On March 4, 1992, I met with Mayor Al Duerr who had received two copies of "Gay , Lesbian , and Bisexual Youth Need Our Help," and additional information. This was the first time he had been formally advised that Calgary's gay and lesbian youth were in serious trouble, and it was hoped he would do something to help them.
In June, 1991, he had formally proclaimed "Gay Rights Week," which then gave him a firsthand experience with the hatred gay and lesbian people experience every day. However, Mayor Duerr's experience was temporary, lasting only as long as it took the conservative homohating elements of the population to pressure him (by threats to him and his family) to return to a laissez-faire approach regarding gay and lesbian issues.
Not long ago, the Ku Klux Klan was easily upset by the idea that black people would ever be treated as equals. They greatly resented the thought that black people would have legal recourse when they were abused and discriminated against, and they especially didn't want black people to have access to the same services and opportunities granted to white people. They also rejected the idea that "being black" was an attribute a person could be proud of.
In Alberta, there are people who respond the same way to gay and lesbian people. In their minds, when Mayor Duerr became a traitor to the destructive hate-motivated status quo they wished to maintain, they did to Mayor Duerr what members of the Klan once did to so-called white "nigger-lovers." They threatened his welfare, and even threatened the welfare of his children - because people who hate others never have the morality they always claim to have.
By the spring of 1993, Bernie Gristwood, Alderman Barry Erskine's Assistant, gave me an explanation for the reason why no one at City Hall wanted to do anything to help gay men and lesbians, nor gay and lesbian youth. She spoke of the threats made to Mayor Duerr's children because of the proclamation, and noted that the aldermen didn't want to have such hatred directed at them and their families.
A meeting with Alderman Sue Higgins had also confirmed this. She explained that she would do nothing about the epidemic of violence inflicted on gay men and lesbians, nor anything for gay and lesbian youth, because some of her constituents will consider this to be gay/lesbian-positive and therefore direct their hatred at her.
When I had met with Mayor Duerr, I had hoped to appeal to his humanity, and that it would override the fear homohating people had instilled in him. Unfortunately, it eventually became apparent that he would avoid doing anything about the epidemic of violence, as he was also remaining silent about the abuse of gay and lesbian youth experience in society and in Calgary schools.
At the meeting with Mayor Duerr, the juvenile delinquency problem, youth gangs, and the gay and lesbian youth tragedies occurring in his city were all addressed. He was also advised about the fact that, if he contacted professionals concerning what I had brought to his attention, he would discover a conspiracy of silence resulting from their homophobic education.
Later, I met a Calgary gay youth who (as I was meeting with Mayor Duerr) was only days away from attempting to kill himself. At the age of 10, Mark (1) had identified himself to be gay, and he had become sensitive to everything said about gays. Almost everything heard was negative, and hating gays was acceptable. In fact, it felt like almost everyone hated "fags". That everyone hated him, or would hate him if his secret was known.
In March, 1992, he was only a few month into his teen years and he was in serious trouble. At his former school, his 'difference' had been recognized, which commonly yielded the "fag" label. But he now lived with his father, and was in a new school. Problems had not yet begun, but they were expected. It was only a matter of time.
As each day went by, Mark was approaching the final solution to his socially inflicted problems. Foreseeing no end to this, a feeling of hopelessness dominated his mind. For a week, he had been kept at home; because of illness, as his father believed. Every morning Mark waited for him to be nearby, and made himself vomit. Each day, and especially each night when he was falling asleep, he contemplated his death. He had searched the house, with the hope his father had a gun hidden somewhere. Finding none, he was seeking another sure way to end his life.
A hook, high up on the stair wall was focused on. He wondered why it was there, and it became part of the solution to his problem. He climbed up to check if it would support his weight. It passed the test. A strong rope was found in the basement. One end of the rope was tied to the hook. The other end was tied around his neck, so tight that it was hurting him.
He then paused for a moment as he realized this was the first time in years he had felt at peace, but only because his death was imminent. In a few seconds, the incredible pain he had felt would end forever; the pain which had caused him to cry every night, having no hope that anyone could help him, or that life could ever be better.
On the floor, after regaining consciousness, his neck hurt. He was not dead! The knot had not held, and the slipping rope had burned his neck, now bleeding. The rope had also ripped the hook from the wall. Panic overtook him as his mind was being overwhelmed by the potential consequences of what he had done.
His parents - and everyone - would now find out that he attempted suicide, and he would have to explain himself. He also believed his parents would be in serious trouble because of what he had attempted to do. In the bathroom, he frantically applied cold water to his burning neck. He wanted the damage to disappear and the bleeding to stop. He decided to lie about what happened, and eventually discovered that everyone believed the lie as opposed to ever suspecting the truth.
I met Mark in early October, 1993, a little before his fifteenth birthday. He had made a decision to contact Lesbian and Gay Youth Calgary, but going there terrified him. He believed gay-bashers would be outside the building and that he would be assaulted. Later, he realized that gay-bashers in Calgary, like the Klan members who lynched Blacks, don't operate in such visible ways.
Within two months of interacting with other gay and lesbian youth, he became more self-confident and empowered, to the point that he was ready to return to school. I talked with his mother, and with his truant officer. For Mark, the last two years had been disastrous. Everyone had failed him, mostly because parents and professionals don't receive the education needed to understand and help these adolescents. Nor the education they would need to help youth strongly suspected to be gay, as it was the case for Mark.
In October, 1992, Mark had been in a new school where he was not yet experiencing major problems, until he returned from an illness related absence. During this time, a teacher had made it a point to repeatedly tell the class that Mark was absent because of his "strange" nature. When he returned to school, his greatest fear had materialized. He had become "the school faggot!"
He quit going to school and a truant officer was assigned to his case. To the truant officer he "sort of" explained what the teacher had done, and a meeting was set up to address this issue. But Mark decided not to attend the meeting, mostly because he was certain that a full explanation would necessitate "outing" himself to a group of people. Gay and lesbian youth are often terrified of revealing their sexual orientation, even to a school guidance counselor.
In a September 1993 Advocate article, a Latino male youth, David Miranda, reported on his feelings related to seeking the help he needed from a school counselor: "I decided to go to a school counselor. I was scared to death. As we sat face-to-face, I mustered all the courage I could find and said: 'I think I might be gay.'"
David's problems, however, had begun years before, "at St. Raymond's Elementary School... I was taunted for being... the 'homo.' (Who says that fifth graders don't know about homosexuality?) It was during sixth grade that I started coming to terms with my own sexual identity. I did every thing I could to hide it from myself and from others. I stopped talking to people and kept to myself. This was the beginning of years of isolation... I would do anything to escape school. I would stay at home and do nothing. I sat around waiting for my sixteenth birthday so that I could finally drop out." (95)
Mark was also terrified in school, and even more traumatized by the idea of revealing his sexual orientation to others. This dread was again activated when a May, 1993 hearing was set to address his truancy status. Fearing that his sexual orientation may be exposed, he again considered suicide and began taking some of the dozens of pills placed on the table. This time, however, he didn't follow through with the attempt. He would attend the meeting but he would be silent about the real cause of his problems. He went along with the suggestion that he should complete his Grade-8 by correspondence.
Counselling was also recommended, but the counsellor subjected Mark to emotional abuse. Mark revealed his sexual orientation to him at the first session, but the counsellor refused to address this reality. Instead, he only wanted to deal with Mark's anxiety problem! The counsellor also made it a point to tell Mark that his own son was very normal, and certainly not anything strange like Mark. This abuse continued until Mark refused to see him again.
In September, 1993 Mark was enrolled in Grade-9 in another junior high school. On the second day, two large very macho males confronted him in the change room. He was pushed around, with accusations that he was "a fag," and it was strongly recommended that he perform oral sex on them.
On that day he quit school, mostly because he still did not feel he could ever tell anyone - including school authorities - what had happened to him. To do so would certainly mean "outing" himself, which was now a more feared experience given what a teacher and counselor had done to him. As a rule, gay youth assaulted in schools will remain silent about the assault; and this silence also applies for most gay men assaulted in society. They choose silence because pressing charges may certainly risk a public "outing," with consequences considered much worse than the damage caused by the assault. Such assaults are, by the way, usually carried out by a group of homohating males (2).
Up to the time when Mark decided to contact Lesbian and Gay Youth Calgary, everyone had failed him - because no one is trained to deal with teenagers known or suspected to be gay or lesbian. Nor are they trained to effectively address related problems. At best, professionals only end up completing the social process which caused these adolescents to "fall between the cracks," which is more like being "shoved through the cracks." This is the same process which often makes gay kids into "throwaways," not "run aways;" into "throwouts" as opposed to being "school drop-outs."
Luckily, Calgary has a two-year-old evolving storefront school called Discovering Choices, and Mark now had the self-confidence needed to correct the disaster imposed on him. So that, by next September, with the help of this school, he may begin Grade-10 in a regular school, almost as if his education had not been interrupted(3).
As I'm relating gay and lesbian realities to Kathleen Griffin who teaches at this school, a young male comes in requesting help. He's insecure, unsure of himself, and visibly gender nonconformable. I observe and listen. After he leaves, I respond: "He's another one who didn't survive in our schools." She thanked me for the many papers supplied to help her understand gay and lesbian youth, and I left. At no time in her formal education had she received information about these youth, although some information had been acquired in other ways.
Today, Mark is a survivor. He's a nice kid. And maybe, someday, you will meet him, not knowing he's gay or suspecting what happened to him - unless you are observant. After two years, the marks on his neck have not completely vanished; they are the result of what our rope did to him. If you inquire, he may tell you his story. Listen carefully because he's speaking for many teenagers, including the ones who are silent forever. He's also speaking for the ones who continue to discover that, compared to what we still do to these kids, death is a much more appealing fate.
These youth will continue to attempt
suicide at high rates, and some will die; while other will be injured,
sometimes for life. Mark's suicide attempt could have easily resulted in
a permanent paralysis, and governments should seriously consider such facts
in their budgets. The dollar saved in avoiding anti-homohating education
probably costs us ten or twenty in added educational and health care expenses.
|"Parents of gay and lesbian youngsters
often notice a growing sense of distance from their children, unaware that
their youngster is establishing ties in the gay and lesbian community."
"The extent of homophobia in North America is reflected by research findings which indicate that homosexuals are more stigmatized than drug addicts, alcoholics, criminals, and members of those racial minorities that a customarily subjected to discrimination." (Schneider,1988, p. 96, 42)
1. Not his real name. This section was read by him for his approval and for accuracy. The information presented was the result of a one-hour interview, and from other conversations I had with him.
2. Gay bashers usually take no chances. As a rule, two or more assault one gay male, and they usually seek out the weakest. They will then call him a "fag," a "wimp," etc, as he is being pulverized. The "wimps" in these situations, however, are the gay bashers, and they fall in the same category as males who assault and batter (physically weaker) females. It takes great courage to be gay in our society, and even more courage to be visibly gay. Gays who lack courage do spend closeted lives pretending to be heterosexual. In a June 10, 1992 article on "gay-bashing" published in the Journal of The American Medical Association (Reference #35, Appendix G), it was noted that assaults on gays "tend to be anything but fair, with attackers always armed, outnumbering their victims, and taking them by surprise." "Gun, even knives, are not usually the weapons of choice, but rather crowbars, clubs, and chains..," thus yielding whole body injuries where words such as "pulverized" can be used to describe the outcome. The Calgary gay-basing noted in the Conclusion was in this category and a baseball bat had been used by the three assailants.
3. The positive ending of this story was to suffer a delay. Mark's family life became destabilized, and his own "coming out" experiences were radically changing his life. As with other male youth I have seen come out, they go through the "candy store" phase as the result of, for the first time, having friends with whom honest relationships are possible. I have called this "the desert effect" because behaviours are much like the ones expected if we had been deprived of food and drink for days. An over-response is predictable in such situations. For Mark, issues related to developing friendships and more personal relationships became dominant, and his return to school only became a confirmed reality for September, 1994.
Little has been written in the "gay and lesbian youth" literature concerning the period following the coming out event. These youth may experience a great shift in priorities, especially related to major changes in previously existing motivational factors. Unfortunately, few professionals are available to help youth come out, and fewer understand the problems which may develop after this event occurs in terms of self, and in terms of coming out in limited ways to others. The problem is aggravated by the fact that related research does not exist.