Here's what we've learned about gay teen suicides: it takes a village to make them happen, and also to make them stop. Yes, those kids who recently took their lives in cities across the country were particularly targeted by particular bullies. But both the bullies and their victims were caught up in systemic webs of hatred, ideology and culture. Our religious leaders, politicians and community leaders are all responsible, as are all of us, for spreading the fundamental message that gay is not okay, a message that is lethal and insidious.
The good news is that because we're all responsible, there are things all of us can do. Here are a few suggestions for students and young adults in particular, based on my 10 years of being a LGBT community activist and counselor.
"Come out" as LGBT or as an ally.
First and most importantly, "come out," whether you're gay, straight, bisexual, questioning, transgender, lesbian, queer, or whatever, as a supporter of equality. Every study that has been done on homophobia and public opinion of gays has shown the same thing: the most important factor is knowing gay people, or at least knowing visible allies. It's not geography or ideology; it's personal contact. If you're LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender), just being yourself is a form of political activism. Obviously, you have to decide when it's safe to be flamboyant and when it's wise to be discreet. But know that simply by showing up, you are opening people's minds.
This is true for allies, as well. It can be as simple as wearing rainbow pins, or "Gay? Fine By Me" t-shirts, or other ways to show your solidarity. But that's just the beginning. When someone in school says, "That's so gay!" let them know that "gay" is not a synonym for "stupid." If you're in an all-straight crowd and someone makes a homophobic remark, don't let it slide -- call them on it, just like you (hopefully) would if they said something anti-Semitic or racist. Bit by bit, homophobia will become socially unacceptable, instead of part of the everyday culture of high schools and some colleges.
Start a gay-straight alliance club.
In terms of formal volunteering, one way students can get involved is by starting gay-straight alliances (GSAs) at schools, camps, yeshivas, youth groups, and just about anywhere else. Of course, it's kind of weird to have a GSA with no (out) gay people in it. But think about it: if you were gay and not so sure it was safe to come out, imagine how important it would be to you simply to know that the GSA existed. Even if no gay kid ever joins your GSA, its mere existence has a huge impact on closeted kids, and on would-be homophobes and bullies. There are resources for how to do this online.
Take action in your religious community.
Here's the thing: LGBT people have been actively excluded from most mainstream religious denominations for hundreds of years. So if churches and synagogues really want to be welcoming, they have to be proactive. There should be an "LGBT" tab on their websites, and an LGBT social group. Pastors and rabbis should periodically talk about LGBT issues. And you, as a gay person or an ally, can help make that happen by talking to the leaders of your church or synagogue and getting them to institute these simple changes.
Chances are, your spiritual or community leader will say, "But we are welcoming! We just don't have any gay people!" Ask them how they know that. Ask them what they've done to balance out those 500 years of oppression with proactive statements and deeds. Once again, even if no gay people actually come out of the woodwork in your religious community, just taking these public statements can have a massive impact. They send a clear message: that sexual diversity is natural and healthy, and that all people are truly welcome -- even, if you like, made in God's image.
There are a lot of problems in the world today. Millions of people die every year from preventable disease, our economic system is in disarray, and the world is getting hotter every day. Equality for LGBT people is only one of many important issues -- but unlike some of those other ones, this is a problem we can do something about in our home communities. Equality for LGBT people is ultimately local, and ultimately personal. We're not going to change hearts from the top down; we're going to do it person to person, neighbor to neighbor. Whether you're an ally or LGBT yourself, wherever you find yourself, you can make a difference, bit by bit, like the force of water eroding a stone.
Follow Jay Michaelson on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jaymichaelson