Gay teen suicides create a ‘teachable moment’

Originally published by MSNBC.COM at:

Reena Rose Sibayan / AP


updated 10/6/2010 6:12:26 PM ET

HADDONFIELD, N.J. — Gay Americans have
arrived at a “teachable moment.”

Often feeling marginalized in political
discourse or grousing that they’re used as
political pawns, they have the nation’s
attention — and sympathy — after a recent
spate of teenage suicides and two apparent
anti-gay attacks in the heart of their

Same-sex marriage and gays in the military
remain on the political front burner, but
general education and anti-discrimination
campaigns are drawing a wider audience.
While advocates hesitate to appear as if they’re
capitalizing on tragedy, some observers say
the political gains from it could come naturally.

Rep. Barney Frank, the nation’s first openly
gay congressman, drew a parallel to the violent
images of trained animals attacking civil rights
protesters in the segregated South — and how
they helped galvanize white sentiment in favor
of black civil rights.

“The police dogs helped the movement,” he
said. “It’s when bigotry shows itself at its
worst that people respond.”

advertisementadvertisement Gay teen suicides
create a ‘teachable moment’ Political strategists
think grief, events may provide opportunity to
advance gay rights  Several teenagers from
California to Rhode Island committed suicide
in the past few weeks, including New Jersey college
student T yler Clementi, who jumped off a bridge into
the Hudson River after, prosecutors say, his
roommate and a friend secretly streamed his
sexual encounter with a man on the Web. New
York police reported two anti-gay assaults
over the weekend, including one at the bar
where riots credited with the birth of the
modern gay rights movement took place.

Sympathy and outrage have manifested
themselves in campus vigils, viral videos by
the likes of Ellen DeGeneres, a call for
awareness by comedian Margaret Cho on
“Dancing With the Stars,” and even state
legislation addressing the New Jersey case. P
oliticians including Sens. Frank Lautenberg
and Robert Menendez were attending a
“statewide town meeting” at Rutgers on
Wednesday night in honor of Clementi and
bullying victims elsewhere in New Jersey.

 Story: Lawyer: No basis for bias charge in
Rutgers case

 Political strategists think the tears and
reflection might be an opportunity to advance
gay rights.

“Every once in a while, there’s something
about the victim and the way it happens that
transfers from tragedy into a teachable
moment,” said Richard Socarides, an adviser to
President Bill Clinton on gay and lesbian

 It’s not a moment of optimism for all gay rights

“There have been many high-profile incidents
of adolescent suicide, even pre-adolescent
suicide where kids have ended their own lives
because of despair and hopelessness,” said
Ethan Geto, a lobbyist who works on gay
rights issues. “This has not yet led to a
comprehensive, truly meaningful social-slash-
governmental reaction.”

But there are signs this time might be different.

‘Building more ally support’
Christian A. Berle, deputy executive director of
the Log Cabin Republicans, a gay GOP group,
noted that the conservative tea party
movement that has captured much of the
Republican zeitgeist has not focused as much
on social issues as has the party

advertisementadvertisement  “A lot of them are
saying that these fiscal issues should be the
foremost concern,” Berle said. “Time and time
I’ve heard that banning gay marriage would not
give anyone a job; banning gays from serving in
the military is not going to gain any jobs.”

Billy Kluttz, a co-president of the gay student
organization at the University of North
Carolina in Chapel Hill, said his organization is
holding a vigil Thursday to honor the suicide
and assault victims and spread awareness of
violence that can confront young gays.

Straight students he talks to are sympathetic
about what happened to Clementi, the student
at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, he said.

“People are more receptive,” Kluttz, a junior
from Concord, N.C., said. “We use that for
building more ally support.”

The suicide problem, like bullying, has long
been a major concern among rights groups
and carefully tracked by gay-oriented media
outlets, but the widespread attention is new —
even as formerly far-fetched ideas like
legalized gay marriage have become reality in
some places.

“While we have openly gay politicians and gay
characters on television, the reality of life still
seems dire for some of these young people,”
said Michael Cole, spokesman for Human
Rights Campaign, a national gay rights group.
Despite increasing tolerance for gays on some
fronts, the most-heard insult at schools is,
“That’s so gay,” he said.
 ‘Everyone is equal’
Hate-crime laws came into being in several
states after Matthew Shepard, a gay, 21-year-
old student at the University of Wyoming, was
found beaten and tied to a remote fence post
in 1998.

In the time since then, gay rights have become
a mainstay in the national political
conversation — but marriage and the military
have gotten the most attention and seen key
court victories in both areas.

Former Clinton adviser Socarides, now a
lawyer in New York, said the suicides can
demonstrate why gays should be allowed to
marry, join the military and work without fear
of being fired because of their sexual

“When you speak out for full equality now, as
opposed to partial equality, or incremental
equality,” he said, “you send a message to
advertisementadvertisement  everybody,
including the bullies, that everyone is equal.”

In New Jersey, lawmakers are preparing to
introduce a bill to toughen the state’s anti-
bullying laws. That push was under way
months ago, before Clementi’s suicide gave
the problem a public face. But Steven
Goldstein, chairman of the gay rights group
Garden State Equality, said it’s possible the bill
will be adopted more quickly because of
Clementi’s death.

“Any tragedy points out the need for action,
but believe me, we’d rather not have this
tragedies happen at all,” he said. “Don’t we
elect our public officials to have foresight and
vision to prevent tragedy?”


Associated Press writer Glen Johnson in Boston
and AP news researcher Julie Reed in New
York contributed to this report.

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