Childhood is tough for everybody, but for LGBTQ kids, it can be especially difficult. This month is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among kids aged 10-19 in the United States. According to the Trevor Project, LGB kids are three times more likely to seriously contemplate suicide than heterosexual kids and five times more likely to attempt it. Far too little is being done about this either at home or at school.
Last Sunday night, a 16-year-old Tennessee high school student named Channing Smith committed suicide after a female student posted screen shots of private and explicit messages to he’d exchanged with another boy outed him as bisexual. The messages were quickly shared on social media. His brother said they did it just to completely humiliate and embarrass him. “Being in a small, rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can imagine being the laughingstock and having to go to school Monday morning. He couldn't face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday, so he shot and killed himself.”
All childhoods are messed up. My own was no exception. A speech impediment set me aside for special treatment by my schoolyard peers the moment I opened my mouth. I was a high school sophomore when a doctor sent me to a competent specialist. We discovered that there was nothing whatsoever wrong with me, I had simply not learned to pronounce sibilants with my tongue and teeth. In my parents’ defense, they did the best they knew how. They were too busy having a new baby every year in keeping with the rules of their religion to worry about one kid who talked funny.
Judging by my nine younger siblings, my parents had sex. They never talked to me about it. I learned from the neighborhood experts in the playground, the Church, and the Miracle of Life exhibit in the Museum of Science. Among other things, I learned that there were two kinds of boy: normal and queer. Given my lisping speech and bookish ways, I was probably the latter. It would take me a long time to acknowledge it, but they were right. The best way to hide anything is to hide it from yourself.
My first sexual experience was a fumbling and furtive encounter with another boy in high school. Afterwards, I had an epiphany. He must be queer. It didn’t matter that I had been the one in the, um, compromising position. My stained soul was further blackened by my failure to confess this terrible sin to the priest. Nor did I confess what another boy and I did later in the theatrical storage room. He must’ve been queer, too. (He was, I ran into him years later in a gay bar.)
But I certainly wasn’t queer. I dated girls in high school. Well, a girl. We had a date. I slow-danced with her to “Hey Jude,” and was grateful when it finally ended and I could let go of her. Maybe I was just a late-bloomer?
I was 19 when the penny finally dropped. I came out to a friend. It was fraught, and not just because he was struggling with the same problem. First, we were both servicemen with high security clearances. Being queer was a court-martial offense. Second, we were both more than usually religious. We believed and took comfort in what the Church taught, that being homosexual was morally neutral, but acting upon that inclination was gravely sinful. We believed that God would forgive us our trespasses and make it possible for each of us to live chaste and celibate lives if we prayed hard enough. (I don’t know how it worked for him. Last I heard, he had become a priest.)
I must not have prayed hard enough, or maybe God was just no match for a young man’s hormones. There were many occasions of sin, and many occasions of remorse and guilt and repentance. I was often depressed and alienated. There was a fundamental part of me that was bad, perverted, sick. God said it was an abomination. What kind of life could I possibly have?
That question was answered when I saw The Boys in the Band, celebrated for being the first accurate cinematic depiction of homosexuality. Michael throws a birthday party for Harold and invites friends. The dialogue is increasingly bitchy and cutting until Harold delivers Michael the coup de grace:
“You're a sad and pathetic man. You're a homosexual and you don't want to be, but there's nothing you can do to change it. Not all the prayers to your god, not all the analysis you can buy in all the years you've go left to live. You may one day be able to know a heterosexual life if you want it desperately enough. If you pursue it with the fervor with which you annihilate. But you'll always be homosexual as well. Always Michael. Always. Until the day you die.”
I ran out of the theater and spent the next hour crying in nearby church.
Alcohol helped. Alcohol is a solvent. It temporarily removed the self-loathing internal critic and my crushing inhibitions. It also removed a chunk of my life and left oblivion. Somewhere in there was a short-lived marriage and some changes of address. I was in Texas when I had a moment of clarity and realized that I was killing myself. I stumbled through the back door of an AA meeting.
AA’s Higher Power concept is deliberately vague. “God, as we understood him” is the usual phrase. My first AA sponsor, a middle-aged Texas good ol’ boy named George, sat me down and asked me some pointed questions about the God of my understanding. When I told him about the judgmental deity of my childhood religion, he shifted his cigar and said, “Fire the sumbitch.”
I was shocked. "Fire the sumbitch," he repeated. "That don't sound like any God you can rely on to keep you away from a drink today. That's just someone who'll wait for you to do it so he can punish you afterwards. Fire the sumbitch."
Instead, he wanted me to imagine all of the characteristics of someone who would be gentle and nurturing and supportive - "a big-titty goddess", if I wanted. It didn't matter. That was the entity I was to ask every day to keep me sober. That was my Higher Power.
I don’t whether my internal turmoil over my sexuality contributed my alcohol abuse. It seems likely, but I wasn’t encouraged to explore it. “You’re a drunk. You don’t need an excuse,” said George.
It took some work, but things got better. I got better.
I graduated high school in 1974. I don’t know what it would be like growing up today. I don’t know what I might have done if I had been self-aware enough to know myself as bisexual at age 16, or what it would have been like to have a small town all know my secret confidences, or lived in a time when cyberbullying is rampant, or unlucky enough to have easy access to a gun.
I took a look at the Coffee County Central High School website, and it might as well be 1974 in Tennessee. There's a student-led Bible study, organizations for Christian athletes, future farmers, and the like, but no Gay-Straight Alliance or anything else that looked at all LGBTQ-friendly. And there's not a word of the tragedy that happened last week.
It doesn't get better until we do better.