BY ROBYN LOWEY
National Coming Out Day is over this year, but homophobia is still ongoing. A few years ago, a 13-year-old kid hung himself in the schoolyard at the same middle school that I attended. I remember my days in 8th grade there and how I desperately tried to pretend that I was not achingly in love with my female teacher. The week before that a 15-year-old girl at my old high school hung herself. I remembered causing trouble in those halls, showing up to class drunk and spinning donuts in the parking lot in my ‘65 Mustang. I was freaked out by the dykey PE teachers but at the same time longed to kiss my best girlfriend.
I felt odd and different and I had a terrible secret. I worried that I would be ostracized and hated by my family and peers. I honestly believed that being gay was despicable. After all, I had a boyfriend. I was sure that making out with my girlfriend at our sleepovers didn’t really count as gay, anyway. Fitting in during those years was the most important thing in my life. I never contemplated suicide but I was indeed tortured by internalized homophobia. Luckily, by remaining in a semi-state of denial, I was able to channel my fear and anxiety into hell raising rather than suicide.
I wonder what pushed these kids over the edge 30+ years later at the very same schools. It seems that children in our culture are becoming increasingly isolated and disenfranchised by relying on television, computers and social media more than human interaction. I know that I have to work harder than ever to stay in tune and engaged with my own kids.
A headline in my local newspaper read, “Schools Urge Vigilance in the Wake of Recent Suicides.” The article went on to talk about keeping the lines of communication open with our teens and looking for the warning signs of suicidal depression. All good stuff, but there is so much more that isn’t being said.
Not a single word in the article was about bullying, common use of gay, racial and sexist slurs, incest, child abuse or drug and alcohol abuse. Those were the main issues my friends and I faced when we were growing up and I’m pretty sure they are the same issues that kids face today. Are these taboo subjects? Are kids quietly offing themselves because they think no one understands how they feel?
I’m a parent of teenagers, coached the local kids in sports and I’ve seen my share of troubled kids. I believe that my being out of the closet in the small community I live in is seriously a matter of life and death.
We need more organizations like Spectrum, the Marin County LGBT Center, to be invited into the schools. As a volunteer for Spectrum I go into the schools to talk about being a lesbian, and to help dispel myths and stereotypes about the LGBT community.
Helping the kids be more aware is one thing, but it needs to start with the parents and the educators. Adults need to name the problem and provide zero tolerance for hateful talk of any kind. Whether somebody seems gay, is overweight, has a different ethnic background, sucks at sports, walks with a limp or has a learning disability, we need to set the example of inclusiveness and teach our kids to look for our similarities instead our differences.
Until that day, kids will continue to take their own lives before they’ve ever had a chance to grow up. As adults, it’s our collective responsibility to lead the way by example. Living life out of the closet is not for everyone, but I am grateful that my friends and family accept me exactly as I am.