Many, many questions have yet to end up with satisfactory answers in the recent spate of suicides of gay teens. Not least: Why now?
Why, in an era when gays and lesbians have gained so much acceptance, are GLBT teens still so much more vulnerable than their classmates? And why, despite having several decades to get up to speed on the issue, are schools still Ground Zero for this front in the culture war?
In the last year, seven teens attending Anoka-Hennepin Public Schools, Minnesota’s largest district with 40,000 students, have killed themselves. At least two were known to be gay, and critics have blamed the district’s controversial policy of “neutrality” in curriculum.
In July, 15-year-old Justin Aaberg killed himself in his bedroom in Andover. Aaberg was openly gay and had a very supportive mother who had no idea he was the target of frequent bullying.
It seems like such progress: A teen who is secure enough to come out to his family and friends and even date, according to some news reports. One would think Aaberg could have turned to any number of places for help when he found himself in crisis.
More high schoolers come out now
Phil Duran is general counsel for the gay-rights organization OutFront Minnesota. His answer to the “why now” question: Visibility.
“Twenty-five years ago, the issue didn’t get much attention,” said Duran. “No one really thought to be out in high school.”
In four states, gays and lesbians can now marry. More kids now come from families headed by same-sex couples. And the number of openly gay celebrities has exploded.
With all of this seeming normalcy, more kids feel it’s OK to come out — which is a good thing, Duran said. Except that as a society we haven’t dealt with lots of baggage from previous eras.
Suicide rates have always been higher among gay teens than straights. And thanks to a study done by the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office in the 1990s, we know that GLBT teens and overweight children are bullies’ most frequent targets.
Suicide, dropout rates high
Gay, lesbian and bisexual youth are two to three times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual counterparts, according to the Department Health and Human Services. And 28 percent of gay students will drop out of school — more than three times the national average for heterosexual students.
At the same time, bullying on the whole has gotten worse. Kids used to at least be able to get away from their tormentors by going home at the end of the day. But cyberbullying [PDF] happens around the clock, and frequently in places where adults aren’t paying attention.
The problem is so bad, in fact, that some Minnesota lawmakers have called for a special session to address the issue. In the last session, Gov. Tim Pawlenty vetoed anti-bullying legislation.
Add to this complicated stew the fact that equality for gays and lesbians is possibly the most divisive issue in today’s culture wars, and you end up with a situation in which those gay teens must navigate some bizarre adult politics.
Confusion about policy
Future Learning Curve blog posts will take more thorough looks at various aspects of the sprawling controversy, but the abbreviated version of what happened in Anoka-Hennepin is that the district attempted to respond to the concerns of community conservatives by implementing a policy mandating curriculum be “neutral” on matters of sexual orientation.
“It took a year and a half for Anoka-Hennepin to tell staff what it meant,” said Durant. “In that time there was confusion about what the adults could and couldn’t do.”
He and other critics say staff were given little guidance on how to interpret the rule, creating, in effect, a situation where anytime a student’s sexual orientation came up the adults in the room took two steps back.
District administrators have since clarified the policy: Curriculum must remain neutral, but intervention is warranted on behalf of any student who reports bullying of any kind, and when teachers and others learn that a student is struggling with his or her sexuality or any other issue, they should act to help the student find appropriate resources.
An avalanche of comments
Just that clarification has stirred a political hornet’s nest. Anoka administrators are struggling to deal with an avalanche of angry calls and e-mails from people on both sides of the issues. Superintendent Dennis Carlson was even contacted by the U.S. Justice Department earlier this fall about the possibility of community-wide mediation; Carlson is interested, but the feds have yet to follow through, according to his office.
The grownups had better get their acts together, said Durant, because teens will continue to leave the closet and will continue to struggle as a result. Thorny issues are already showing up at far earlier ages than ever anticipated: “More and more elementary students will now talk about a transgender experience,” he said.
“Ultimately what needs to happen is there needs to be an engagement of students and families when they start kindergarten: ‘This is how we treat people,’ ” Duran said. “You can’t train kids to like the person next to them. But you can say ‘This is the code of conduct.’ “