Recent GLBT Teen Tragedies-What Can We Do?

Last week, I was browsing NPR’s site and came across Ellen DeGeneres’ YouTube video on bullying. She talked about how five teens across the U.S. committed suicide in what are being called ‘GLBT related deaths’-and these were only the one’s that were reported about in the news. Tyler Clementi, 18, from Rutgers University, Seth Walsh, 13, from California, Asher Brown, 13, from Houston, Billy Lucas, 15 from Indiana, and Raymond Chase, 19, from Johnson & Wales University. Her video was clearly a call to action, which got me thinking does this have to do with libraries or librarians?

Michael Cart, who is speaking at the YA Lit Symposium on Beyond Stonewall, agreed to answer a few questions to help put this in perspective.

What can we make of what we are hearing about in the news regarding teens these ‘GLBT related’ deaths?
MC: Suicide is not a new phenomenon among GLBT youth. According to the Trevor Project suicide is the third leading cause of death among teenagers and GLBT teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. More than a third of GLBT teens have attempted suicide, while nearly half of transgender youth have seriously thought about taking their own life and one quarter have actually made the attempt. Much of this self-inflicted violence has been due to bullying, verbal harassment, and casual physical violence (hitting, pushing into lockers, etc.).

Bullying of course is nothing new to teens and is not just limited to GLBT teens. What are some of the ways that it is different now than when we grew up?
MC: What is new is the Internet factor that makes cyberbullying so commonplace now. There is a great deal of information about this; C. J. Bott has written widely about the subject (see her books ”The Bully in the Book and in the Classroom” and “More Bullies in More Books”). The other thing that concerns me about the Internet is the sensationalizing of issues by focusing on the lurid, the sordid, and the – yes, sensational. A great deal of what appears on the Internet is unmediated and written by people with dubious credentials. Perhaps even worse is that the mainstream media are now following the lead of this sensational approach, this in an effort to sell more papers at a time when the “Old Media” is in steep decline.

In addition to the Internet, there are other new electronic tools like shoot and share video cameras (e.g., the Flip), mobile phones, etc. Unfortunately many of the resulting images find their way onto YouTube. And of course it’s difficult to stop, since so much of it can be done anonymously.

Another change is the increased visibility of GLBT teens who are coming out earlier and in greater numbers than ever before, thus making themselves easier targets.

Lastly, it’s my belief that teens today are less empathetic than ever before thanks to their constant exposure to “cyberpeople” instead of the real flesh and blood kind; and because of their constant exposure to violence on the Net and also in the form of videogames.

What resources or words of advice would you recommend to librarians to share with teens that are being bullied?
MC:

  • First of all they need to lend a sympathetic ear to teens who are being affected and they need to make it clear they will respect teens desire for confidentiality.
  • Post a notice that teens/kids who are being bullied and harassed are always invited to talk to the Librarian (s).
  • Let it be known that he/she has information about local organizations that can help.
  • Report incidents to the school administration and monitor follow-up.
  • The Librarian might tell affected teens to try to ignore the bullying, since that is often a way to stop it.
  • Personalize all services by getting to know the patrons.
  • Sponsor a Gay/Straight Alliance.
  • Humanize GLBT teens by booktalking and by insuring the library is well stocked with good books having GLBT content. (Perhaps they can use their Teen Advisory Group to help get these books not only into the hands of GLBT teens but also into the hands of straight teens).

What resources can you recommend?
MC: For more information on empathy, check out this article in the NY Times, “Gossip Girls and Boys Get Lessons in Empathy (April, 2009)“.

There are also national organizations such as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), and the Gay Straight Alliance network.

Feel free to share your own thoughts below.

About Kelly Czarnecki

Kelly Czarnecki is a Teen Librarian at ImaginOn with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. She is a member of the YALSA blog advisory board.
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3 Comments

  1. I wanted to mention some of the ways in which technology, the internet, and so on is being used to help teens that have questions and are struggling with a variety of issues – some related to sexuality, some related to family relationships, some related to the basics of growing up. For example:

    • The It Gets Better Project – on YouTube brings a variety of people together (including Tim Gunn and Dan Savage) to talk about how, even if it’s difficult as a teen to survive, when one gets older it does get better. Part of what’s so compelling about this project is that people are saying to teens – you are not alone and others are willing to help you through these difficult times. Tim Gunn says I care about you – and I think he really means it – and Jake Shears says go talk to your principal (or another adult) about what you are going through. The message of you are not alone comes through loud and clear via videos posted to YouTube.
    • The Make it Better Project – asks people to post videos on YouTube in which they talk about how they are making it better today. It’s a focus on what people are doing now to support teens and make schools safer for LGBT youth. The website for the Make it Better Project provides ideas on how to succeed in making it better, and the YouTube channel has a powerful selection of videos from teens and adults about how it’s possible to make it better.

    While it’s true that we’ve seen how technology can be used for really horrendous purposes, it’s also true that technology can be used to support teens as they learn to grow up successfully and the two projects above demonstrate that.

    What we need to do as librarians and educators is help teens to understand how to make good choices about technology use. Using video, text, and so on, in positive ways not in negative detrimental ways.

    I frequently think and talk about how the Internet and technology can be an easy scapegoat for the bad things that happen in the world. But, gay teens very sadly have been struggling for a very long time. It’s sad in some ways that it takes such a horrible event to make many of us stand up and take notice. While we do take notice it’s important to make sure to focus on where the problems really lie. We need to make sure to talk with teens about their lives and what they might be struggling with. We need to stand up for teens who might be being bullied or who are simply hearing peers have conversations that use inappropriate language or phrasing. We can’t let teens say bad things to each other and we have to try to turn conversations around.

    We can make things better right now.

  2. This is an issue I feel very strongly about, and there are a few things I would like to point out.

    In my teen programs at the library I’ll let a shit or even fuck slip readily, but a gay or fag won’t go without my challenging it. Shit doesn’t really hurt anyone, but gay sure does. We often tell victims to speak to an adult if they are experiencing bullying, but how can they trust us if we, as adults, hear people calling things gay and do nothing about it ourselves? By letting that language slide we are telling those victims that we are part of the problem, rather than a trusted adult who might be willing to help. Even if those who are saying gay use the word again as soon as we are out of earshot, at least we have sent the message to the victims that we don’t stand for it, and that someone is on their side. We don’t need to ostrasize those using gay, but explain its impact. I can’t tell you how often I’ve confronted a kid on saying gay, and they really haven’t thought about how it would make gay people feel. Often they say “I didn’t me gay I just meant stupid”. I give them the benefit of the doubt. They usually aren’t bad kids, just a bit naive about the impact of their words. Sometimes they even say they wouldn’t say gay infront of a gay person, and I ask them how they know I’m not gay. There are certainly youth who are delibrately perpetrating violence against gay peers, but there are also the kids that just need to be challenged to think. And I think that is the responsibility of every adult to get them to think, including librarians.

  3. The internet can be a very positive place for queer youth, especially those who feel isolated. There are a lot more opportunities now for kids to find more or less anonymous safe spaces that they may not have access to offline. There is a heck of a lot of negativity online, but there are also plenty of places that can support kids and give them a sense of community. I’ve had really good luck with queer-positive spaces on Livejournal and I know that Reddit has a sub-board specifically for queer and allied folks to hang out. Just for great all around info on sex, gender, and sexuality, the Scarleteen website is the place to go.

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