Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Gay Youth Suicide: A response to the "flamboyance question"

I just spent the last hour writing and editing a post to a Gawker article. Admittedly, I feel a little dirty for saying that. However, the post was absolutely worth it. My post was in response to another series of gay suicides. I try to remember each of their faces from the news just like I try to remember the face of Matthew Shepard from when he was murdered over 15 years ago. I see a little of myself in each of these kids. I was just like them not too long ago. However, the feeling of "another series of LGBT suicides" has become something to which I've grown uncomfortably accustomed.

15 year old Jadin Bell took his life this week by hanging himself at a playground. He received a candlelight vigil last Wednesday. The article reports that he was a boy who "never forgot his friends." I don't doubt that this is a true observation. However, I am struck each time by the lack of information we get about each of these teenagers. I mean, they haven't been alive very long, so they can't have left a husband, a child, a legacy as a teacher, or an academy award. It's the lack of that life experience that hits me so hard when I read these articles. A life experience that Jadin Bell has been denied. He never got the opportunity to see things get better. He never had the opportunity to make his mistakes, share his triumphs, and find that person that makes all the hatred tolerable... because love, once you find it, does conquer all.

I encourage you to read the original Gawker article. The link provided doesn't jump to the beginning of the story; it loads a post that I felt compelled to write. After reading the article, I encountered a question that gave me very mixed feeling. In one sense, the question seemed to be incredibly insensitive. The respondent, "Denver" asks whether all gays are flamboyant, 
But, openly gay people I know are so 'expressively flamboyant' that I really have to wonder if it's uncontrollable or just a 'wear it with pride' thing... Does that make sense? Again I'm not trying to stereotype... I'm just wondering if the "stereotypical gay" way of acting is a choice or...? We all act a certain way near our coworkers or friends or parents because it's "socially acceptable". It protects ourselves and adheres to certain social guidelines. Seems to me that suppressing behavoir around threatening situations might be a good idea.
First, I had to resist my urge to take out my red grading pen. A sad state of affairs, but true nonetheless. After that moment passed, I was struck by the inappropriateness of this questions placement. Why would someone ask such an insensitive question in response to a tragic loss of life? The question seemed a bit self-gratifying and indulgent. It seems to imply that gay bullying is the fault of the victim. But there was something that I couldn't shake about the question, something truthful and honest, too.

Then it struck me, this question is at the root of the whole problem. Not only do straight people ask the question, but many "straight-acting" LGBT people actively ask the same question... even when they might not intend to be dicks about the suicide problem. Many people probably don't even realize that they share an assumption with the bullies that ended Jadin's life, whether gay or straight. I hope someone finds my response helpful. Here it goes:

Denver, I appreciate the question you've asked. It's a difficult and upsetting question to many people in the face of a tragic loss of life. If you're serious about the question, then you'll need to analyze where your question is coming from before you can approach an answer. And be open to all the responses because they will tell you different sides of the answer, even the ones who react in the angry way that you predicted.

Let's look at your question. You ask whether the behavior of an LGBT teen is compulsive and, therefore, might contribute to his suicide or death. You may be assuming that victims' death is their own fault, especially due to their "flamboyant" behavior. Statistics show that LGBT youth are about 35% likely to attempt suicide, which is significantly above average. There is some factor (or a range of factors) that cause LGBT youth to attempt suicide more than straight youth. One of those factors, ironically, is finding fault in seemingly-LGBT behavior. People bully others because they are threatened by their flamboyant behavior. Your question and the cause of LGBT youth suicide share the similar assumption regarding LGBT behavior, so please understand why some people on this thread are upset. However, I will assume that your question was well intentioned. I do believe it's an important question to ask. So, meet me half way by examining your own biases and maybe I can contribute something in return.

In essence, the answer to your question is 'no.' Being gay does not essentially mean that someone is flamboyant. In fact, most gay people that I have met over the past 20 years have been almost indistinguishable from their straight counterparts. I will not deny that there are flamboyant gay men in the world. However, one cannot deny that there are flamboyant straight people as well. We all know the sensitive straight soul, ones that wear bright colors, and the jokesters. Sometimes, when a gay person realizes that they are different, they choose to celebrate their difference and, as you say, "wear it with pride." However, most people just go on with their lives and become your boring next door neighbor like everybody else. Most people are average, both straight and gay (that was a pun, in case you missed it).

However, flamboyant straight people are rarely threatening to other straight people. Most individuals like a strong personality and a jokester! So, what makes people so threatened by a flamboyant gay? The flamboyant gay doesn't play by the "rules" of the straight world. And very few people like those who won't play along with the rules of the game that they're following. Why would someone not want to be masculine and, therefore, powerful like I want to be? A flamboyant man challenges that what some people have worked for so long -such as a masculine persona- might not be desirable.

A subset of LGBT people (though not all), are simply not as masculine as their peers. It's a fact of their lives. This leaves them with two choices: they can hide who they are or they can lose at the "masculinity game." Either way, they're left feeling pretty powerless and alone. Even other LGBT people, the masculine ones, can make this subset feel like crap on purpose. Given the relative vulnerability and inexperience of those in their teens and early 20s, these LGBT youth turn to suicide.

However, the question "then why do they act so flamboyant?" doesn't really get to the heart of the matter. It's the wrong question. Rather "why would femininity in a guy be so threatening?" reveals so much more. Why should something such as a harmless behavior lead to death threats, crucifixion (M Shepherd), bullying, and suicide? The problem is not the behaviors of the LGBT youth. The problem is with the individual actions and reactions that are cruel, uncaring, judgmental, and deadly, whether they come from straights or gays.

Which is sad because there is a little bit of the queer kid in all of us, whether we are straight or gay. We've all been treated like crap at one point or another. For me, it's helpful to just try to be compassionate whenever possible. Hopefully that makes sense .

I hope this makes sense and you can accept it with the same sincerity that you ask others to show regarding your question. I recommend reading Pascoe's "Dude You're a Fag" if you want to know more about this subject. Best, my friend.