I’ve been following with shock and dismay the recent spate of suicides among LGBT youth lately. This month, four young men took their lives after being bullied and/or outed (or simply mocked and perceived) as gay. The latest is a truly awful story — a college freshman hurled himself off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate allegedly streamed a same-sex encounter online.
One thing I noticed, however, was that all the recent suicides were teenaged boys. I tried to find statistics for lesbian suicides, and I couldn’t find any. I have a theory — entirely unscientific, but more than purely speculative — that young women are both more open to queer sexuality in themselves and their friends than young men. I attribute this openness to the successes of feminism. It works like this:
In the 70s, second wave feminists confronted the limitations of traditional gender roles with a positive message — that girls could become anything they want, including male dominated professions like law or medicine without any any cost to their femininity. This message was wildly successful — law school enrollment by women is up about five times since 1972; in med school, women have grown from about a quarter of graduates in 1980 to just about half in 2006.
On the other hand, there was no complimentary message directed at boys. Instead of empowering boys to enter the “feminine” professions, like nursing or elementary education, boys were still shown a narrow and limited definition of masculinity. As a result, boys grew into men who interact with the world in narrow ways — men are expected to fight men and fuck women, in much the same way their fathers and grandfathers were. As a man who identifies as bisexual and genderqueer, this is something I think quite a bit about.
For gay and bi men, their sexuality is a step outside the narrow gender identity other men expect their “peers” to occupy. The “fight or fuck” imperative takes over, and the bullying begins. The bullies feel threatened by the presence of an alternative to the required role; the bullied are both struggling to find their place in this rigid gender structure, and are probably too young to have fully developed sexual identities.
If it’s really going to get better, there needs to be a gender message directed at boys that they, too, can be anything they want to be. That there are more ways to interact with the world than a fight or fuck dichotomy. That complexity and incongruity ought to be celebrated, not mocked. That preferring the violin to football doesn’t make you gay.
This is a long tail solution that may take decades to take root. I fear that more young men may take their lives in the meantime.