Rick Holmes: 'It gets better,' gay students
William Lucas lived in Greensburg, Ind., and things got rotten for him in sophomore year. "People would call him 'fag' and stuff like that, just make fun of him because he's different basically," says Dillen Swango, one of his classmates.
So last month Billy Lucas hanged himself from a rafter in his grandmother's barn.
His was one of a string of recent suicides. There was Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, who shot himself; Justin Aaberg, 15, of Minnesota, who hanged himself, as did Seth Walsh, 13, of California. Then there was Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers freshman who was exposed and humiliated by his roommate. He jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge.
All were bullied and harassed because they were, or were thought to be, gay. They didn't live to see how things came out.
Sophomore year was tough for William Lukas, too. William, no relation to his near-namesake in Greensburg, grew up in Mendon, Mass.
"I was harassed, I was pushed, I was called a faggot," he told me this week. He was depressed and he considered suicide.
But it got better.
William started coming to terms with himself. He opened up to people around him, and found support he hadn't known would be there. His parents were tremendous; his friends and his teachers gave him strength.
At commencement last June, he stood before hundreds of people and announced with pride that he was "the first openly gay senior class president in the history of Nipmuc Regional High School" - to an ovation that went on and on.
"I was just very lucky," he told me. Nearly nine out of 10 gay students in a recent survey reported having been verbally or physically harassed at school over their sexual orientation. Most of them don't find support at home or at school.
Adolescence is tough on every kid. Confusion, self-doubt and the pressure to meet expectations from every side pretty much come with the territory. For a kid coming to terms with his or her sexuality, those emotions are magnified.
"It's hard to be true to yourself when so much of high school is about trying to please others," William said. "When you realize you're different, that can make you depressed."
The first thing these kids need to hear is that it's OK, that they are valued for themselves, whatever labels get attached to them.
Since identity and inclusivity are both important, gay activists have given us that awkward mouthful LGBT, for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and/or transgender people. Some are now adding a Q for "questioning." Adolescents, especially, shouldn't feel pressured to choose a label. It's OK to be ambivalent, to be still figuring out who you are and who you're attracted to.
The next thing LGBTQ youth need to hear is that it gets better. When you're in high school - when you're miserable and confused and alone - it feels like it will last forever. But it doesn't.
Gay adults could tell them that they'll get away from that small town, those small-minded classmates, the church that invalidates feelings the kids know are real. Gay adults could tell them they'll find their way to college, or to a bigger city, where they'll meet people who like them for what they are.
Stick it out through high school, the gay adults could tell them, and it gets better. Your parents will come to accept you. When you find someone to settle down with, they'll come to accept that, too - and welcome your partner into their hearts.
You can get married. You can have kids. It gets better.
"But gay adults aren't allowed to talk to these kids," Dan Savage wrote recently in "Savage Love," his sex-advice column. "Schools and churches don't bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay - or from ever coming out - by depriving them of information, resources and positive role models."
So Savage decided to go around these obstacles. He started the "It Gets Better Project" by creating a group on YouTube where gay adults could tell their own stories of adolescent trials and adult fulfillment. He and his husband, Terry, started with their own stories: the schoolyard taunts, the rejection by parents. But it got better, they say, illustrating their video with shots of them smiling with their parents and skiing with their son.
In the space of a few weeks, Savage's idea has grown into a movement. Hundreds of people have posted videos on the "It Gets Better" YouTube group. Millions have watched them. Savage and friends have taken it a step further, launching the "Make It Better Project" to organize events and support actions to reduce bullying and reach out to troubled LGBTQ youth.
It's already gotten better for William Lukas. A freshman at Drexel University, he has joined a student group that is responding to the "wake-up call" Tyler Clementi's death has sounded on anti-gay harassment, depression and suicide. Wednesday, he helped raise a gay rainbow flag in front of Philadelphia City Hall to celebrate Gay History Month.
The memories of his own hard times are still fresh, and he has his own message for teenagers in similar situations.
"It's so hard to have hope. You have to believe in yourself," he says. "It's going to get better and there's something else out there. Be proud of who you are."
Rick Holmes, opinion editor of the MetroWest Daily News, blogs at Holmes & Co. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.