Some weekends ago, a girl named Megan* told me the story of her friend Jacob,* whom she had known in high school. Jacob was a remarkable teenager: as a freshman, he was a varsity athlete, he got good grades, he was outgoing and friendly, and he stood up for the people he cared about. He was, in short, the kind of friend and son that any person would want.
Megan was frequently bullied herself. One day, she told me, a group of boys had her cornered and were mocking and shoving her. Her friend Jacob spotted this happening and, in a typical display of his bravery and moral integrity, intervened, pushing the other boys out of the way and scolding them. "What did she ever do to you?" he demanded, towering over them, as he waved his index finger in their faces.
Later that year, Jacob was courageous enough to come out of the closet as gay. In the South, this is not a feat done lightly: doing so may leave you homeless, sent to a so-called "ex-gay" camp to become brainwashed and self-hating, and the victim of homophobes of all flavors. Until homophobia is eradicated, particularly in places like Jacob's small, Southern hometown, coming out will remain a fundamentally political act -- an individual's declaration of his or her own self-worth in the face of a society that proclaims otherwise.
Jacob was not surprised that he encountered some resistance when he initially informed his classmates that he was gay. He had hoped that this would pass quickly. But where once he had many friends, he found himself sitting alone at lunch. His coach kicked him off the team, for what seemed like no reason at all -- but he knew it was because he was gay. His former teammates now mocked him, called him "queer" and "faggot," shoved him in the hallways, and beat him when they thought they could get away with it. Jacob's grades began to slip, and he drew inward.
One day Megan called him to see if he wanted to hang out. There was no answer, so she called back later. Still no answer. Jacob wasn't at school the next day, either. As soon as class let out, she went over to his house to make sure he was OK. His mother answered the door and informed her, sobbing, that Jacob had taken his own life. He couldn't endure the bullying and, worse, felt that nothing would ever change.
As Megan related her story to me, tears welled up in my eyes -- not only because of the sheer tragedy of Jacob's story, but because it is, sadly, all too common. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) teenagers throughout the United States take their lives on a regular basis, but the reasons why they make this tragic, horrific decision are often misunderstood -- and I know, because I've been there.
They don't take their lives because they're "sad" or because someone called them a "faggot"; they don't take their lives because they were shoved; they don't take their lives because they're lonely; they don't take their lives because of an anti-gay ballot initiative; they don't take their lives because they've never had a role model.
Queer kids take their lives because all these things combine to create a situation in which they simply cannot envision a world where things will ever change. They take their lives because of the incessant bullying, the use of their identity as a political punching bag, the resounding silence of their teachers, and the volume at which their pastors preach about their doom to eternal damnation. Our political and cultural climate has sucked the air out of the room to the point where their hope can't survive. We have created a world so hostile for LGBT teens that the people who are supposed to be the most naïve, the most idealistic, the most hopeful -- kids! -- have simply run out of faith in a better tomorrow.
No child should ever have to endure this, to endure beatings and harassment and bullying, until he can no longer envision a future in which he is happy. No child should suffer the loss of his hope.
When I mention that I advocate professionally for LGBT equality, I am often asked why. In the past, my answer has varied: because I've been bullied; because this is a holy fight (could a fight for life be anything but?); because it's just the right thing to do; because I have friends who have been victimized merely for being who they are.
But since I heard Megan's story, my response has been the same: for Jacob, and out of the knowledge that there are thousands of Jacobs out there -- and because, knowing this, I have an obligation to help. Saying that "it gets better" does help -- it allows teenagers to begin to see an alternative to the bleak vision of the future our society has crafted for them -- but we have to do more to make it better, by creating a world that does not require promises of improvement to stave off the depression and suicide of teenagers, even as we mourn the loss of those whom we've already failed.
*Names have been changed to protect those involved.