What Do We Really Know About the Suicides of Gay Teens?

What Women Really Think
Oct. 19 2010 12:00 PM

What Do We Really Know About the Suicides of Gay Teens?

When a gay 19-year-old from the middle of blood-red Oklahoma killed himself earlier this month, a lot of people assumed they knew exactly why he did it. I was one of them.

I wrote a DoubleX post criticizing fundamentalist Christians (who are a lot easier to find in Norman than, say, New York) for their hostility toward "boys like Zach Harrington." After all, his suicide came just a week after a vicious city council meeting during which self-proclaimed Christians seethed about the "gay agenda" and castigated the city council for considering recognizing GLBT History Month. Harrington's dad said he'd been bullied in high school. "Bullied Gay Teen Commits Suicide"--what more could you need to know?

But a Facebook message from Oklahoma has me rethinking my assumptions. The message was forwarded by a friend of mine, a journalism student at the University of Oklahoma, who was contacted by Lauren Cheney after her messages to two local newspapers were ignored. Cheney was a long-time friend of Harrington's, and she's angry at what she sees as an attempt to fit his death into a national narrative with no regard for the facts. "I and my friends know we don't have the right to say why Zack [sic] truly committed suicide, but most of us don't think it has anything to do with his being gay," she wrote. "Zack was gay, yes. But this doesn't mean that his homosexuality was definitely the only possible reason for committing suicide. It is possible for people to be chemically depressed."

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Cheney says Harrington wasn't bullied at school or work, but he had a history of depression that made his moods unstable. She thinks his suicide probably had a lot more to do with his depression than his sexual orientation. No one will ever know for sure. What we do know is that all of the seven gay teens who've killed themselves in the last eight weeks were multidimensional people with complex lives full of myriad pressures and influences. But in their deaths, we've flattened them into one-dimensional representations of everything that's wrong with bullying, or fundamentalist Christians, or American homophobes.

And sometimes this reductionism has happened not because of the facts, but in spite of them. Emily, last month you pointed out that just before he killed himself, Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi didn't seem too worked up about the "webcam-wielding roommate" who is supposedly responsible for his suicide. But Clementi's even-handed notes didn't get anything like the attention that Dharun Ravi's caustic tweets did, and most of the public was left with the impression that Ravi practically drove Clementi to the bridge he eventually jumped off.

Likewise, anyone who read the Norman Transcript story about Zach Harrington's death (or my post on it) would have come away convinced that a Norman City Council meeting effectively ended his life. But Cheney says that's absurd: "Zack was definitely a unique person, and most of us never knew what was going on in his head, but I certainly don't think he would decide to commit suicide after this city council meeting. He would've blown it off and not cared about what they said, especially since it was voted 7-1 and passed! If anyone ever said anything hateful to him, which I can't remember a time when that happened, he would've given them the finger and called them ignorant."

Cheney is angry that so many people who know so little about Zach, his high school experience, or even whether he was at that city council meeting are so confidently pontificating about the source of his despair. "I am very upset over the fact that so many bullied young gays are taking their own lives, and I don't want anyone to think I'm insensitive," she says. But, "I just think it's exploitation to throw my friend into the category."

I still believe Christians of the Sally Kern school need to take the logs out of their own eyes , preferably before they get their hands on another microphone. But the rest of us need to acknowledge that there are different kinds of Christians--and different kinds of gay teenagers--and resist the urge to collapse them into the same category every time one of the former says something outrageous or one of the latter does something tragic.

Here's Lauren's entire message:

 

Lauren Lee Cheney October 16, 2010 at 4:00am

Subject: What I sent to the newspapers
This is the one I sent to the transcript. I couldn't find the text I sent to OU Daily. But they're pretty much the same.
Thanks so much!

Hi, my name is Lauren Cheney and I was a very close friend to Zack [sic]. I actually would consider him as one of my best friends. I've been keeping up with the several articles floating around about him, and each and every one has hit a nerve with me and the rest of his friends. We don't think Zack was in town for this city council meeting, and if he was, and he went to it, the so called 'toxic' comments made wouldn't have pushed Zack over the edge, as his family says. I in no way mean disrespect to the Harrington family, they are very nice people, but Zack's friends and I believe that we knew him better than anyone. He confided in us, and stayed at our houses. I went to high school with him, was in band with him, and worked with him at City Bites for a very long time. I and our friends new he was depressed, but also knew he had several mental health issues, the biggest of all being bipolar. Zack was definitely a unique person, and most of us never knew what was going on in his head, but I certainly don't think he would decide to commit suicide after this city council meeting. He would've blown it off and not cared about what they said, especially since it was voted 7-1 and passed! If anyone ever said anything hateful to him, which I can't remember a time when that happened, he would've given them the finger and called them ignorant. In high school and at work, Zack was never discriminated against. I never once heard anyone say hateful words to him in class, in the halls, or while we laughed and made sandwiches together. I am saddened deeply that so many in the gay community are bashed and unaccepted, but Zack didn't fall into that category. Most that weren't close to him didn't even know he was gay in high school. His father said he went to night school to avoid discrimination, but this is a guess. He told me and several others that he just hated school, and wanted to get finished quicker so he could have more time to work, so that he could move out quicker. I and my friends know we don't have the right to say why Zack truly committed suicide, but most of us don't think it has anything to do with his being gay. We feel that others who were not as close CERTAINLY don't have the right to say why he killed himself. It is all just wrong and untrue, and it is messing with the mourning process I and my friends are trying to cope with. I hate walking around campus and hearing other students who never knew Zack talk about him as if they did. Zack was gay, yes. But this doesn't mean that his homosexuality was definitely the only possible reason for committing suicide. It is possible for people to be chemically depressed. I and his friends are just getting very tired of hearing such comments which seem very rude and ignorant. Again, I am very upset over the fact that so many bullied young gays are taking their own lives, and I don't want anyone to think I'm insensitive.. I just think its exploitation to throw my friend into the category.

- Lauren Cheney, OU sophomore.

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