Recently, the news has focused on a number of teen suicides, mostly by gay male teens who were bullied and mistreated by their peers and others. These tragedies have prompted a national conversation about how to protect gay teens from bullying.
The debate emphasizes the importance of safe schools, organizations, the impact of hate crime laws and other policies designed to protect people from being discriminated against based on their sexual orientation. Many states have anti-bullying laws in place, although these laws may not say more than call for an anti-bullying stance without clearly defining what bullying is. Ellen Degeneres and other public figures have made public statements aimed at teens who are victims of the kind of bullying that those who committed suicide experienced.
Organizations like the Gay Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) have emphasized that supportive and affirming teachers, parents, and others can make all the difference for young people struggling with being bullied.
National Coming Out Day is October 11th, and so discussions about fostering respect and equal rights for people regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity typically increase during the fall. That the news of Tyler Clementi's death would yield so much coverage now is a sad reminder of how much these discussions are still needed.
Will the national conversation result in changes that will prevent such suicides in the future?
The news has speculated that many of those who committed suicide in response to bullying were teenage gay males. Perusing the details of these cases, it is not clear that they all self-identified as gay, but it is clear all were assumed to be gay and/or were taunted with gay epithets. And they are all male. These are not trivial facts.
Our culture (and many others) confers privilege to men over women. Yes, some things have changed over time, but patriarchy still guides the structures our society. With that power comes the need for what sociologists call hegemonic masculinity, which defines men as separate and different from women. Thus our gender traits are identified as dichotomous and opposing, with men as dominant and women as subordinate. Hence, masculine traits revolve around power and dominance while feminine traits center on nurturing and support for others.
Heterosexuality is a necessary trait for men within hegemonic masculinity, and men often feel pressure to demonstrate to their male peers that they are sexually active with women. Men who are attracted to other men – or who others accuse of being attracted to men - are likely to be punished more than women who are attracted to other women. Men, as the power group, must adhere more completely to their masculine definitions than women to theirs. Women and their sexual interests are not a target for society since, as the powerless group, what they do matters less.
There are many studies that clearly show that the targets of childhood and adolescent harassment are typically those who vary from our society’s norms, including norms of gender.
The teasing, taunting, harassment and bullying that the kids in the news experienced are, unfortunately, not unique. There are young people who experience this every day who have not and will not commit suicide. So, why did these people commit suicide?
To explain this, we can take it all the way back to Emile Durkheim’s dissertation, Suicide, and the importance of social connection. Durkheim identified different types of suicide, including altruistic suicide, egoistic suicide, anomic suicide, and fatalistic suicide.
What most of these types of suicide have in common is a problem with social bonds. Altruistic suicide, the exception, is a death intended to benefit the social group. The others all have some detachment from social groups. Egoistic suicide is committed when people are not highly integrated into a social group and society is characterized by individualism. Anomic suicide results from disappointment amidst the lack of any social bonds and eroding social norms. Fatalistic suicide occurs when people are so oppressed by society that they see no other escape.
All of these types could be used to explain the suicides of these teenagers as the result of social forces.
What, then, is the solution?
Connectivity and societal acceptance would be logical solutions to the problem. Schools and families need to work harder to be respectful of the variation of humans and provide safe environments. Happy, healthy, and productive people should be the goal.
Having safe schools and adults who are “allies” is crucial. Equally important is educating people about sexual orientation so that they do not perpetuate stereotypes and misinformation.
It’s likely that the more we know about sexual orientation, the more accepting we will be of variation, and this greater knowledge may lead to the erosion of the imperative to create identity based on sexual orientation. Linking identity to sexual orientation, as we currently do, is a relatively new phenomenon and many societies have existed without it, including our own.
Forming community and social supports are the effective techniques to lower the rates of suicide. What else might be effective strategies, especially when considering the sources of the problems?