Saturday, October 2, 2010

My Name Is Asher Brown

So, today’s unenviable task is to write about the most awful subject imaginable without being completely maudlin. And I’m not talking about the GOP retaking the House and Senate in November, although that would rank high on the list of most-awful-subjects, that’s for sure.

No, today’s subject is something even worse than a return to the failed economic and foreign policies of the Bush/McConnell/Boehner Party of No. Worse, at least, for those of us unfortunate enough to have dealt with it head on.

Because today’s subject is – and there’s no easy way to put this – suicide. Specifically, teenage suicide, and, more specifically still, the alarming number of suicides among gay, lesbian and transgender teens who have been bullied by their peers.

First, some cold facts courtesy of Think Progress:

Last week, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped to his death after two classmates secretly recorded his sexual relationship with a man and broadcasted it over the internet. Tragically, Clementi marks the fourth gay student to commit suicide in three weeks because of anti-gay harassment from fellow students. Seth Walsh, 13, Asher Brown, 13, and Billy Lucas, 15, also took their own lives last month because fellow students bullied them in school.

The growing number of suicides reveal the “unique set of safety concerns” that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) students face both in secondary school and college. According to a National Education Policy Center study released yesterday, “over 85% report being harassed because of their sexual or gender identity, and over 20% report being physically attacked.” The “highly troubling pattern of mistreatment, negative consequences” and “the dramatic failure” of educational institutions to “adequately address” LGBT students’ concerns has contributed to a suicide rate among LGBT students that is “3-4 times higher than that of their straight counterparts.”

That’s hard enough to bear no matter who you are or what you’ve experienced in life: The thought of a young man or woman so distraught – and so badly mistreated by the people around him or her – that the only way out appears to be off the edge of a bridge, or, in the case of eighth grade honor student Asher Brown, at the business end of a loaded pistol.

But it’s harder still to bear if you’ve actually been there. And by “there,” I mean sitting at home when the phone rings and you find out that somebody you care about, maybe your older brother who was the best man at your wedding, took an early exit and there’s nothing you can do or say to get him back. Because that sucks like nothing else you’ll ever experience in your life, even if you experience a boatload of suck. And if you’ve gone through that yourself, chances are you’d like to spare anyone from ever having to go through that particular hell. Because that’s what it is, really: It’s hell you go through when the call comes and it’s too late to help your brother, or your best friend, or, God forbid, your kid.

In my case, it was my brother John. It was along time ago – April 1991 to be precise, about 19 years ago. John wasn’t gay and he wasn’t bullied. He was clinically depressed. And he wasn’t a teenager; he was just shy of 36 years old.

But the thing is, it’s hard enough to deal with, the suicide of somebody close to you, even when that person is an adult and is more or less in control of his own life. When it’s a kid who does it, what the hell can you say about that.

And that’s what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about kids. Tyler Clementi was 18 years old when he took his life; Asher Brown was only 13, as was Seth Walsh, and Billy Lucas was only 15. What the hell. Nineteen years ago I watched my mother place her hand on my brother’s coffin to say good bye, and I thought I would never see anything sadder than that. But to think about what these parents are going through – the parents of Clementi, Brown, Walsh and Lucas – and what the parents of thousands of other LGBT teenagers all over the world are going through, and likely will go through … well, honestly, I cannot quite wrap my brain around that.

But the overwhelming sadness of it cannot be the thing that stops us from doing something about it. Sadness in the face of tragedy can be paralyzing, but it doesn’t have to be. Enter Dan Savage, openly gay advice columnist, and his husband Terry:

[Savage] realized that, while it was too late to talk to Billy Lucas, it wasn't too late to talk to the millions of kids just like him. So, right then and there, he and his husband decided to do just that. They sat down in front of a camera and told their stories about their horrific high school experiences and, more importantly, how they both survived, thrived and have gone on to live happy, healthy, joyful lives. They posted the video on YouTube and asked other gay, bisexual and transgender adults to do the same. And that’s when the It Gets Better project began.

There are now dozens of videos posted on Dan and Terry’s It Gets Better channel on YouTube, including messages from the American Civil Liberties Union, the cast of the musical Wicked, and the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Of course, it will be impossible to gauge the impact of this project, but it has to help. Somehow we have to get the message to kids who are in this situation – who are bullied to the point of desperation, or ostracized and alone and staring up from the bottom of that abyss – we have to get the message to them that there is a way out and it’s not off the edge of a bridge or at the wrong end of a gun.

Meanwhile, the rest of us can do something even more remarkable than to say to kids “it gets better.” We can make it better now. We can stop tolerating intolerance. We can reach out to the kids in our community, gay or straight, who are treated like crap and we can defend them. We can act like grown ups and take responsibility for our schools and our neighborhoods and our kids. Because we own every last one of them – we own the good kids and the bad; we own the kids who bully and the kids who suffer from it.

No mother should ever have to lay her hand on her kid’s coffin to say good-bye. Not, at any rate, so long as we have the ability to stop hate before it kills another innocent kid.

[Photo at the top of post: A Raku vessel made by my brother John in the mid-1970s, given to me by my parents for Christmas in 1991.]


  1. We've come a long way since the 1970's when the idea of a gay rights movement was barely even spoken of. I think that for the most part, teens today are more openly accepting of diversity in sexual orientation generally than our own peers were back when we were in high school.

    Unfortunately, there seems to have been some sort of backlash or "reaction." The smaller number of people resisting gender orientation equality have become more strident and vociferous in their actions, which had made it even harder for LGBT kids to get through a day without being hassled.

    The most recent episode involving the male college student was the most egregious intersection of on-line voyeurism culture and bullying we've seen since the incident involving the ESPN female sportscaster who was illicitly stalked and videotaped. It was odder still that the alleged perpetrators included a female student...given that in many "straight" stalking and harassment incidents, women are so often the victim!

    Great post, well written with lots to think about!

    Joel Lessing
    Forest Park, Illinois
    Joel Lessing on Facebook

  2. Thank you for writing this very powerful piece.

  3. What a fantastic piece. I remember the bullies harassing me from Jr. High in the late 70's and into college in the mid 80's. I contemplated an "escape" when in High School, but thank goodness I had the courage and forbearance to get through it and move away from those asshats to a place of tolerance and acceptance after I graduated from College. It was one of the best decisions of my life.

  4. Thanks for sharing that, Tim, and thank god you got through that tough period.

  5. Great post, Dave—thanks for pointing me to it!!

  6. Thank you, Arthur, I appreciate it. Especially from an ex-pat Illinoisan! (As Harry Caray would’ve said, “They’re here from New Zeeland …”)