The Trevor Project, a nationwide nonprofit that works to prevent suicide in young LGBT people, maintains a "lifeline": a phone number that teens can call in times of distress. In recent weeks, that line has been flooded with calls. Some come from young people seeking help; but Laura McGinnis, Trevor's communications director, said that a growing proportion of callers are individuals with questions about the organization, or people wishing to make a donation.
The increased volume of calls coming into the lifelinemeant only for emergency situationsis an indication of burgeoning public attention to what some see as an epidemic: the number of suicidesat least five high-profile cases in the past monthof LGBT teens. The suicides have fallen across a wide age spectrum: the youngest, Seth Walsh and Asher Brown, were 13; the oldest and most recent suicide, Raymond Chase, was 19. They have spanned the country, occurring in Texas, California, Indiana, Rhode Island and New Jersey.
The attention, McGinnis told Windy City Times, is a mixed blessing, coming as it has on the heels of tragedy. "Anytime we lose a life, that's always a tragedy," she said. "This additional reporting does not diminish the hurt and pain of the survivors.
"If there is one thing that the end of these young lives has brought, it's more awareness. What we know is that [ when ] a young person is feeling suicidal, when they know that there are resources available, they're much more likely to reach out to those resources for help."
The media attention paid to the recent suicideswhich McGinnis said has more breadth and specificity than in times pasthas also brought to light the broader trend of suicide in LGBT teens. Teens on the whole are more likely to attempt suicide than other demographics100 to 200 attempts for every completed suicide in people aged 15 to 24, as compared to four attempts for every completed suicide for people 65 and olderand LGBT teens, who face social stigma, bullying and cultural homophobia, are at even higher risk. The Trevor Project estimates that LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers, and LGBT youth who "come from highly rejecting families" are eight times as likely.
In June, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn signed into law the Jason Flatt Act, a suicide-prevention bill, versions of which have been passed in four other states. The Flatt Act mandates suicide-prevention training for some school social workers, and adds such training to the list of professional development activities required for teacher certification or recertification.
That bill, however, did not specifically address the heightened risk of suicide faced by LGBT teens. McGinnis said that the Trevor Project supports federal legislation to combat suicide that contains "enumerated policies," that is, specific provisions for sexual orientation and gender identity. The Trevor Project, along with the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network ( GLSEN ) and Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays ( PFLAG ) , has worked to pressure lawmakers to pass the Safe Schools Improvement Act, which requires certain schools to put comprehensive anti-bullying policies in place.
That billwhich, as it makes specific mention of sexual orientation and gender identity, has been criticized by the conservative group Focus on the Family as promoting "pro-gay curricula"is pending in Congress.
The legislation recognizes a major cause of suicide in LGBT youth, and one that has been widely blamed for the most recent spate of suicides: anti-gay bullying. In a statement released after two recent deaths, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said, "These unnecessary tragedies come on the heels of at least three other young people taking their own lives because the trauma of being bullied and harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation was too much to bear."
"These young people didn't just die," McGinnis told Windy City Times. "They were bullied."
Even as social acceptance of LGBT people has grown, the prevalence of the Internetin particular, social-networking sites like Facebookhas made avenues of bullying more diffuse, more anonymous and harder to combat. Tyler Clementi, perhaps the most high-profile of the recent suicides, killed himself after his roommate used his webcam to broadcast Clementi having sex with another man online.
Shortly before his death, Clementi left a terse note on his Facebook page: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
Activists are also using the Internet to respond to the most recent suicide crisis. In addition to Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network launched its own YouTube campaign: "Make It Better" seeks video submissions from young activists working to improve conditions in their own lives. Whereas the focal point of Savage's campaign is adult lifethe point at which it "gets better"the GSA Network says that it wants to provide tools to young people to change their present situations.
In response to the challenge presented by cyberbullying, and as an attempt to reach teens through non-traditional means, the Trevor Project launched two online initiatives: this past summer, the organization launched TrevorChat, a crisis intervention service that electronically connects users with counselors. TrevorChat is not yet operational around the clock: In its current iteration, it is live for a period of time every Friday. McGinnis said that it has been "exceptionally popular."
And since 2008, the Trevor Project has sponsored a social-networking site for young people and allies that seeks to create safe space for expression. McGinnis said that TrevorSpace, which is monitored in order to create a "bully-free zone," has more than 12,000 users. "It doesn't matter the size of your town," McGinnis said. "You can make friends and find a community."
Learn more about the Trevor Project Saturday, Oct. 16, 6-9 p.m., at the home of Paul Reitz and David Rosen, 1457 W. Addison. The suggested donation is $45; see http://www.thetrevorproject.org/TrevorChicago.
Also, entertainers Amy & Freddy, as well as performers from the Baton Show Lounge, are slated to perform at a fundraiser for the Trevor Project Monday, Oct. 25, at Roscoe's Tavern, 3365 N. Halsted. Call the bar at 773-281-3355 for more information.