In the past two years, at least five teens— ranging in age from 11 to 19 — have committed suicide, including Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Ind. All had been teased for being gay or “different.”
For most teens and pre-teens, being different is something to fear because at that age, the goal is to fit in with one’s peers. No one knows this better than the teens at the Indiana Youth Group, an organization where lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth in the Indianapolis area can be themselves with no fears of being bullied or teased.
Recently, a group of IYG teens discussed the joys and difficulties of being different. All were familiar with bullies, and many had been teased or taunted because of their lifestyle choices.
Jennifer, 18, recalled students’ responses to her announcement that she was gay: “I got criticized. I got gay bashed. I got a whole bunch of other stuff that didn’t need to happen, even though there was a large gay community in my school.”
Audrey Newsome, founder and president of the Bully Suicide Project, a nonprofit support and educational organization, says gay youth are often targets. “I used to teach high school, and I have seen gay and lesbian students being bullied relentlessly, and for whatever reason, it seemed the administration was not receptive to doing anything about it,” she said.
The teens agreed that a lot of bullying goes on at school and that teachers and administrators rarely respond effectively. “They’re just going to say, ‘Oh I’m sorry.’ That’s all they’re going to do,” said Jennifer, who attends a large township high school.
Students feel especially vulnerable during sporting and social events, which often take place after dark and are not highly supervised. Leslie, 17, recalled a particularly frightening encounter after one such occasion. “We were walking after homecoming to our car, to the parking lot, and this group of guys, we couldn’t see their faces, were like standing around and saying like, ‘Lesbians ...’ she said.
Bullying doesn’t always involve face-to-face contact. “Bullying is just not the physical bullying, but it’s also the verbal, the cyber-bullying and the psychological teasing, the exclusion,” Newsome said.
Email, texts, tweets, pictures and comments on Facebook walls can be used to convey hurtful messages. Online, words can fly without fear of immediate confrontation. “They don’t really say anything to you. It’s all on the Internet — ‘You’re a B, you know, you’re this, you’re that.’ And when you get to school, it’s ‘Oh, what’s up? Party this weekend?’ It gets on my nerves so much,” said Nancy, 18.
Education and support can go a long way to reducing such insults, everyone agrees. The Bully Suicide Project has several programs it takes to schools aimed at not only victims and bullies but parents and school administrators as well. “We need more programs that take a holistic approach to the bullying situation rather than just addressing the bully and the victim,” Newsome said. “So many times you have so many stakeholders in this whole issue who don’t get addressed.”
Programs like the Gay-Straight Alliance are another way to bring awareness to a student body. However, not all schools are receptive, particularly parochial ones.
Large public schools seem to be more welcoming. Jennifer says the GSA club at her school has received a lot of encouragement. “Ninety percent of our group is straight people because they know people who are gay, they’re friends with people who are gay and they care. They want to know, ‘How can we help?’” she said.
School staff can be supportive, too, especially those at ease with gay people. “Our school social worker has been very supportive of a lot of people in our school. She’s provided us with lots of resources, places to go, people to talk to, information about organizations like PFLAG. Actually, she’s the one who told me about IYG,” said Leslie.
Newsome says many bullies act out because of insecurity and ignorance. One bully interviewed for the Bully Suicide Project said he took the offensive because he was afraid that he would be a target himself.
Similarly, Nancy said that she used to be a bully until she learned to accept herself: “It was bad. So I had to turn around and go the other way.”
Respect is a necessary part of life that works both ways. Nancy explained that she has learned to absorb the occasional taunt. “I have to respect their opinion, whether or not they respect my choices in life. I try to understand where they’re coming from.”
Editor Reginetta White, 17, and reporter Izabella Robinson, 13, contributed to this story.
Copyright 2011 Y-Press