“It Gets Better” campaign contains ugly, troubling contexts

“It Gets Better” campaign contains some unwarranted messages

It Gets Better, founded by gay activist Dan Savage and endorsed by celebrities and leaders up to the White House, extensively publicizes its mission to support lesbian, gay, and transgendered youth who are “being bullied in school.” That is certainly a worthwhile cause, but its self-imposed limitation only to peer bullying – while clearly popular – enables destructive finger-pointing at teens (one of our most pro-gay demographics) misrepresented as homophobic bullies by self-flattering grownups. And its overriding message may be false.

Worse, the limited scope of It Gets Better means even greater ignorance, isolation, and denial toward gay teens who suffer bullying and rejection by parents. These youth are many times more likely to suffer poor health outcomes, including being “8.4 times more likely to report having attempted suicide, 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression, 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs, and 3.4 times more likely to report having engaged in unprotected sexual intercourse compared with peers from families that reported no or low levels of family rejection.”

Yet… do you see any consistent public concern among gay activist groups, the White House and other leaders, or liberal/Left and mainstream media for the enormous issue of homophobic bullying by adults?

Are gay teens especially suicidal? There are studies indicating higher levels of self-reported suicide ideation among gay, lesbian, and transgender adolescents, young adults, and older adults. But very little ideation or even self-reported suicide attempts actually leads to suicide; in fact, these may be an essential motivator to seek help.

It’s hard to calculate how many gay people actually commit suicide; sexual preference is not a checkbox on death certificates. As an admittedly problematic substitute, we tabulated suicides by white males for the 1990-2010 period in California’s gayest zip codes (San Francisco, 94114 and 94131; West Hollywood, 90069; and Palm Springs, 92262 and 92264, as tabulated by Trulia from census reports of the prevalence of gay male households). Non-Latino whites are chosen for analysis to avoid racial differences in areas of the state that may affect suicide rates.

These zip codes, with 125,000 people (0.34% of California’s population), had 346 suicides among white males during the period (0.77% of white-male suicides). To rule out the possibility that these zip codes simply had more deaths in general, the percentage of white-male violent deaths comprised of suicides is used as the main measure.

That white-male suicide in gay-dominated zip codes is double that of white males in the rest of California by prevalence, and 27% higher by the odds ratio to total violent deaths, supports the claim of gay rights advocates that gay men do have higher actual suicide rates than straight men. However, suicide comprises just 11.7% of white-male teenage deaths in the gay-dominated zip codes, considerably BELOW the statewide average for white-male teens (22.2%):

Percent of total violent deaths among white males comprised of suicide/undetermined deaths:

Age                       “Gayest” zip codes*           California (statewide)*                Odds ratio

10-19                                   11.7%                                  22.2%                                  – 0.474

20-29                                   31.6%                                  28.2%                                  + 0.176

30-39                                   35.6%                                  31.1%                                  + 0.225

40-49                                   38.9%                                  30.0%                                  + 0.486

50-59                                   40.7%                                  33.4%                                  + 0.372

60+                                      34.6%                                  33.1%                                  + 0.103

All ages                               35.8%                                  30.5%                                  + 0.271

Source: California Center for Health Statistics, Death Data Files, 2015. N=356 suicides and 966 violent deaths in the zip codes; 44,720 suicides and 146,609 violent deaths statewide.

That is, using suicide as the criterion, it may “get better” – but not until after middle age. Whether or not gay teen males tend to live in gayer districts like gay adults do, the fact is that white teen males show substantially lower than average suicide levels in gay districts, while white middle-agers, in particular, show considerably more actual suicidality.

That is, the real danger of suicide among gay men – as among straight men – escalates rapidly after age 25 and peaks in middle age. This is important for prevention, because suicide by a parent escalates the odds of depression and suicide by their teenage and young-adult children.

It Gets Better may be winning support to helping select LGBT youth by delivering an adult-flattering message that only young people bully or kill themselves and we grownups are the rescuers. But that unnecessarily limited, youth-stigmazing scope leaves out the large bulk of LGBT youth whose depression and suicidality derive from family, parental, and childhood troubles, as the largest survey of young gay men, by the Centers for Disease Control, found.

Unfortunately, for gay and straight youth alike, there’s a hierarchy of concern: bullied, rejected, and attacked by youthful peers? Your problem gets intensive, star-studded publicity. Bullied, rejected, and attacked by parents and other adults? Only embarrassed silence. (See Columbia sociomedical scientist Jennifer S. Hirsch’s terrific op-ed, “A scientific look at the damage parents do when they bully their gay kids. We don’t allow LGBT youth to be bullied at school. Why do we allow it in their homes?” Why, indeed? Blame the leaders and activists who are too craven to make parental bullying an issue.)

Finally (and this is a personal reaction to working with LGBT youth), older LGBTs need to stop saying, “I can handle the negative comments. But these kids can’t, they’re committing suicide.” Stating how strong you are is fine, but it can be done without adding the negative, thoroughly unwarranted stereotype that LGBT youth are mentally troubled and suicidal. Only a small number of LGBT youths commit suicide, their suicide rate is lower than for older ages, and that’s remarkable, given the abuse many if not most endured from their families (which they can’t escape), clergy, and other adults and some from their peers — and survived. LGBT young people deserve advocates who recognize their strength, not ones continually emoting that a homophobic slur will drive them to self-destruction. (Mike Males)