Homophobia can have deadly consequences. Research has shown that lesbian, gay and bisexual adolescents attempt suicide at a rate three to six times that of comparably aged heterosexual youth.
As a psychologist well versed in an anti-oppression model, I understand that cultural and institutional oppression impact our sense of self and well being. Many institutions and individuals within our culture continue to hold anti-gay biases such that growing up gay often is a stigmatized and traumatic experience, even if more along the lines of a little t versus a big T trauma. In addition, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) youth are significantly more likely to experience big T traumas as well:
- Over a third of students experienced physical harassment at school on the basis of sexual orientation.
- More than a quarter experienced physical harassment on the basis of their gender expression.
- Nearly one-fifth of students had been physically assaulted because of their sexual orientation and over a tenth because of their gender expression.(1)
Is it any wonder that those who grow up judged, shamed or even assaulted due to their sexual orientation or gender identity may experience feelings of isolation and despair, which in turn can also contribute to suicidal behavior?
Thanks once again to Twitter, I learned about Reasons To Go On Living, a powerful suicide prevention site. They present a unique and strikingly impactful twist: suicide survivors share their own stories about living after a suicide attempt.
We believe that if we had a better understanding of how people found the strength to go living after an attempt, we might be able to better help people who are thinking of ending their lives, before they make an attempt.
I am sharing the following anonymous story because I too believe that understanding each other can have a profound impact on our world. Perhaps reading a personal account of the pain of homophobia can make the point better than I have with all my words and statistics.. Listen to her words and think about how much discrimination hurts. How it can even kill.
I realized that I’m a lesbian when I was 16 back in the late ’80s. I fell in love with my best friend at school. It was a Catholic school, my family was very Catholic, and I was a regular churchgoer and believer.
I tried to talk to my parish priest about my feelings—the response was not supportive. I knew my parents would try to “convert” me to heterosexuality if I told them. I couldn’t tell my best friend because I was afraid she would never talk to me again. There were no teachers or other adults that had ever given me any indication that they were gay-positive, so I felt that there was no one to turn to. Needless to say, I felt very alone.
After a year of struggling with my religious beliefs (which told me quite clearly that I was a sinner and could never act on the feelings of love in my heart), I began to feel that there was really no way out of my dilemma. If I chose my religion, a big part of me would never be truly fulfilled. If I chose to acknowledge my sexuality, I would lose the only religion I had ever known. The situation was not really as black and white as it felt at the time—my lack of awareness of alternatives and resources, combined with the drama of adolescence intensified the importance of the decision I felt I was being forced to make.
One night I talked to my mother in very indirect ways about Catholicism and whether or not there was room for different interpretations about sexuality. I padded the conversation with other topics so she wouldn’t know why I was bringing it up and that I was referring to my own situation. She was firm in her conservative beliefs, and made it clear to me that there was no way but her version of “God’s way” to live. I was devastated—she didn’t know it, but she had rejected who I was. She had described a future for me that would be empty, meaningless and without family or God.
I needed to get away, so I went for a drive—tears streaming down my face and music blaring. I was driving down a country road—I could see in the distance that there was a train coming off to my right. It would cross across the train tracks on the road I was on. Judging by its speed, I knew that if I kept driving—and didn’t brake—my car would collide with the train. I had a few minutes to decide what to do. It felt like a test—a perfect opportunity to end my life. To get out of the situation I was in. I didn’t have to do anything, just keep driving. In order to live, I had to take my foot off the gas and move it to the brake.
At first I decided to do it—why not? There really was no one to turn to—not God, not my family, not to anyone I knew. And then I thought about the friend I had fallen in love with. If I kept going, I would never be able to tell her how I felt. I would never have the opportunity to be honest about all of the wonderful things I felt for her—she would never know the true me. So, I braked. The car stopped about 15 feet from the train tracks. The sound of the train and the wind passing with it felt like a baptism of sorts. It wasn’t so much that I didn’t want my friend to be hurt by my suicide—it wasn’t worry about how she would cope with that, or how any of my family would cope. It was the realization that I needed to try to be who I was meant to be. To be honest in the way I chose to live—regardless of how other people reacted.
I decided that I would tell my friend how I felt—two weeks later I did just that. We became lovers and stayed together through the first few years of university. We’re not together now, but we stay in touch. She knows about the night that I decided to live—and she understands. That was the one and only time I seriously considered suicide. I know there are many other lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people who have been through similar experiences. Looking back on it now, it still shocks and angers me that homophobia and heterosexism almost killed me.
These are the lines that really jumped out at me: “It was the realization that I needed to try to be who I was meant to be. To be honest in the way I chose to live—regardless of how other people reacted.” No one deserves to die because they feel unable to be accepted as their authentic self.
(1) Results of a 2005 national survey released by GLSEN (the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network)