To be young and gay
With a series of teenage suicides hitting national headlines, Chico confronts the issue head-on
Tyler Tillson, an 18-year-old Fairview High student who recently moved to Chico from Redding, knows how important a strong support group can be for a teen questioning his or her sexual orientation.
Tillson came out as bisexual to his social circle after his freshman year of high school. His greatest ally was his sister, who had come out as a lesbian three years before. However, he was forced to come out to his parents before he was ready after his dad saw certain material on his MySpace page.
“I wasn’t ready to tell. [My dad] didn’t understand. He wasn’t sad, happy, mad or anything. He just didn’t understand,” said Tillson, a quintessential teenager who likes hacking computer code. “But all I ever ask from people is tolerance, not acceptance.”
Being forced as a young person to “come out” as a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning (LGBTQ) individual can be devastating, Tillson explained. His experiences were smooth compared to what other youth endure around the country, including Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University freshman who apparently jumped off a bridge after a video of him engaging in a sexual encounter with another man was posted online by his roommate.
“I don’t know how I would handle that feeling of betrayal and awkwardness,” he said, referring to Clementi’s death. “But I would tell those kids who are considering suicide, ‘Don’t give up yet. You’ve got the whole rest of your life to live.’”
Since July, at least five young people around the nation struggling with their sexual identities have committed suicide. Those tragedies occurred in the weeks leading up to Chico State’s third annual Queer Week (Oct. 4- 9) and National Coming Out Day (Oct. 11).
Krystle Tonga, a political-science major who works with the campus’ Cross Cultural Leadership Center and Pride Safe Zone club, saw a need to address those suicides in a safe space and helped organize a campus forum Monday (Oct. 11).
“Someone is being bullied somewhere right now because of their sexual orientation. It’s happening to some kid as we speak. And sometimes the picking-on gets so bad it’s unimaginable,” she said to a group of more than 20 college students. “But it does get better. It just doesn’t seem like it will when you’re in high school.”
Behind her, a homemade poster for National Coming Out Day hung on the wall, displaying suicide notes and photos of the faces of the gay youth who have committed suicide in the past few weeks. And those are only the documented cases.
“Here in Chico, and in our little campus bubble, people are pretty tolerant of the LGBTQ community. But we forget about those other worlds that are outside us. There are people who need to be reached out to,” Tonga said.
The conversation turned tearful as students were invited to share personal stories about dealing with intolerance and being bullied.
“I would have killed to have someone sit down with me and say, ‘It’s OK. It gets better,” said one lesbian woman. Others shared stories about dealing with suicide in their families and social circles, as well as their experiences contemplating suicide themselves.
“I thought about killing myself in high school. I planned to do it one day after school,” another woman said candidly. “But for some reason, I didn’t. And eventually, life got better.”
The potential for gay youth to commit suicide is not a new issue, said Toni Zanella, the youth-suicide prevention and education coordinator at Chico’s Stonewall Alliance Center, the only LGBTQ center in California north of Sacramento. LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than heterosexual young people, according to the Massachusetts 2006 Youth Risk Survey.
“It’s not new news to me, of course,” Zanella said, referring to her line of work. “But I’m seeing it affect people more, even here in the Chico community. There’s an outpouring of ‘What can we do? How can we help?’ I think it’s finally touching everybody. And they want to know if [the Stonewall Alliance Center] is going to do something.”
Zanella was hired in March after the Butte County Department of Behavioral Health secured a grant that funds her position and the SAYes campaign, a program created by Stonewall’s Board of Directors that reaches out to suicidal LGBTQ youth. (SAY stands for Stonewall Alliance Youth and “Say Yes” is short for “Say yes to life.”)
“Who would have thought that Butte County would have the foresight to fund a program like this?” Zanella said, contrasting Butte to neighboring counties that have been less likely to fund LGBTQ support programs.
As a part of the campaign, Zanella distributes educational materials to parents, educators and counselors that include suicide warning signs and ways to help young people who are struggling.
“It’s not because these kids are gay that they kill themselves,” she explained. “It’s because of the isolation and the rejection. It can be imagined or it can be real, and some of them have had real bad experiences.”
Zanella also distributes small cards intended for preteens and teens that include information about the SAYes campaign and an encouraging message that tells them they are “not alone.”
“On top of dealing with everything else ‘teen,’ these kids have to deal with the feeling that they’re different from everyone else and that no one will understand,” she said.
Among other support systems, Stonewall offers weekly teen and 20s support groups that are intended to create a safe space for LGBTQ young adults to bond with one another.
“All we can do is put ourselves out there and, hopefully, the welcoming atmosphere will help,” Zanella said, referring to Stonewall’s new location near downtown Chico. “We just want young people to know that they are not alone.”
In the wake of national media attention about the suicides, local organizations have been brainstorming ways to remember the young lives lost and how to get the Chico community involved. Many Chicoans plan to wear purple on Wednesday (Oct. 20), along with others around the nation, to bring awareness to the suicides.
The Stonewall Alliance Center is also thinking of holding a vigil in remembrance of those who have died, and college students at the Cross Cultural Leadership Center are considering creating an anti-bullying campaign aimed at local middle schools and high schools that focuses on creating a supportive platform for LGBTQ youth.
“At least we can start at the local level,” Tonga said.