POSTED: 01:30 a.m. HST, Oct 04, 2010
FRESNO, Calif. - When Seth Walsh was in the sixth grade, he turned to his mother one day and told her he had something to say.
"I was folding clothes, and he said, 'Mom, I'm gay,"' said Wendy Walsh, a hairstylist and single mother of four. "I said, 'OK, sweetheart, I love you no matter what."'
Last month, Seth went into the backyard of his home in the desert town of Tehachapi, Calif., and hanged himself, apparently unable to bear a relentless barrage of taunting, bullying and other abuse at the hands of his peers. After a little more than a week on life support, he died last Tuesday. He was 13.
The case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online, has shocked many. But his death is just one of several suicides in recent weeks by young gay teenagers who had been harassed by classmates, both in person and online.
The list includes Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Greensburg, Ind., who hanged himself on Sept. 9 after what classmates reportedly called a constant stream of invective against him at school.
Less than two weeks later, Asher Brown, a 13-year-old from the Houston suburbs, shot himself after coming out. He, too, had reported being taunted at his middle school, according to The Houston Chronicle. His family has blamed school officials as failing to take action after they complained, something the school district has denied.
The deaths have set off an impassioned - and sometimes angry - response from gay activists and caught the attention of federal officials, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who on Friday called the suicides "unnecessary tragedies" brought on by "the trauma of being bullied."
"This is a moment where every one of us - parents, teachers, students, elected officials and all people of conscience - needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms," Duncan said.
And while suicide by gay teenagers has long been a troubling trend, experts say the stress can be even worse in rural places, where a lack of gay support services - or even openly gay people - can cause a sense of isolation to become unbearable.
"If you're in the small community, the pressure is hard enough," said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which is based in New York. "And goodness knows people get enough signals about 'how wrong it is to be gay' without anyone in those communities actually having to say so."
According to a recent survey conducted by Byard's group, nearly 9 of 10 gay, lesbian, transgender or bisexual middle and high school students suffered physical or verbal harassment in 2009, ranging from taunts to outright beatings.
In Clementi's case, prosecutors in New Jersey have charged two fellow Rutgers freshmen with invasion of privacy and are looking at the death as a possible hate crime. Prosecutors in Cypress, Texas, where Asher Brown died, said Friday that they would investigate what led to his suicide.
In a pair of blog postings last week, Dan Savage, a sex columnist based in Seattle, assigns the blame to negligent teachers and school administrators, bullying classmates and "hate groups that warp some young minds and torment others."
"There are accomplices out there," he wrote Saturday.
In an interview, Savage, who is gay, said he was particularly irate at religious leaders who used "antigay rhetoric" on issues including same-sex marriage and gays in the military.
"The problem is that kids are being exposed to this rhetoric, and then they go to the school and there's this gay kid," he said. "And how are they going to treat this gay kid who they've been told is trying to destroy their family? They're going to abuse him."
In late September, and in the wake of several suicides, Savage began a project on YouTube called "It Gets Better," featuring gay adults talking about their experiences with harassment as adolescents.
In one video, a gay man named Cyrus tells of his life as a closeted teenager in a small town in upstate New York.
"The main thing I wanted to come across from this video is how different my life is, how great my life is, and how happy I am in general," he says. "And there were times in high school, despite being fairly lucky with bullying and not having too many problems, there were times when I felt very alone and very different."
Glennda Testone, the executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City, said the center's youth programs serve about 50 young people a day, often suffering from "bullying, harassment or even violence."
"The three main groups of pivotal figures are family, friends and their schoolmates," she said. "And if they're feeling isolated and like they can't tell those people, it's going to be a very rough ride."
Here in Fresno, in California's conservative Central Valley, groups like Equality California have been more active in trying to establish outreach offices, particularly after an election defeat in 2008, when California voters approved Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.
In Tehachapi, more than 500 mourners attended a memorial on Friday for Seth Walsh. One of those, Jamie Elaine Phillips, a classmate and friend, said Seth had long known he was gay and had been teased for years.
"But this year it got much worse," Jamie said. "People would say, 'You should kill yourself,' 'You should go away,' 'You're gay, who cares about you?"'
Richard Swanson, superintendent of the local school district, said his staff had conducted quarterly assemblies on behavior, taught tolerance in the classroom and had "definite discipline procedures that respond to bullying."
"But these things didn't prevent Seth's tragedy," he said in an e-mail. "Maybe they couldn't have."
For her part, Walsh said she had complained about Seth's being picked on but did not want to cast blame, though she hoped his death would teach people "not to discriminate, not be prejudiced."
"I truly hope that people understand that," she said.