Posted by HIM on Thursday August 25th, 2011
One of the more intriguing campaigns we've seen over the past few years, I believe, has been 'It Gets Better'. Aimed at depressed or suicidal gay youth, 'It Gets Better' was a video-campaign pioneered by sex columnist Dan Savage in September of 2010. As the name suggests, the logic of the campaign is that if the adult queers of today (the "survivors", as many of us might consider ourselves) can somehow convince their younger counterparts that their lives will improve drastically as soon as they leave high school, less of them will opt to end their lives.
While Dan Savage and the countless other individuals and corporations who are attempting to reach out to gay teens deserve nothing but respect, I think it's just as important to work backwards and consider why we might need to give gay youth something to hope for in the first place. According to a large 1989 government study based out of the United States, gay teens are roughly 4 times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
So why would self-identifying as homosexual be linked with such an exaggerated risk of suicide? As a self-identified gay man, I find the idea that my attraction towards other men might also make me more likely to kill myself, frankly, a little hard to swallow (no pun intended). Generally speaking, clinical researchers and other scientists are similarly skeptical. Most would argue that the heightened suicide risk for gay teens represented in the data does not result from homosexuality in and of itself, but rather the poor treatment - bullying, abuse, rejection, and other forms of discrimination - of gay youth by their families and peers. All of these factors, taken together, are known as "minority stress".
To summarize it (in true gay fashion), I like to refer to Eliza Doolittle’s famous quote from Pygmalion: “The difference between a lady and a flower girl is not in how she behaves, but how she is treated.” Because widespread homophobia causes gays to be treated poorly, our collective mental health suffers.
While many studies have established statistical relationships between depressive symptoms (including suicide attempts, or suicidal ideation) and homosexuality, there has been very little investigation into how depressed gay youth themselves (presumably, those targeted by 'It Gets Better') might attempt to make heads or tails of their own depressive symptoms. To remedy this, G. M. Diamond and colleagues (a group of therapists) conducted a series of in-depth interviews with 10 gay youth of various backgrounds, all of whom were classified as clinically depressed. Here's what they discovered:
1: Family non-acceptance is a major life stressor for us. Many of the youth interviewed noted that their family’s initial reaction to their homosexuality was primarily negative. Regardless of how severe parental reactions were, the youth interviewed agreed that the absence of unconditional support from their families caused them significant distress. Conversely, the respondents who received support from their families felt that this support helped them cope with challenges in other parts of their lives. On a positive note, many parents who initially responded poorly to their children’s sexual orientations eventually became more used to the idea of having a gay child, and over time, became more supportive.
2: Constantly being in a state of “coming out” makes us anxious as well. Many of the 10 teens interviewed for the study, although ‘out’ to their immediate family, worried about revealing their orientation to their extended family. Being ‘out’ to some people (your close friends, perhaps), while offering some relief, does not erase the anxiety felt over the possibility of having to disclose your sexuality to others (your grandparents, maybe). The situation is even worse when there are large perceived consequences to disclosure (or even worse, being prematurely ‘outed’ by accident), such as emotional rejection or the withdrawal of financial support. Not only does the possibility of being exposed to harm cause us worry, but the task of constantly having to manage two different identities (an ‘out’ identity and a closeted identity) is also difficult to cope with. On the flip side, many youth interviewed also noted that they received some excellent support from outside of their immediate families. The interviewees were able to obtain support from their peer networks, from various organizations (e.g. supportive staff members in school settings), and from romantic partners. While disclosure can be a stressful experience, it also opens a lot of doors and creates new opportunities for us.
3: For those of us who are religiously-oriented, the inability to reconcile anti-gay religious doctrine with our own gay identities provides another major source of stress. Respondents from both Christian and Muslim backgrounds commented that the religions they were raised within categories homosexuality as a terrible sin which would ultimately result in eternal damnation. Even pain pigs would agree that imminent and endless punishment is probably not the most comforting thought for those who are already having a hard enough time dealing with the challenges of this world.
4: We get victimized and traumatized because of our sexuality. 4 of the 10 respondents reported being violently assaulted due to their orientation (i.e. queer-bashed). One boy interviewed explained that one of his best friends who came out about a year before he did was killed because he was gay. Another teen described having to carry a knife with him at all times for self-protection, and having to fight for his life every day on the way home from school. While it may directly harm our bodies rather than our minds, physical assault, injury, and trauma (whether we experience them directly or vicariously) also impact our psyches, and in some cases, may lead to post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) -- a serious psychological condition. Despite all of this, many of the respondents showed impressive resilience and personal strength in response to abuse. Apparently, that which does not kill us can, in some cases, make us stronger.
While these interviews certainly give us a better feel for the challenges gay men face while growing up, it’s not all bad news. The stories shared with the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign speaks to the strength, resilience and creativity of the gay community and its members. According to the campaign website, over 10,000 online videos have been produced, with views totalling over 35 million and this online forum is only one facet of the gay community. Indeed, this last point was not lost on one of the participants in the study whose comments I will leave you with:
“Being gay is the happiest thing in my life . . . Having access to that community! . . . I swear, I feel bad for straight people sometimes because when you are queer . . . there are so many things that are put out there today for queer, gay, lesbian, bisexual and trans youth. If you’re not queer, it’s like you’re missing out on so much . . . That’s why I love fags so much. It just reminds me about the good things about being gay.”
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19359705.2010.532668 for the original article on this study -- How Depressed and Suicidal Sexual Minority Adolescents Understand the Causes of Their Distress by G. M. Diamond, et. al. From volume 15, issue 2 of the Journal of Gay and Lesbian Mental Health.
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