other, “Mario? I think we should make the gay lifestyle choice after all.”

That’s not what figuring out that you’re gay is like. In fact, figuring out that you’re gay is a lot like figuring out that you’re straight, but with the added angst of not knowing if your family and friends will ever talk to you again if they find out who you really are.

Here’s what I don’t think of when I hear the phrase “lifestyle choice”: 13-year old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, California — more alone than he would ever be in his brief and tormented life — looping a belt around a tree branch in his backyard so he could hang himself and never again have to hear his peers shouting Faggot! Faggot! Faggot! Faggot! On Monday, Seth — who his mother described as a “very bright, artistic boy” — died in an intensive-care unit when his devastated parents took him off life support.

Seth Walsh

Seth Walsh (1997-2010)

This month alone, an appalling number of gay teens have made the choice of killing themselves instead of facing more mockery, bullying, and abuse. On September 9, 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Indiana, hanged himself from the rafters of his grandmother’s barn. Not long after that, a 13-year old in Houston, Texas named Asher Brown, after being bullied for years, put a 9mm bullet through his head. (In Asher’s case, the gaybashing didn’t even stop after his death.) Then last week, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his roommate had used a webcam to surreptitiously broadcast him making out with a guy.

Verbal abuse and physical violence against gay and lesbian teens are not the exceptions but the rule. In a recent study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network [PDF link], eight out of ten of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed, four in ten reported physical harassment, and one in six reported being physically assaulted at school in the past year alone. Two-thirds of these students reported feeling unsafe in school because of their sexual orientation.

In some ways, I had it relatively easy growing up gay. The notion that homosexuals might not deserve aversive shock treatment, incarceration, or chemical castration was still relatively new in the ’70s, but I was blessed with very loving, liberal parents. When I informed them that I had a crush on my best friend, they didn’t beat me up, throw me out of the house, or threaten to blow my head off. Instead, they promptly sent me to a therapist, hoping that she could set me straight.

Luckily she turned out to be a very smart therapist. After our second or third session, she asked me, “Are you happy with yourself?” “Yes,” I replied. “Then I see no reason why you have to keep seeing me,” she said.

Unfortunately, I was lying. In fact, I was desperately sad — not about being gay, but about the likelihood that I would never be able to find someone to spend my life with. In the early days of gay liberation, I didn’t hear much about lifelong commitment. Instead, I heard an awful lot about sex, which was the only thing on offer in the bars and bathhouses where I was supposed to look for my “real” community.

Never mind that I preferred reading science fiction books to drinking and dancing. Never mind that I had no interest in pursuing anonymous hookups with men 30 years older than me. Never mind that I felt even more out of place in a bar full of guys in leather than I did among my straight peers. I just wanted what they already had: the hope that someday I, too, would find my soulmate — as my parents had done.

The good news is that my saga as a lovelorn single gay man ended the way that Shakespeare’s comedies do: with merriment and a wedding. After many years together, my science-teacher husband Keith and I got married — once with our friends and families in 2002, and again, this time with a marriage license, in 2008 — a story I’ve recounted in detail elsewhere. My parents happily attended our first wedding; alas, by the time that Keith and I were able to get legally married in California, my father had passed away. But despite the best efforts of the Mormon church, the Republican party, and the bigots who got Proposition 8 passed by playing on fear and equating our marriage to incest and bestiality, we’re still happily married.

Keith and Steve

Keith and Steve tie the knot at San Francisco City Hall, 2008

One of the people who would have been most surprised and delighted by this happy turn of events was my 17-year-old self. The only married couples I saw then — on the street, in the movies, on TV, and in books — were straight. Gay people? If they hadn’t actually committed suicide by the end of the plot — as so many gay characters did — they still ended up alone, uttering their jaded witticisms to an empty room. By the ’90s, gay characters on TV had become the stylish best friends of the female leads — but equally sexless and bereft of romance. Now, slowly, couples like my husband and I are starting to appear in the media to talk honestly about their own experiences.

But the national debate over the right to marry is still dominated by the shrill voices of people like right-wing pundit Maggie Gallagher, head of the National Organization for Marriage (sic), whose life’s work is migrating from state to state, stirring up fear and panic about other people’s marriages, and funneling millions of dollars into local initiatives to “prove” that most voters are dead set against marriage equality.

Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher, head of NOM

Imagine a bunch of rabbis in Brooklyn dubbing themselves Concerned Americans for a Healthier Diet, and then soliciting money from orthodox Jewish communities up and down the East Coast to get laws passed in the South banning the consumption of pork. That’s what it feels like to have Gallagher and her crew of aspiring theocrats, fortified by millions of Mormon bucks tithed from Utah, descend on your state in a flurry of TV ads and glossy pamphlets to pass a law like Proposition 8.

Let’s face it: Gallagher makes a strange national icon for the benefits of marriage. She never appears in public with her own husband, a guy named Raman Srivastav. In fact, it’s difficult to find a photo of Gallagher with her spouse on the Internet — or even one of Srivastav by himself. Raman, Raman, are you still there? Speak to us! Why has your wife hidden you away in the attic?

Raman Srivastav

Raman Srivastav, Maggie Gallagher's invisible husband

Gallagher wasn’t always a smiley-face cheerleader for bigots; when she was young, she fancied herself a pop sociologist, and wrote several books about her own experiences as an unwed mother. In The Case for Marriage, co-written in 2000 with an actual sociologist named Linda Waite, Gallagher marshaled an array of statistics demonstrating the social and personal benefits of marriage. On the whole, she and Waite argued, married people are happier, healthier, less promiscuous, and more financially secure than single people. Indeed, had Waite been the sole author of the book, it might have turned out to be an eloquent argument that these benefits should be extended to gay couples too.

But there’s a note toward the end of the book indicating why that didn’t happen: “As private citizens, the authors have reached different conclusions, with Linda Waite tending to favor and Maggie Gallagher tending to oppose extending marriage to same-sex couples.” And there’s a second note that, in retrospect, is a poignant commentary on the insidious effects of homophobia.

We suspect, but do not know, that adults in such same-sex couples would reap some, but not all, the benefits of marriage. The benefits accorded same-sex couples by marriage would also depend on the extent to which family, friends, and other social institutions supported these unions.

In other words, the social benefits of same-sex marriage will depend, in part, on the acceptance of straight family members and local communities. Thankfully, our own families were very supportive. I doubt my Fox News-watching Republican relatives from the Midwest would have been in favor of “same-sex marriage” in theory or on a ballot, if they weren’t even more in favor of their son’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The rot at the core of Maggie Gallagher’s heart is the fact that she’s betting her career on being able to prevent other people from finding the fulfillment and security that she yearned for as a single mom.

What does this have to do with gay teen suicide?

Since there haven’t yet been studies of suicide rates in states that have legalized marriage equality, it’s hard to say. But as a former gay teen who thought about suicide on a regular basis through my high school years, I can tell you: If I’d known that someday I might be lucky enough to wed a sweet, brilliant, handsome, science-loving geek, I would have been a much happier and less stressed-out kid. I didn’t need a therapist. I needed visible role models to give me a realistic picture of the happiness possible in committed gay relationships.

Keith with DNA molecule

Keith, a middle-school science teacher, with a model of a DNA molecule

If any of the gay kids who killed themselves this month could have gotten that kind of encouraging message about their own futures, they might have chosen life instead of death. That’s why writer Dan Savage has launched a project on YouTube called It Gets Better. Savage (author of the widely syndicated “Savage Love” column) has invited gay people to upload their own videos with uplifting messages for gay teens. Many of those who have already made videos have done so with their partners.

It’s a simple, marvelous, and very 21st century idea. For all the gay kids that people like Maggie Gallagher and Ann Coulter have sentenced to death by helping to promote a climate of fear, bigotry, and bullying, if even one kid’s life is saved by seeing one of the It Gets Better videos, Savage’s project is worthwhile. When you’re growing up gay in a mostly straight world, even one more piece of the puzzle — like the message that you, too, are worthy of love that lasts a lifetime — can make all the difference.

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32 Responses to Want to Prevent Gay Teen Suicide? Legalize Marriage Equality

  1. Bill says:

    Sorry, but while I feel sympathy for those who took their own lives, blaming it on those who oppose same-sex marriage is stretching things beyond belief. I was teased unmercifully in HS because I was a nerdy type (as were many others) and would be willing to bet that 9 out of 10 students such as myself could have reported verbal harassment as well as physical harassment in many cases. And, obviously, harassment of students for any reason is regrettable and wrong. Yet I killed neither myself nor anyone else due to the anguish and stress this caused me. In addition, I know of many people of that age group who have made choices which brought ridicule upon themselves because (perhaps) of the attention it brought and the sense of belonging to a small group “fighting against the world.” I also have heard several gay people claim that they have known since they were younger (3, 2, and 1 [!] years of age) that they were strongly sexually attracted to members of the same sex. Come on – I don’t know of anyone at age 3 who knew choices other than “Chocolate or vanilla ice cream?” or something similar. I know and am friends with a number of gay people (and am sure that I have other friends who are gay but who choose to keep their sexual choices private) and none of them would blame suicides by young people who believe that they are gay on someone who believes homosexuality is morally wrong, let alone someone who tolerates or accepts homosexuality but believes that marriage is between a man and a woman.
    In addition, I have discussed this issue with others who claim that any mention of God does not belong in this discussion and then bring up the Declaration’s phrase about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” When I point out that in the same sentence it says that “the Creator” has given these rights, they are forced to recognize that we must then discuss what that Creator would say about this issue, after all.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Bill:

      Which one of these statements is not like the other:

      1) Classrooms and water fountains are for white students.
      2) This neighborhood is not for people of the Jewish faith.
      3) Marriage is between a man and a woman.

      Answer? Not a damn one of them is different. They’re all the same.

      If you don’t think anti-gay marriage rhetoric and laws like DOMA are damaging to young people’s self-esteem, perhaps you can explain how RNC official Dave Agema, who recently declared that he’s against marriage equality because gays carry disease and homosexuality is an addiction like alcoholism, isn’t contributing to an environment of hate that leads to more bullying and suicide. Just because you don’t like thinking of yourself that way doesn’t mean you’re not a bigot. Feel free to ramble on all you like about what you think “the Creator” wants, but until you’re ready for Allah to have a voice in what your wife wears on the street, or Jehovah to determine whether you eat pork and shellfish, you might think twice about suggesting that the alleged opinions of a deity be relied upon to provide the foundation of civil laws.

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      • Bill says:

        Picking and choosing the most objectionable statements of those who disagree with your opinion in order to accuse all them of bigotry goes both ways – gay activists who denounce heterosexuals as “breeders” comes to mind as contributing to an environment of hate. Does that make you a bigot by association, as well?

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        • Steve Silberman says:

          Bill:

          I had no idea that heterosexuals are so often targeted for hate, bigotry, and unjust laws that it counts as an “environment.” That’s why that particular rhetorical tactic doesn’t work in this case. I’m not talking some theoretical case. When some nasty guy talking about “breeders” can prevent your spouse from visiting you in the hospital when you’re sick, you’ll have a better idea of what I mean.

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  4. Steve, I can’t say anything that your awesome readers haven’t already addressed. It’s a beautiful post and I agree 100%. Legalizing gay marriage sends the message that gay relationships are as valid and “normal” as straight ones – and that helps move us, as a society, further towards acceptance.

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  5. Abby-Wan Kenobi says:

    Great article. Very well-said.

    The value of positive examples in children’s lives can’t be overstated. Thanks for putting this out there.

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  6. Peter Hale says:

    thanks Steve. Moving piece!

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  7. Wonderful article, Steve. Just want you to know that some of us straights are on your side. I’m pro-gay marriage and anti-gay bullying and harassment.

    And since today would have been John Lennon’s 70th birthday, here’s a limerick by him in honor of the occasion.

    Why make it sad to be gay? Doing your thing is okay. Our body’s our own, so leave us alone, and go play with yourself today.

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  8. Benjy says:

    I wonder if people like Maggie Gallagher ever read blog posts and articles like this one, and if so, whether it makes even the slightest impact or they, Pharaoh-like, harden their hearts to the plight of a (perceived) morally inferior class of people.

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  9. mangrist says:

    Absolutely heartbreaking.

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  10. elm says:

    I read the article about the suicide of Tyler Clementi this week and felt such deep sorrow. Having sent two of my children off to university away from home in recent years, I felt joy and excitement for them as they embarked on a new journey of learning and adventure. I cannot even imagine how devastated his parents must feel to have their son treated this way and to have lost him.
    As a Canadian I am grateful that we have legalized gay marriage. I am delighted for a number of my gay friends who are able to live openly and happily with their partners.
    As a society we need to treat each other with respect & kindness regardless of difference or sexual orientation.
    Thank you for writing your article. hopefully by speaking out and raising awareness we can move to positive change.

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  11. Barbara Saunders says:

    Steve, while I fully agree with you that marriage equality is a moral imperative, I have to disagree with a part of the underlying premise. I’m a single-by-choice person who’s never “believed in” marriage. We can’t look at the suicides of gay teens in isolation from the many killings of self and other that are related to this society’s/culture’s rigid ideal of “romantic love.”

    People kill themselves because they are rejected by “the One.” People murder their spouses over cheating or suspicion of cheating. People suffer all kinds of grief, frustration, and wasted energy trying to cram their psyches and relationships into a particular ideal of the soulmate couple – which I just don’t believe is one-size-fits -all. People destroy or discard positive relationships because they do not live up to that ideal. Those of us who would configure our lives in some other way than “household based on a romantic pair bond” are SOL legally and financially.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      I understand, and that’s all true. At the same ime, I’m very confident that legalizing same-sex marriage would prove to be a dramatic social benefit for young gay people on the whole, even if some relationships didn’t go well or not everyone was happy with the marriage model.

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  13. EarthandIce says:

    I have several friends that are conservative Christian. I have asked them how legalizing marriage between same sex couples would affect their marriage. They had no answer.

    I am very sad that these children thought the only way out of their pain was to take their life, and for those families who have to deal with the pain of loosing a child so young.

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  15. Emma says:

    Great, great read :)

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  16. Paola says:

    very beautiful text!

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  17. Sarah says:

    Steve, I loved this post and I loved Brad’s comment. And I second Peter’s suggestion. Let us all know when you’re video is up–judging by that pic of your husband & his DNA molecule, I think he’d be especially engaging on video! ;-)

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  18. Steve, this was an absolutely beautiful post. Have you and Keith considered providing a video for the “It Gets Better” project? I think many gay teens would find your story immensely encouraging.

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thank you, Peter! Yes, I’m going to ask Keith if he wants to do that as soon as he gets home from work..

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  19. Brad Thomas says:

    Steve,

    what a ttremendous piece. Parts of it almost brought me to tears. As a father of 3, I can’t imagine losing a child to suicide at such an early age (and I honestly can’t imagine the pain that a child must feel to want to escape that badly).

    By the way, I used to live in Cole Valley (until 2001). And as a fellow deadhead would sometimes chat you up out on the street by Cafe Reverie, the hardware store, etc.

    Congrats on your marriage, and thanks for writing such a touching article.

    Brad T

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    • Steve Silberman says:

      Thank you so much, Brad, that means a lot to me. Next time you’re in the neighborhood, drop me a line!

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