I was in a meeting with my kids’ elementary school principal at the beginning of the school year, and I mentioned the high rate of suicide among LGBTQ youth and teens. The principal gave me an incredulous look when I equated inclusive books in the hands of kindergarteners with teen suicide. “Wow, you’re really taking this to the next level,” she said. Yes. Yes I am. Here’s why.
My kids have two moms, and one of my kids is transgender. The principal and I had been reviewing what was necessary to be sure the school and the classrooms are affirming for my kids and all queer kids and families—whether they are out or not. And yes, the rate of teen suicide is relevant in our elementary schools.
A study from University College London proved what most of us in the queer community already know: LGBTQ youth and teens are more depressed and are four times more likely to attempt suicide and self-harm than their heterosexual peers. When I was a queer kid and teen 20 and 30 years ago it was different than it is now, but the LGBTQ community is still the target of discrimination, hate, bullying, and violent crimes. I am a 39 year old queer person, mostly comfortable in my skin, have the support I need to get there when I am not, and I still feel like garbage for being different at least once a day.
The messages queer people get is that we are not normal. We are the ones who have to explain ourselves. We are being asked to prove that we deserve to be respected and accepted. If it’s too much for the strongest of us sometimes, it’s way too much for youth trying to get to know who they are in a world telling them who they should and should not be. And it is taking a deadly toll.
For 11 years, the study followed 5,000 youth from the age of 10 to 21. At age 16, they noted their sexual orientation, and over the course of the study, they were asked to report on depressive symptoms. At ages 16 and 21, they were asked to report on self-harm.
“Researchers found that symptoms of depression were far more likely at the age of ten in those from sexual minorities. These mental health issues were then likely to get worse throughout their adolescence and continue in their adult years,” explains an article on Dazed.
The bulk of a LGBTQ student’s academic career is spent feeling lonely, scared, and anxious. Yet we expect them to perform to the same standards as their accepted and represented peers. LGBTQ students are either afraid to come out or have come out with negative results. They are the subject of bullying, family rejection, and messages reminding them they are not “normal.”
The important thing to note is that kids as young as 10 are receiving these messages. On top of being physically hurt and verbally abused, queer youth are hurting mentally and emotionally and are hurting themselves physically as a result. This is because of shame, feelings of hopelessness, and unbearable sadness—kids are hurting because they are not accepted. Believe me, I have experienced all of these feelings myself. When you don’t see yourself or hear people like you talked about in a positive way, you assume something is wrong with you.
This is why representation matters. This is why 5-, 6-, and 7-year-old kids need to read about LGBTQ families, nonbinary and transgender characters, and gender nonconforming individuals who break gender stereotypes. We need to normalize queer families and people, and we need to do it early. A gay teenager doesn’t decide to die by suicide the moment they come out and are bullied. A gay teen has been receiving messages for years that they don’t fit in. A negative reaction when they finally find the strength to come out seems to tell their brain what they suspect: Being queer is not okay, the world will never accept us, and living in it is too hard.
Those are lies, of course, but my brain has told me the same ones. And I want the lies to stop.
When I talk about teen suicide with an elementary school principal, I equate it to math. We don’t expect older kids to learn algebra or calculus without having a foundation of addition and subtraction. We can’t expect LGBTQ tweens and teens to feel self-acceptance and peer-acceptance without being told from an early age that queer diversity is beautiful, valuable, and normal. Why do we wait to support our LGBTQ youth? Why do we expect different results to these studies?
One author of the study, Madeline Irish, recommends that teachers make sure their sex education curriculum is LGBTQ inclusive so that that all kids can talk about their gender and sexuality in ways that remove stigma. She suggests that schools are making the problem worse by focusing too much on straight relationships.
The study reported that depression decreased around the age of 18; those running the study indicated that independence and new, accepting friends helped. While this is a bit of hope, a kid should not have to wait until they graduate or leave home to feel accepted or at home.
What’s interesting, though, is that knowing a member of the LGBTQ community and having a bond with someone who has come out, leads to greater acceptance of the community as a whole and of support for same-sex marriage and equal rights. A study out of Pennsylvania State University showed that people who had a LGBTQ friend in 2006 were likely to show greater acceptance and attitude shifts toward queer people on the United States General Social Surveys done in 2008 and 2010.
To be accepted is to be seen. To be seen takes human connections and representation. Both can happen if we start talking to our kids at an early age about the different types of families, the many ways to love, and about genders outside of the binary. Being queer shouldn’t hurt, but it does. Step outside of your comfort zone and find ways to see us. We will find ways to love ourselves, but your acceptance will go a long way.