None of the recent teen suicides were unpreventable. Here’s how we move forward.
The tragic news of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, and Billy Lucas committing suicide because they were taunted by their classmates is shining a bright light on the bullying epidemic. Every day thousands of adolescents—both gay and straight—are subject to peer torment. Sticks and stones may break bones, but names do hurt. Bullying is virulent behavior and a form of abuse, and many psychologists agree it can often have lasting effects that can damage the victim’s psyche. I should know. I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder because of the severe bullying I endured in high school.
For four years, high school became my own private hell. A nightmarish, David-and-Goliath-type war, fought daily on a public battlefield. My battle scars run deep. You just can’t see them.
|Asher Brown, 13|
The group of guys who bullied me were the popular kids, the jocks. I was the textbook artsy gay kid, although I wasn’t out at the time. Instead of participating in sports, I sang and danced in show choir. I was effeminate, had a high-pitched voice (even after puberty), and, at a skinny 5’5″, was not much of a physical threat. At lunch I would sit with the popular girls, the only guy at the table, because I felt much more comfortable and safer around women. That didn’t help matters. I attracted bullies.
Although I never attempted suicide, suicidal thoughts ran through my mind frequently, and I suffered a debilitating depression. Each day was a struggle. There were times when I literally could not get out of bed in the morning. When I would get home, I would immediately go to sleep. Also, I had obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the anxiety and depression caused by the bullying led to trichotillomania. I would twirl and twist my hair, and then yank it out. Several small bald spots dotted the back of my head.
Some of the memories of being bullied have been blacked out, buried in my unconscious. Other memories are still fresh. Like the time I was walking back from the lunch line by myself and was nailed in the face with a meatball sub, then laughed at. Or the time I was literally voted off from my first lunch table by some male classmates. I spent the rest of the week locked in the bathroom crying until I decided to sit with the popular girls. It was though I was figuratively and literally living out an episode of Survivor.
|Seth Walsh, 13|
The jocks gay-bashed me. They called me “fag” almost every day, many times in front of teachers and administrators. When they found out I liked Nancy Sinatra, they started calling me “Boots,” clearly not as a term of endearment. They threw my books into the dumpster. They mimicked me and laughed at me. They threatened my life. One bully phoned one evening and told me not to come to school the next day or he would kill me.
I was too scared to tell the school administration at first, but I finally got up enough courage to do so sophomore year. They did nothing. I was too embarrassed to tell my family. What if what the jocks were calling me was true? Then everyone, including my family, would know, and I would have to confess to something I wasn’t comfortable yet admitting.
Although I knew the definition of the word “homosexual,” I didn’t know what being gay actually meant, and all that came with it. I was just trying to deal with all the usual physical and emotional changes that teenagers dealt with. What I did know was that if I really was a fag, I’d better not say anything because the way in which the bullies called me that name was so vicious and filled with such rage, it terrified me to think of what they might do to me if I confirmed their suspicions.
So I told people I had sex with girls, ones with whom I worked, who were always older and lived in different towns. Of course, I vehemently denied that I was gay to anyone who would ask.
|Billy Lucas, 15|
I spent hours wondering why I was being targeted. What was it about me that made them do this? And why did they think it was OK? What was I doing exactly that made them think I was gay? A couple of my closest girlfriends, who dated or were intimate with the jocks, said these same guys who were calling me a fag were masturbating in the showers together, after practice. This would happen fairly often, I was told. The coach would catch them and tell them to stop, but they never did. Then when they would see me, they would call me a fag. At the time, it didn’t make sense. As I got older and understood what homophobia was and the psychology behind that, it at least offered some sort of explanation.
One day during my senior year, two guys called me a fag and I couldn’t take it anymore. When I got home, I went on the computer and filled out an “All About Me” survey. They were popular at the time, and the kind that asked inane questions like “What’s your favorite TV show?” “Who’s your best friend?” and “Who do you hate?” For that last question, I named names. Then I gave brief reasons why I hated them. There were about 30 people on the list. I sent the email to my usual group of friends. One of those people sent it to all 30 people on the list, and in a matter of hours, it reached the entire student body.
Consciously, I did not want that email to get out. But I believe it’s possible that subconsciously I wanted everyone to read it. It could have been a desperate cry for help. Either way, the incident blew up.
Somehow, I found out the email was distributed the same day it went out. The next day, I got up early and went to see the housemaster and confessed. Then he locked me in a windowless room for the rest of the day while he went to comfort the bullies who, by this time, were seething with anger. Finally, he returned with the principal and the police. I phoned my parents. By this time, they knew what had been going on, and the administration’s failure to respond to my requests for help. My mother had had several heated phone calls with the principal.
I explained the situation to my mother, then handed the phone over the housemaster. As he was talking to her, I noticed that the principal standing in the doorway smirking. Infuriated, I caught his eye and said to him, “Why are you here? You’ve never helped me. You knew I was being tormented, and you never did a single thing about it. So why don’t you go. You didn’t help me then, and you’re not going to help me now.” He looked at me for a moment. His smirk faded. And without saying a single word, he turned around and left.
In less than a day, the attackers became the victims, despite the fact that there were more threats on my life and that in the aftermath of the email incident, I had to have police protection on the weekends. Patrol cars would drive up and down my street. I was suspended for three days and offered early graduation, which I steadfastly declined. Then the administration made me do one-on-one mediation with the 30 people I named in the email. To be forced to face these people not as a victim, but as the person responsible for causing them harm was one of the hardest and most infuriating things I’ve ever had to do. When I returned to school after my suspension, I had to be walked to and from class for fear of violence against me.
The housemaster told my parents and me that if any of the jocks harassed me again, they would be expelled. A few months later, one of them called me a fag, in front of my friend. We both told the housemaster. Instead of expelling the bully, he slapped him on the wrist with a two-day indoor suspension. When the bully found out, he found me near my locker. Standing just inches from my face, he started screaming at me, denying the whole incident and threatening me. I have absolutely no idea what he said exactly. I was too frozen with fear. This guy was big, a football player and built like a house. Finally I came to my senses, grabbed the hand of a friend who was standing next to me and walked away. I’m fairly certain I left school, got in my car, and went home. This is one of the memories that is partially blocked out.
This is not a woe-is-me tale. My experiences are an important part of my history and have shaped—and continue to shape—who I am. Unfortunately, my story isn’t unique. There are thousands of others who have to experience every day what I experienced for four years. And who knows how many go unreported by the media. What’s different about the bullying epidemic is that it can end. Stories like these don’t have to continue to be told. But until the epidemic is officially ended, these stories need to be told.
Noted sex columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project, where gay and lesbian adults who’ve been bullied can share their stories and tell today’s youth that they will be OK and life does indeed get better.
In the 10 years since I graduated high school, I’ve successfully moved to San Francisco, where I have a good job, a nice apartment, great friends, happiness and good health. What’s more, my family continues to be unconditionally loving and supportive of everything I do. Some bullies have even apologized to me since graduation, and I’ve forgiven them. Some, I know, will never apologize. However, to this day, I cannot forgive the administration for failing to respond to my repeated pleas for help. The principal literally turned his back on me when I needed his support.
Even though it does get better for victims of bullying, we need to pay closer attention to our students, children and friends now. The majority of people don’t seem to care. Why? Is it because they think bullying is an inevitability, something kids outgrow, and leaves no impact once it’s passed?
How many dead students will it take before people give a damn?
Tyler, Seth, Asher, Billy, and the countless others did not need to kill themselves. None of this should have ever happened. It disgusts me that we live in a country where equality, which was guaranteed to us 234 years ago, is something we’re still fighting for and negotiating. Putting an end to bullying is everyone’s responsibility.
If you’re a student and you see someone being bullied, say something. It might be hard, but tell someone. Even if it’s in private to a trusted adult. It won’t make you unpopular. There was one football player named Paul who stood up for me on several occasions when his fellow footballers would taunt me. I’ve never forgotten his kindness and compassion. The school administration most definitely has to help their students, but students have to help one another, too.
Pull the bullies aside and tell them to stop. Tell them it’s not OK to abuse someone else under any circumstances. More importantly, reach out to those who you know are being bullied or who you believe are at risk for being bullied. Talk to them. Tell them it’s going to be OK, that they’re going to be OK, and that things will get better. I’m living proof of that. I survived the battle, but the war rages on. It’s time to put an end to bullying.
Click here to get involved.
Click here for a sample of Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” YouTube channel.
Click here to learn about the Trevor Project, a 24-hour support hotline.