When I go on the road and perform at colleges, I don't do the kind of material I'd reserve for a regular comedy show in a club full of drunk adults. At colleges, I combine stand-up goofiness with a more serious goal: to talk to students about mental illness, specifically anxiety and suicidal depression. Usually I've been brought in as part of wellness programming. And when I come offstage and greet students who have private questions or comments, I often meet a few LGBT students who want to tell me their secret, dark thoughts, the ones they're afraid to tell their friends and families. They're scared. They're sad. They're depressed. They don't know what to do.
I'm never surprised.
Being gay in small-town America (or a conservative city or family) can be crushingly lonely, and the excitement of going off to college can fade quickly when a student finds that she is surrounded by people with the same political, religious, and social opinions as the folks back home. In some cases -- particularly for a student who attends a public university in her home state -- she may even be at school with the very same people who bullied her for coming out or who frightened her into staying closeted.
According to the Trevor Project, which seeks to prevent suicide among LGBT youth, "In U.S. surveys, lesbian, gay and bi adolescents and adults have two to six times higher rates of reported suicide attempts compared to comparable straight people. Surveys of transgender people consistently report markedly high rates of suicide attempts."
The Trevor Project was founded in 1998, the year before I graduated from high school. When I look at the kind of work the Trevor Project has done in the intervening years, as well as the brilliant and vital service Dan Savage has done with his "It Gets Better" initiative, I marvel at how far we've come as a society since I was a teenager. With gay teen and adult characters on hit TV shows and an increasing number of out-and-proud celebrities in all corners of entertainment and media, today's adolescents have even more exposure to LGBT tolerance than did my fellow high school students in the '90s. Yet for many young people, particularly those in conservative areas, being different is still a curse -- and an "alternative" sexuality is the worst kind of different, more execrable even than having the wrong skin color or believing in the wrong god. It's even worse than believing in no god at all.
For a very brief time, I was a high-school English teacher. I sometimes tried to tie my assignments to current events in order to prompt my students to take interest in the world outside the walls of their school. As we head toward Super Tuesday in March, an increasing amount of mainstream news coverage is devoted to the race for the GOP nomination. I wonder how it feels for a young LGBT person to be assigned to study Republican candidates and to time and time again encounter explicit and implicit condemnations of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender individuals. The softer anti-gay rhetoric of a Mitt Romney does not eliminate the hatred in sheep's clothing promulgated by the Rick Santorums of the world. If I were a gay kid today, without the perspective that comes with age and maturity, I'd listen to many political leaders -- including a president who still will not endorse gay marriage -- and I'd find plenty of reasons to feel down and hopeless.
I guess that's why I regard the work I do at colleges to be, in some small way, a kind of special mission, albeit one that involves a lot of frequent flyer miles, Burger King sandwich wrappers, and rowdy freshmen in sweatpants. Hell, if Mitt Romney went on a mission to France, I can go on a mission to Duluth or Indianapolis or Orange County, right? While I don't focus on LGBT suicide in particular, I hope that the way in which I talk about mental illness onstage helps more students than just the ones who choose to speak to me after the show. I want them to know that they are not alone. I want them to know that they are worth something, that there is help out there, and not the kind of "help" offered by pray-away-the-gay pastors and other cult leaders, but help from folks who want them to find effective treatment for depression and celebrate who they are, not who their birth religion or family of origin says they "should" be. And when they come up to me after a show and want to talk, I sit with them for as long as I can. Sometimes what every depressed person -- LGBT or not -- needs the most is to be heard, even by a stranger.
Sara Benincasa is an award-winning comedian. Her hilarious and raw memoir, Agorafabulous! Dispatches from My Bedroom, was released today, Valentine's Day 2012.