Just before I left on a three-week trip to Europe, by one of my goddaughter’s high school friends killed himself.  I don’t know the details about what happened.  I don’t know that anyone knows why this handsome, athletic, friendly boy decided that killing himself was his only option.  What I do know is that he tried, was found, was rushed to the hospital and put on life support, and that only days later his parents had to make the hard decision to end life support and let their son die.  And I know that there are many grieving people, including my goddaughter.

I returned from my trip yesterday and started going through the emails and Facebook messages that accumulated while I was gone (it’s good to be disconnected from the cyber world and the news for a while, but that’s the content for another blog posting).  I was shocked to find out that while I was away, some people had started to notice that in the days leading up to my trip, there had been a rash of suicides and that many of them have been the result of anti-gay bullying.  In particular, people noticed that there had been at least four suicides within a three-week period in September:

  • Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., hung himself Sept. 9 from a barn rafter on his grandmother’s farm.
  • Seth Walsh, 13, of Tehachapi, Calif., was removed from life support 10 days after hanging himself from a tree. He died Sept. 27.
  • Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from Cypress, Texas, used his stepfather’s gun to shoot himself to death Sept. 17.
  • Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge spanning the Hudson River between New York and New Jersey on Sept. 22.

I am not suggesting that my goddaughter’s friend’s suicide had anything to do with anti-gay bullying or internal conflicts about his sexuality.  As I said, I know nothing about the details.  What I am suggesting is that we need to do something to prevent teen suicides.

One concrete step we can take is to address anti-gay bullying in our schools and through out society.  This is how the officers in the national settings of my denomination, the United Church of Christ, expressed this sentiment on October 5:

The culture of anti-gay bullying that persists in academic and other institutions is an aspect of the broader issues of violence and harassment LGBT people face in the United States and around the world. It is experienced in a variety of ways from the invasion of privacy and taunts in school hallways to being beaten and tied to a fence; from the enactment of laws that criminalize sexual orientation and extra-judicial killing of people believed to be gay to the failure of elected officials to pass legislation that ensures the full equality of every citizen.

The reality of anti-gay harassment and bullying creates environments of fear and intimidation that not only have tragic consequences for those who are targeted, but also for the communities in which they occur. Even when anti-bullying policies are in place, without effective implementation peers, teachers and other adults can still be intimidated into silence and inaction. Studies continue to tell us that this is more often than not the reality in the vast majority of our schools. Nine out of 10 LGBT youth report being verbally harassed at school; 44 percent say they have been physically harassed; 22 percent report having been assaulted; and 60 percent say that when they report abuse, no one does anything to help or protect them.

All people of faith must recognize the God-given worth and dignity of every person that human judgment cannot set aside. Together we must work in solidarity to stop the bullying and violence against LGBT people and ensure the safety and protection of all our children. This is a baseline call to action grounded in the commonly held values of the Golden Rule, which every household of faith should be able to embrace.

Beyond this, we need to create the safe spaces – in our families, our schools, our faith communities (churches, etc.), and beyond – so children who are harassed can talk about it and have the harassment addressed.  We need to create safe spaces – in our families, our schools, our faith communities, and beyond – so children who are considering suicide can talk about it and find the support they need so this permanent solution to temporary problems (that’s what suicide is) will not be chosen.

We need to get messages like this to all youth.

We need to offer, as Ellen DeGeneres puts it, a wake-up call to everyone that teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in our country and the death rate is climbing.

Being gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender in and of itself is not a risk factor for suicide.  Rather, the negative treatment that many GLBT teens endure can lead to suicidal feelings.  We have a responsibility to take action.

As bizarre as it may seem, this will not be a simple task.  Getting school systems to take the problem of bullying, and especially anti-gay bullying, seriously, is difficult.  In fact, some “Christian” groups (i.e., the Family Research Council) are claiming that the gay community is the bully because the anti-bullying cause is really a front for the “gay agenda” (click here to see a news story).

Let us not allow lies like these deter us from the sacred duty.  Let us lift up and celebrate “the God-given worth and dignity of every person that human judgment cannot set aside.”