"Bullycide" is a colloquialism referring to suicide that results from intense bullying — think Megan Meier and Phoebe Price and Jaheem Herera, 11, a Georgia boy who hanged himself in 2009 after being tormented by classmates for being "gay and a snitch."
The link between bullying and suicide in teens has been on the forefront of media coverage for several years now, and it is children like Jaheem — who are gay or are perceived to be gay — that are most at risk. According to a study from Penn State University, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and "queer" youth (a catch-all term for gender and sexually non-normative people) are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. Of all American teens who die by their own hand, 30% are LGBTQ.
Almost 85% of LGBTQ teenagers are harassed in high school because of their sexual orientation, with 61% of gay youth reporting that they felt unsafe in school and 30% staying home to avoid bullying, according to a 2009 survey by the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network.
The American Association of Suicidology (AAS) suggests that the overall figures on teen suicide rates are likely underestimated, since many premeditated deaths involving car crashes or drugs end up being ruled as accidental. Self-identifying as gay — which is not a scientific fact or medical diagnosis — further complicates data collection. At age 11, for instance, many kids have no idea what their sexual orientation is yet.
In September, in separate incidents, two 15-year-old boys, Indiana native Billy Lucas and Minnesota resident Justin Aaberg, hanged themselves following LGBTQ-specific abuse at the hands of classmates. Justin was openly gay, but Billy's sexuality was unknown — possibly even to him. The two did not know each other.
In the wake of the boys' deaths, many gay rights activists have questioned why sexual orientation–targeted bullying isn't getting more national attention. The gay-rights blog Queerty notes that Aaberg's school district specifically discourages distinguishing LGBTQ bullying (note: the previous link contains harsh language) from other kinds of bullying.
Dan Savage, a gay-rights activist and sex columnist for the Seattle alternative weekly The Stranger, decided to fill the void left by indolent school districts. In his Sept. 23 column, he wrote:
I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.
But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay — or from ever coming out — by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.
Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don't have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.
Savage launched the "It Gets Better" project on YouTube, where he invited gay adults to tell kids about how much better their lives got after they graduated from high school. Savage and his husband, Terry, uploaded a lengthy video about their own experiences with bullying, family acceptance and then, finally, of starting their own family together.
The project struck a chord — it began on Sept. 15, but the channel already has more than 300,000 viewers and 131 submissions as of this writing. While its fundamental goal is to prevent the sort of isolation that foments suicidal thoughts in troubled teens, the site has also become a bit of a historical project.
Several teenagers have posted tributes to friends who killed themselves following periods of harassment. One young woman, Ava, said of a friend who died: "One of the really frustrating things to me after his death was that it wasn't in the media. No one was outraged that this boy had basically been harassed until he couldn't take it anymore. ... It felt like no one really cared."
Testimony from adult contributors — whose ages range from Gen Y'ers to Baby Boomers — reveal stories of school bullying and community and familial rejection that still resonate with gay teens today. The videos are an oral history of ostracism and discrimination, and evidence of the fact that in many parts of the country, change is slow in coming.
While "It Gets Better" will hopefully provide comfort to gay teens living in hostile communities, it should do the exact opposite for the rest of us.