Recently there have been numerous news stories detailing the deaths of young people who were tormented for being different or because they were gay. While youth is always a time of great change and those who stand out in the crowd have always been targets of others insecurities, the extreme violence surrounding many of these deaths in a time in which we believe ourselves to be so progressive is stunning. In the past year our youth have been beaten to death, lured to “parties” in which they are tortured and raped, videoed and publically humiliated, and bullied to the point they can no longer bear staying alive. A recent news story told the tale of two 13 year old girls – best friends – who killed themselves at a slumber party. Their parents suspect they had been planning it quietly all along and they did not want to be stopped . This was not a “call for help” as we traditionally have viewed suicide. In their minds, death was the only way to end the constant abuse they suffered at the hands of their peers .
Closer to home, last month over dinner a young friend of mine spoke of a 13 year girl at her school who was different, never seemed to fit in , had family troubles and who took her own life. I have seen so many of these kids over the years. A young man named Colin stayed with me while he escaped the abuse he suffered at the hands of his extremely religious parents because he was different. He disappeared one day and his parents found him two weeks later hanging in the woods in their back yard. When I practiced counseling and did crisis intervention my office was full of teens struggling to stay alive, afloat and in one piece. These kids were rebels, honor students, athletes and LGBT teens who felt they did not – and could not – measure up. They were tormented at school and often held to unrealistic standards by parents with deaf ears. Some felt themselves to be so different it terrified them and they could see no way they would ever fit in. Their problems were belittled, the stresses they were under discounted and they sought control by acting out, through self-abusive behavior and ultimately by ending their lives. They did not believe there was help to be had and could only see a lifetime of the same garbage ahead of them. It is no wonder they chose to close the book.
To my young friends out there: I want you – all of you, wherever to you are – to know that YOU ARE NOT ALONE. And, it does get better. SO MUCH BETTER. I PROMISE. I know what it is like to be bullied, shunned and tormented for being different. I know how hard it is to shine. I know all about hating yourself for things you cannot control, and how difficult it is to believe that things will ever be better. I know what it is like to feel so unbearably different but I also know how scary how AND exquisitely beautiful it is to find out who you really are. There are many people who understand, who will lend an ear and a helping hand. Believe me when I tell you I know how hard it is to face another day knowing you cannot, and will not, ever be what they want. It seems so easy to just disappear. Looking back, I am so very happy that I didn’t let the bastards win. Keep fighting the good fight- it will not be forever. You will find your place, you will find many others like you — you are not now — and will not ever be— alone. If you doubt my word…TALK TO ME — here is my email : firstname.lastname@example.org – I am ALWAYS available to you. Please do not end your story before it even gets to the good parts.
To the “responsible adults” around us: This is a nation founded on the principals of rebelliousness and individuality. Our country’s founders came here to escape intolerance. Why then do we as a nation silently condone persecutory behavior when it is directed at the shadows of our societies – those we marginalize due to race or sexual orientation? Your families were once the very people hiding their beliefs, hiding who they were, running from the religious zealots who said they were wrong and who dictated “gods” word differently than your families believed. Have we forgotten why we came here in the first place????
We need to instill a tough national ZERO TOLERENCE policy around bullying, discrimination and discriminatory violence regardless of the age of the perpetrator. Both children and parents should be held equally accountable for acts of terror and violence targeting other youth. Teachers, principals and school boards should be held accountable for acts of bullying occurring on their campuses AND for acts of violence that occur off campus when the seeds were planted and word was spread during school time. Family, friends and neighbors need to stand up for our youth; we need to speak out, jump in, notify authorities and stop pointing fingers or saying “it is not my problem”. IT IS OUR PROBLEM.
Every evening the news carries stories of youth being bullied, after school “fight clubs”, malicious texting and abusive social media interactions and we turn the sound down, throw our hands up and wonder who is responsible.
WE ARE RESPONSIBLE.
WE DID THIS TO OUR YOUTH.
WE CREATED THIS PROBLEM.
AND WE NEED TO PUT AN END TO IT NOW.
We need to create more opportunities, both educational and social in which individuality and self-expression are supported, explored and celebrated. When we foster competition over creativity and when sports teams are funded while the arts are being shut down we are raising a generation more aggressive and less tolerant of those who are different. We need to back off on the pressures to succeed that we put on our children due to our own adult fears of failure. Let them be kids, love them for all their crazy glory. Stop trying to make them little adults imposing on them some weird standard for plastic perfection. Let them PLAY and explore and create, then ask them to be responsible – not the other way around. Our priorities need to change.
Our youth are our future. In a society where adults turn a blind eye on youth picking on those who are unique what does that say about our future? Where will our creativity disappear to? Where will our individualism and all the things this country was founded on disappear to when our children are too afraid to stand out? Are we becoming a nation identical to the ones we fled from so many years ago? Keep in mind that the world’s richest man was a geek – shunned for not being an athlete and meeting some “american standard” for athleticism and aggression. What if he ended his life at 16 because he was weird and bullied? What would we have lost?
To the parents out there: Shame on you to those adults whose own closed minded perfectionism bred such intolerance in our children. Shame on you for closing your eyes, for your lack of accountability and your apathy. You have forgotten your role. As parents we hold great responsibility – our children are not ours to use as pawns or tools to foster our hatred and biases. They belong to the future and as such need guidance in staying the course of integrity and strength in the face of pressures to follow the easy path of conformity. And though you will never see this, to the parents of Colin: I will never forget that your child died because you couldn’t love him for who he was instead of who you wanted him to be. He was an amazing young man — too bad for all of us that you didn’t see that. You set an example for all parents to learn who our children really are …you may be pleasantly surprised.
Thankfully many, many more parents work hard to raise conscientious, caring and compassionate kids….THANK YOU. I have the good fortune to know and work with many of your young people, and I love them dearly for how hard they work to do the right thing. You are teaching them that regardless of your specific beliefs we all hold a piece of God, and to extinguish that through demands of conformity or acts of violence, robs us all. I am so grateful for your compromises, your wisdom, your words and your silence even when your were scared. As a single parent of young adults, I know how hard it is….but I also know that the most important thing we ever give our kids is acceptance. And sometimes, that is a hard thing for us to give without any attachments.
To my fellow warriors, rebels, LGBT rule breakers, artists and creative souls….I love you all. I honor all that you are, all that you have been and the challenges you have faced. So many of you hid when you were young waiting for a safe time to be truly you….and I love who you have become! I am so glad that you stayed here with us as you continue to brighten so many lives. I wish that these kids could see you then and now so that they would know what is possible. They so need to know what love and acceptance really looks like. Thank you for helping all of us step up to being better people.
Please check out the following resources:
It Gets Better Project founded by Seattle’s Dan Savage
Pink “Perfect” song (explicit)