At least six gay teenagers have taken their own lives in the past month, many as a result of harassment or prejudice from their peers. In response, leaders of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community at USC have taken the opportunity to stress the steps that must be taken to prevent such tragedies from occurring in the future.
In the most publicized case, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi of Rutgers University killed himself after his roommate posted a video on the Internet of him with another man in his bedroom. Zach Harrington, 19, Raymond Chase, also 19, and three other gay teenagers have also committed suicide last month.
This string of suicides has shaken communities across the nation — including here at USC — where groups have been hosting events in honor of GLBT History month.
Vincent Vigil, director of USC’s LGBT Resource Center, said that the recent suicides were the latest in a long history of prejudice aimed toward the LGBT community.
“Obviously a lot of our students were shocked by the suicides, but I think that within our community there’s kind of a numbness to harassment or bullying or homophobia,” Vigil said. “A lot of students have dealt with that before, so for us — and it’s kind of sad to say this — but a lot of us become numb to those.”
Vigil also said such harassment is still harmful to many LGBT students, especially those who are not yet completely comfortable with their sexuality and don’t have access to the types of resources that can help them cope with harassment.
“It’s devastating because you’re already dealing with a student who feels different than everybody else,” Vigil said. “They feel marginalized, like they’re not a part of the entire community. They feel like a minority. So when you add that on top of the bullying or harassment, it just intensifies their sense of feeling different or being alone.”
LGBT students often struggle with their identity in an environment where they are exposed to prejudice and harassment, whether or not the harassment is intentionally harmful, said Matthew Hanson, a freshman majoring in public relations who identified himself as gay.
“To have other people just attacking them for something that they’re not even sure they’re comfortable with themselves, that’s what really just kills it,” he said.
Hanson voiced his distress over the news of the suicides as well as his surprise at the amount of media coverage given to the suicides.
“This was something that everyone on the Internet was talking about and people were making Facebook groups about it,” Hanson said. “That’s shocking that a tragedy like this would get that much attention in today’s society because you don’t really get a lot of news from the gay community.”
Emily Allen, executive director of Queer & Ally Student Assembly, said even the smallest actions of tolerance will help in the long run.
“People who are supportive really need to speak up and let their friends know who might be dealing with problems of harassment and discrimination, or even just problems of not feeling comfortable with themselves,” said Allen, a junior majoring in English and psychology.
“Even strangers, if they just show support in small ways towards the LGBT community, people might feel more apt to speak up when they’re having trouble,” she said.
Allen said even with the recent suicides, the overall attitude toward the LGBT community seems to be improving.
“So many different communities around the country are pulling together, trying to prevent instances like this from occurring in the future,” she said. “It’s a shame that tragedies like this have to occur to get people to take widespread action like they’re doing right now, but at least it is moving in a positive direction, and in large numbers.”
The rash of suicides comes at an important time for members of the LGBT community at USC, as they celebrate a month of events aimed toward increasing tolerance across campus.
Monday marks the start of Ally Week, during which supporters of the LGBT community are encouraged to “come out” as an ally. Organizers hope that such events will continue to foster a welcoming environment on campus even in the midst of such tragedies, and students seem to be reacting well.
“More than a lot of other schools, we are still very accepting,” Hanson said. “There’s a lot of comfort with the whole Ally Week thing and the fact that the administration took notice and wanted to put that out there that USC is legally, socially and at all levels a truly gay-friendly school.”
Joshua Morris, assistant executive director of QuASA, participated in an LGBT Resource Center discussion last week in which students expressed their distress over the suicides.
“Everyone was shocked that it got to this point where so many students would kill themselves because of their peers,” said Morris, a senior majoring in psychology. “The saddest part for me was that it lets us know that the self-esteem of the members of the LGBT community is not high enough, and we need to help each other, reach out and really support our other schools.”
The university has several resources for students who feel uncomfortable or threatened because of their sexual orientation, including the LGBT Student Resource Center, QuASA, the Trojans Care for Trojans website, and peer mentoring and counseling programs. The responsibility, however, ultimately lies within students to take action to create a more accepting environment.
“Do something for these students who were affected by the suicides,” Vigil said. “Do something simple, do something grand, do something mediocre — just do something to show your support or your enthusiasm towards the LGBT community. A little can go a long way.”