Gay / Bisexual Male Youth Suicide Problems
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To: The Table of Content - The Changing Social Construction of Western Male Homosexuality and Worsening Youth Suicide Problems

By Pierre J. Tremblay & Richard Ramsay
Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary.

An updated interim paper prepared in support of a Poster Presentaton with the same name at the 2004 CASP (Canadian Association For Suicide Prevention) Conference held in Edmonton, Alberta. Original Paper.


The first book on the suicide problems of homosexually oriented individuals, I thought People Like that Killed Themselves, was written by Eric Rofes (1983). He subsequently became concerned about the common and ongoing abuses of "sissy boys," as he described himself to be in childhood and adolescence (Rofes, 1995). The significance of these concerns is underscored from an interview with a mother in 1996 whose 14-year-old son had hung himself in the Calgary Detention Centre the year before. She reported that he had an abuse-related "sissy" history dating back to his pre-school years. By the time he reached the age of 13 he had transformed into a tough delinquent, similar in description to what Rofes (1995) reported as seeing some sissy boys doing for social approval. About two months before his death, his mother asked him if the nice boy he once was would ever return, to which he replied: "Why? To only get beaten up again?" Like what happened to Hiroki in Japan, this young boy ventured into a denial of Self for social (hegemonic masculinity) approval that resulted in a self-hatred of the "suicide" inducing kind. In this case, the boy essentially made the biological into what the psychological had become to avoid the abuses inflicted by other males. Boys who keep their femininity attributes can expect to be treated in the same way, or much like singer/composer Kurt Cobain was treated in his childhood:

"…in truth, those who knew the singer say there was a real fragility buried beneath the noise and of his music and his life" (Giles, 1994)). In fact, he was a "feminine" gay-identified boy who "got beat up a lot." He was also well known for his "God is Gay!" commentaries, beginning in adolescence (Allman, 1993: 38, 40).
Another mother talked about her same-age son who had also committed suicide in 1995. A national television documentary about this young boy noted that his abuse by others boys was associated with his gender nonconformity. A third adolescent male from the Calgary area had committed suicide at the age of 17 years. A conversation with his mother revealed that he had been exceptionally altruistic and concerned about the world's serious problems that needed to be addressed. She did not know, however, that her son was homosexual when he committed suicide, a fact privately revealed by a female friend, but she acknowledged to have received some information related to this possibility. The story of her son’s suicide has also been highlighted in a 1996 national newsmagazine cover-story on youth suicide: "Killing The Pain: Canada has an alarming rate of teenage suicide - and nobody, including grieving parents, knows why." The article's title emphasised the fact that few have understood this problem, also inherently suggesting that most in the field of youth suicidology may have been missing 'something' very important that was implicated in this problem. Yet, even in this highlighted case of a teenage boy who had terminated his life, there was someone who knew that "D" was gay, but related questions were not being asked. Relevant information was only given because the informant felt that truth should be told about her friend's death, at least to someone concerned about these boys and the homosexuality factor in male youth suicide. This revelation occurred at a 1996 Youth Suicide Forum held at the University of Calgary shortly after the above noted magazine article had appeared. Discourse at the forum was in accordance with the status quo, meaning that silence about homosexuality was to prevail. This silence, however, was broken the last five minutes of the forum via a criticism made of this silence. Later and privately, the informant expressed gratitude for speaking out on this issue and relevant information was reported about her friend "D" who had terminated his life.

Mothers who had become part of an emerging survivors advocacy group shared these three cases of adolescent male suicide, and two more parents in the group each had a son who had committed suicide. Bobby Steele had committed suicide at the age of 19 years in 1994, about three months after Cobain had committed suicide, and a related 5-page story (Staples, 1994) has been published in the Edmonton Journal. Staples gave the story a "Kurt Cobain copycat suicide" spin, as highlighted in the story's subtitle, "Bobby Steele's Nirvana death wish," but there was much more to this story much like there was much left unspoken about Kurt Cobain's childhood and adolescence when he ended his life. Staples reported that some people knew that Bobby was gay, such as the publisher of Times-10 (Edmonton's gay magazine) and a gay Native American male (with whom coming out problems had been discussed), and that Bobby's connections to Edmonton's gay community had only been discovered during his investigation. However, Bobby's father, a religious fundamentalist, was rejecting the high likelihood that his son was gay because, for him, the "gay" label was equated to "slander," thus inadvertently explaining why Bobby had not come out to his parents. Although understandably all parents who experience the death of an adolescent son may privately or publicly wonder why their sons never talked about their problems, but if the problem is associated with homosexuality factors how many parents would want to have their sons talk to them. Not all parents are like this, however, and Gabriel Rotello (2001) describes parents who would have responded more positively to their offspring's homosexuality:

"In speaking to PFLAG chapters over the years, I have met several parents of gay kids who committed suicide, and their refrain is always sadly similar: 'If only we had known. Why didn’t we send the right signals to our children, telling them we would have loved them no matter what?'"
For the group of five parents who experienced the suicide of an adolescent son, some individuals had known that the two older males were homosexually oriented, and the two younger males had a "sissy" history with related abuses inflicted by other males. As for the fifth case, the parents did not volunteer information about their son, which may or may not have implied the possible involvement of homosexuality issues. No attempt was made to solicit relevant information given that all information reported above was obtained on a volunteering basis. Although this is a small sample, the results are telling, and they indicate that the issues addressed in this book are very much related to adolescent male ending their lives. Unfortunately, most mainstream suicidologists have not expanded their perspectives to recognise the "homosexuality" and/or "sissy boy" factors implicated in adolescent male suicides. These issues are also intimately related to social constructed attributes such as homophobia, heterosexism (heteronormativity), and hegemonic masculinity with its intimate links to sexism/misogyny, but these subjects are generally not a part of mainstream discourses on male youth suicidality.

Mainstream youth suicidologists, including those at the CDC and NIMH, have most often spoken of depression, conduct disorder, other mental disorders, truancy, the availability of guns, the use/abuse of substances, previous suicide attempts, having been in a fight, etc. and "bullying" may soon become the new hot topic. The latter are called "at risk behaviours" but they reveal little or nothing about the lives of at risk adolescents, many being homosexual or bisexual. Ignoring homosexuality issues, however, has been the rule in mainstream youth suicidology as noted by Gary Remafedi (1994) in the second book the subject: Death by Denial: studies of suicide in gay and lesbian teenagers. It therefore appears like far too many suicidologists had been subjected to the effects of hegemonic masculinity at a young age and have been impaired, maybe for life as it has happened for almost all mental health professionals not long ago. This serious problem is highlighted by the fact that most mainstream highly educated psychiatrists of the recent past had somehow convinced themselves that all homosexuals were mentally disordered, this being a lie. As a result of their beliefs and related decrees, many homosexual people were abused, maybe also driven to suicide, by mental health professionals who then would have said: "He committed suicide because of his mental disorder."

In fields such as psychology, for example, the status quo for homosexuality was highlighted via the article title "'I only read about myself on bathroom walls': the need for research on the mental health of lesbians and gay men" (Rothblum, 1994). Homosexuality issues have also been ignored or marginalised in fields such as Family Therapy and Social Work as reported, respectively, in literature reviews by Clark and Seovich (1997) and Van Voorhis (2001). The extreme in marginalisation, however, was reported for bisexuality in Family Therapy, while the Social work study lived up to this "extreme" by only discussing "gay and lesbian subject matter." In Social Work, as in other fields, it is likely that homophobic mean spiritedness may often have been criteria for approval and advancement in academia given Ann Hartman's report in a narrative interview:

"I remember one of my friends overheard several of the male deans at a social work Dean's

meeting communicating with each other saying, 'The lesbians are taking over the field.' I am sure there is still plenty going on underground, as you can imagine. For instance five or six years ago there was a concerted, but rather quiet effort led by some of the deans to keep homosexuality out of the Council on Social Work Education guidelines." (Miller, 1998: 66)

Homosexuality has been a great taboo (a violation of heteronormativity), but it is bisexual people who were positioned to become the great transgressors, given their "no man's land" status imposed by the homosexual/heterosexual socially constructed binary. A similar status is reported for the people described by Wardle (2000: 12) who are transgressing the presently recognized race/ethic categories emphasised in multicultural education: "Multiracial and multiethnic students are placed in a no-man's land regarding ethnic and racial self-esteem at school." These "no man's land" spaces are common and they exist between other apparently distinct, but socially constructed categories that many in a society have often had a vested interest in maintaining. Stepping out of line means crossing borders, as accomplished by males cross-dressing, or when a boy is observed to be "like a girl" in the world of sex/gender binaries. These transgressions also create the great unease that was highlighted by Marjorie Garber (1993) in Vested Interests: cross-dressing and cultural anxieties, and human groups have a long history of punishing transgressors for threatening the perceived natural [socially constructed] order of things. Racial transgressions are also part of our history, with multiple transgressions being possible in these situations. Dollimore (1991: 345-7) noted this phenomenon in the form of a Black homosexual male growing up in a community where homosexuality is believed to be "the white man's disease," thus making the Black homosexual male into a traitor to his race. Responses, however, will vary as noted in "A deadly taboo" (Montgomery, 2001) and in The Greatest Taboo: Homosexuality in Black Communities (Constantine-Simms, 2001). To be in total violation of one's ethnic or racial group because one is homosexual, has not been a rare occurrence in minority ethnic communities as this Canadian example illustrates:
"Members of some ethnic groups find it inconceivable that any of them could be homosexual. Being black, Muslim, and so forth, and being homosexual, are perceived to be mutually exclusive... A 20-year-old Pakistani-Canadian male explains, "My parents are hurt. They see homosexuality as being against the Muslim faith. They think of it as being a white people's thing" (Tremble et al., 1989: 260).
Could the above in part, be why some adolescent males of colour have generally responded with greater suicidality associations, compared to white males, when they have been targeted for anti-gay harassment because they were believed to be gay? It has been suggested, at least for American adolescents of colour who are homosexually oriented, that their inflicted fate has been more serious than the one inflicted on white adolescents. "[They] have tremendous fears of losing their extended family and being alone in the world. This fear is made greater by the isolation they already face in our society as people of colour. These ethnic minority gay youth who are rejected by families are at risk of suicide because of the tremendous pressures they face being gay and a person of colour in a white homophobic society" (Gibson, 1989: 123).

Unfortunately, most studies of gay and bisexual male youth suicidality have either ignored adolescents of colour or study samples had numbers insufficient to produce statistically significant results. For example, in a study of 137 gay male youth ranging in age from 14 to 21 by Remafedi et al.(1991), 113 males were white, and 24 were "Black, Hispanic, [and] Asian." Twenty-seven percent (31/113) of white gay/bisexual males had attempted suicide, while 42% (10/24) of the ethnic minority males had done the same, but the difference was not significant and this result was therefore not mentioned in the paper's discourse. Their suicidality result for males of colour, however, is similar to that reported in a New York study of 138 mostly Black and Latino gay or bisexual adolescent males (age = 14 to 19 years). Rotheram-Borus et al. (1994) reported that 39 percent of these males had attempted suicide. Much, however, remains to be studied about North American male youth of colour and homosexuality issues, including their suicide problems, but few appear to have been interested in doing such research.

There have been many problems in the field of suicidology with respect to gay and bisexual male youth of all colours, and two have recently made their appearance. These problems are presented in Appendix A where four studies are discussed, and it seems that some researchers have been seeking to reduce, and maybe eliminate via highly questionable research results, the magnitude by which former studies have reported the relative "at risk" status of gay and bisexual male youth. In addition, evidence is presented to indicate that the "dark side" of "resilience" that was reported by Garborino (2000: 176-7) is now being used to blame and stigmatise gay and bisexual adolescents who have attempted suicide. It has also been suggested that these boys are pathological, compared to the gay and bisexual male youth deemed resilient and healthy apparently because they did not attempt suicide (Appendix A). We strongly protest this potential harmful use of the "resiliency" concept stemming from a highly restrictive definition. Changing environmental factors is very important in enhancing the resiliency of those "at risk" (Rouse et al., 1999; Nettles et al., 2000; Norman, 2000), but this major aspect of resilience is being ignored by others, as it was done in the American 2001 National Strategy for Prevention of Suicide. Although the document did cautiously recognise homosexuality to be a risk factor in youth suicidality, it is possible that their definition for "resilience" may greatly increase the likelihood for the pathologising and blaming of those who attempt and maybe commit suicide:

"Resilience – capacities within a person that promote positive outcomes, such as mental health and well-being, and provide protection from factors that might otherwise place that person at risk for adverse health outcomes" (USDHHD, 2001: 201).
With respect to "at risk" children in general, Rouse et al. (1999) emphasise what is conspicuously absent in above definition of resilience. That is, they emphasise what would be of monumental importance to many adolescents recognising their same-sex desires and those targeted for ostracism and abuse because they are assumed to be homosexual:
"These children cannot do it themselves. They need love, care, and support not only from their parents, but from educational personnel and other community adults as well... The environment's role cannot be forgotten. Environmental factors also come into play. People, opportunities, and atmospheres all add to the resilience equation. A resilient personality is not sufficient. It takes the person and his or her environment."
The evidence presented indicates that "the homosexuality factor" is very important in male youth suicide problems, and that the factor is multidimensional in nature. The same also applies for the enhancement of environmental resiliency factors required to help at risk adolescent males who are recognising their same-sex desires and/or those abused because they are suspected of being gay, but these boys are not at risk because they are lacking in personal resiliency attributes. They also need help, and it is possible that the elimination of homophobia and hegemonic masculinity from society, and especially in their immediate environment, would solve their problems, or at least one of their major problems. Until then, however, they will continue to be overrepresented in adolescent male suicide problems, with the likelihood of their similar or greater overrepresentation in adolescent suicide statistics. The evidence presented leads to the informed proposition that homosexually oriented males, and those abused because they are believed to be homosexual, may account for about two-thirds of adolescent male deaths from suicide, and this estimate would equal to about half of all adolescent suicides in North America.
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