From the top of the center arch of the Sophie May Lane bridge in Norridgewock, Maine, high above the racing waters of the Kennebec River, I thought I could see the way out. At 15, I was not looking at the point where the brown river curled around the bend toward the next town. I was looking to jump.
I was standing on that bridge because I had just listened to a slick-haired visiting pastor at my church as he preached a sermon in which he declared that God killed everyone in Sodom just to punish homosexuals; the moral of the story, as he saw it, was that gays -- people like me -- brought harm to everyone around them. With my family on welfare, my mother hospitalized, and my brother going through tumultuous years, it seemed that this pastor knew what he was talking about. He didn't, but I was 15, so believed him.
Seeing as I had friends and family who loved me, I shouldn't have been the kid who kills himself for being gay. But I also had ears: how many years can you hear your identity used as an expletive before you come to believe that you are not welcome in this world? And if you are religious, as I was, how can you not feel a terrible burden when pastors, like the one whose sermon I had just left, tell you that God holds that same opinion? I didn't want to be worth despising on Earth and in Heaven alike. I knew where the nearest bridge was.
A neighbor, who thought I was just another kid recklessly playing where he shouldn't, saw me and told me to come down. I couldn't bring myself to jump in front of her, so I obeyed without explanation. Orinetta Spooner (yes, that's her real name) unknowingly saved my life. Because she called out to me, I was able to eventually experience all the best things that I could not see from that bridge: the wonderful college years I had, the person I'd fall in love with and later marry, the daughter we would have the privilege to raise, or the chance to write this column.
I didn't tell anyone this story in high school or college, because I didn't want people to know I was gay. I didn't tell this story later, either when I came out in grad school or in the busy years after, because I didn't want to feed the stereotype that being gay makes you suicidal. I was happy as a gay adult, and that seemed enough. As the years passed, I grew convinced that gay kids killing themselves was something from another time, a relic of my past. But the rash of suicides last fall made it clear that this was not so. When Tyler Clementi jumped off a bridge -- no neighbor calling out his name to save him -- it hit me hard.
With a little trepidation, I made a YouTube clip for Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project, telling my story. Despite the emotional turmoil I felt in revisiting that time, I'm glad that I did it -- and glad that thousands of others have made their own videos. I know that there are kids (and grown-ups) all over the country who have taken comfort from these testimonials. Unlike the year I climbed my bridge, you can log on to a computer today and see faces of living, loving, thriving gay people all over the world. Hope can go viral now.
That makes it all the more heartbreaking that, a year into the It Gets Better movement, the suicides continue, including even project participants like Jamey Rodemeyer. It drives home the point that it isn't enough for gay people and loving allies to let kids know that we care about their lives; the suicides won't stop until people who do not think of themselves as allies truly find their humanity and step up to the plate to show that they will value and protect even people they don't understand or yet feel at ease with.
People of faith are called to love and, at least in Islam and Christianity, are expressly instructed not to judge others -- but many faith communities need to work harder at both values, making sure that when they claim that every life is precious, this applies equally to kids like Jamie Hubley, the 10th-grader who killed himself last week. Those who politically oppose gay civil rights need to stop overshooting the policy debate by demonizing gay people with rhetoric that diminishes our human dignity. Teachers and principals in schools, no matter how conservative, must accept their responsibilities to protect the lives of their students, not just passively but proactively.
While we must continue to say that it can get better in time, we should also be asking this question: "Am I making it better right now?"
A year after I first started sharing what I went through, I'm telling the tale again, because it will be new to some kid somewhere, and he or she might read it and take heart. But this time, I'm adding a post-script: stories alone aren't enough. It wasn't inspiration that got me off that bridge; it was a person who saw a boy in a perilous place and stopped what she was doing to say, "Come down from there." Fewer kids will die when it's not just their parents, not just their gay and lesbian peers, but our entire society that is keeping an eye out on their well-being, when all of us are working to make the world safe enough to keep living in.