This week we have been forced to bear witness to the violence that is done to LGBT people and wondered "how could this happen?" The suicides of nine young people who were bullied and taunted about their sexual orientation and gender expression exposed the tragedy and pain that LGBT people live with and die from every day. Their deaths are tragic and deeply painful. For me, and our friends and allies at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, it is almost unbearable to think about the torment and stigma they endured when they were alive and the desperation and fear that cause their deaths.
At AVP we talk a lot about a culture of violence and this week that culture was plain to see: our society treats being gay or transgender as bad, or weird, or "alternative," or sick, and collectively denounces gay and transgender people. Not their "lifestyle" or their "choices" or their "teenage angst," but who they are as people. When we are mocked and ridiculed for who we are - or are "exposed" as if we were an ugly secret - it is nearly impossible to escape the message that we do not belong. And when this message is the primary message that we hear in schools, in churches, at home and at work in this country, the conclusion has to be that we, as LGBT people, do not have a place in this society or in this world.
I get asked a lot about why there is a sudden spike in violence and my answer is: there is not. Instead there has been a sudden spike in attention about this violence. Every day LGBT people endure bullying from our classmates, our families, our employers, our neighbors and strangers. Every day we face judgment because of who we are - sometimes as subtle as snide look or watching two people nudge each other as we walk by, sometimes as blatant as being kicked out of our homes and families or physically attacked because of who we are or how we "look." Mostly, we live in the middle of this spectrum, tolerating the uncomfortable looks when someone finds out we're gay or trans, worrying about what will happen if our boss or our neighbor find out who we are, suffering that moment of panic when someone steps aggressively toward us. The knowledge that we are at risk is one we live with from a very young age and remains with us throughout our lives.
We remain second-class citizens in a country that refuses to recognize us as legitimate members of society and the violence we experience, which may result in our deaths, will not stop until we change that culture. We talk about big solutions such as: achieving equality in this country, having the right to live and work the way we want and love the people we love. Those are necessary solutions and the President and Congress and all of the policy makers in this country must pay attention, step up and start passing the laws that protect us. But the people with the most power to prevent this violence aren't the folks sitting in the White House - it's you. Really, all we need to do is simple and can happen right now: Stop it. Stop making fun of gay people. Stop with the limp wrists and the lisps and the butch/dyke jokes. Stop with the horrified looks because we don't look like the boys or girls you know. Stop with the judgment about whether we fit the image that you have of "normal" people. Think carefully about how you think about "my kind" and me and why you think that way. Those thoughts fuel a culture of violence. But if every one of us were to commit right now to just letting other people exist without judgment, if we commit to respecting people and demanding that respect for everyone, then suicide rates among LGBT youth would drop.
When we ask "how could this happen" I say: because we let it happen. Don't let it happen again.