Monday, April 17, 2006

Story and Essay Stash

I have started a story and essay stash elsewhere on the internet. If you are interested, I'll send you the link. I wanted to give a brief glimpse at the kind of stuff that might be found there. Plus Daniel has been on my mind a lot lately, and I wanted to post about him in the only way I've ever been able to address his death. I wrote this essay in December, 2004, a month after he died. In honor of Daniel, I have also added another link to my blog for the Trevor Project. I would also like to promote the Whosoever site again, for those who are gay and Christian and not sure quite what to do with that.

A Brief Dance with Daniel

Daniel loved to dance. Last year, only a couple months after I had arrived in town, I worked at a drag show on Halloween, selling fifty-fifty tickets for the gay organization on campus. Daniel also worked that night. After the show ended and the drawing was over, the bar owner began to play dance music. When “Respect” came on, we all moved to the floor to dance. I am not much of a dancer, but I did not want to be left out, so awkwardly I began to jive to the beat. Just then, two arms came around my waist and a friendly voice said, “Hey Gorgeous.” I looked up and saw two flirtatious blue eyes and a big grin.

“Hey Daniel,” I said.

“You need to move your hips, honey,” he responded, moving my hips in time with his.

He stepped away a moment later and continued to dance beside me. His body bounced in time with the music as he sang the words to himself, his face and arms showing the emotion and drama of the song. I watched Daniel dance for much of that evening. He seemed full of joy, and that joy was contagious.

Daniel began coming to the meetings early in the school year. He was almost flamboyantly gay, and he fit right in. He was nearly always dressed in a snappy suit and a tie because his fraternity met on that same night. He would always greet us all with the usual “Hey Gorgeous” or “Hey Beautiful.” The room seemed to light up when Daniel entered it. He was tall with blonde hair that curled around his head. He was almost always ready to wrap his arms around each person in a friendly hug. Thirty minutes into each meeting, he would slip out to meet with his fraternity. I think everyone looked forward to Daniel’s arrival at the meetings. It has been just over a month since he came to one of our meetings, and we miss him.

On the morning of October 27, I got a phone call from Daniel’s roommate, Sydney. I was walking home from school and was almost to Beacon Street, my halfway point. Sydney’s voice rang in my ear, “Daniel’s dead. He killed himself last night.” The world suddenly seemed to turn more slowly.

The next few days, I spent hours poring over every paper in the state that I could find online, trying to find his obituary. Surely someone would run his obituary. He died in this town, so I checked the local paper several times a day. Maybe they would at least post his death notice, but no, they never did. Seeing his name in print would give me something concrete to help me grasp what had happened, I thought. The truth was, I had no idea what had happened. I always saw Daniel as a very happy, secure person. I wanted some evidence of something that had happened to make him take his own life.

A few days later, on the way to his hometown for the funeral, my friend Kat told me what she knew about Daniel’s death. Apparently, Daniel had been struggling with depression for a long time. It seemed that much of his depression stemmed from his being gay. Daniel’s family was very conservative and religious. His mother was Mormon, and his father was Catholic. Although his father had accepted him, his mother prayed daily for his salvation. All the while, Daniel struggled to reconcile his faith and the guilt he felt about being gay.

“He talked to me about it a couple times,” said Kat. “He called himself an abomination.”

“So he killed himself because he was gay?” I asked her.

She closed her mouth, squinted her eyes, and nodded.

“He didn’t leave a note,” she added after a moment or two.

* * *

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reported in 1989 that homosexual teenagers are “two to three times more likely to commit suicide than other youths” (Proctor). The same report said that 25 to 30 percent of gay teenagers acknowledged attempting suicide at least once. These findings were rejected in 1992 by the DHHS secretary, Louis Sullivan, because he believed them to be “contrary to family values” (Proctor). In other words, the struggle of young gay community is not even acknowledged by the government at this time.

The British Journal of Psychiatry recently released the results of a study that found that discrimination and homophobia cause many mental health issues in the gay community. The study found that homosexuals and bisexuals are twice as likely as heterosexuals to suffer from mental problems. Homophobic school bullying, in particular, is named as causing students to be at a greater risk for problems (“Study”). Teenagers frequently use the word “gay” as an insult. To be “gay” is obviously a bad thing to many people. Just this past week, a high school student in Ontario, Canada killed himself because his classmates teased him about being gay, even though he was not (“Homophobic Bullying”). If internalized homophobia can cause this much damage in a young person who knew that he was not homosexual, what pain it must cause those young people who really are.

The British Journal of Psychiatry report also found that 42 percent of gay men, 43 percent of lesbians, and 49 percent of bisexuals had mental health problems. Those same numbers of respondents had also either “planned or committed acts of self-harm” (“Study”). Of those surveyed, 83 percent had experienced some type of discrimination based on their sexuality, including property damage, insults, and bullying (“Study”).

* * *

Despite Daniel’s flamboyant nature, he was not out to most of the people in his life. He belonged to the campus fraternity that is known as the most homophobic fraternity on campus. He was not out to his brothers there for obvious reasons. He was also not out at work. He had worked at Home Depot for many years, both in his hometown and in this town when he moved here. He was not out to most of his relatives, something his mother stressed to Sydney during the funeral arrangement process. She expressly forbid everyone who knew from mentioning it at the funeral. In fact, it seemed that the only people he was out to were the people he had met through in the campus gay organization. How he must have looked forward to those few minutes each week when he could live honestly.

* * *

“Low self-esteem, social isolation, depression, negative family interactions, and negative social attitudes” are factors that have been linked to the suicide attempts of gay teenagers (Proctor). Approximately one-third of the suicide attempts in the study occurred during the same year the participants began to realize that they were gay. The difference between those gay adolescents who are able to cope with the stresses of being gay and those who are not is the support system. Those adolescents who have a strong support system are less likely to consider suicide as one of their options (Proctor).

* * *

The drive to Daniel’s funeral is one of the most beautiful I have ever taken, scenery-wise. The stretch of land between this town and his hometown seems endless. The mountains and rock formations appear to offer a kind of strength and stability to those who pass through them. I wondered at the number of times Daniel had passed through them. What thoughts wandered through his mind during that drive? Had he ever found strength there?

My thoughts raged between a grief that pressed down on my shoulders and anger that most of the world had not reached a place where it could recognize the beauty of Daniel. Why had this happened? What could we do to keep it from happening again? I had known the statistics about suicide among gay young people, but I had never directly experienced it. It had always been just a number. Now that number had a face that was all too real.

Entering Daniel’s hometown was jarring after the long drive in the desert. Upon exit from the freeway, we were immediately bombarded with the passing images of a small town. The houses leaned close together in a way that said their inhabitants all knew each other. The yards were lined with Bush/Cheney signs and many other cars on the road sported “Support Our Troops” bumper stickers. We passed many churches and fast food restaurants, car washes and drug stores. Each place was filled with people going about their lives, perhaps unaware of the life that had recently left them, perhaps untouched by the absence of Daniel’s beautiful soul.

At the funeral, we listened to the priest talk about how his mother characterized Daniel. We also listened to a couple of his high school friends speak about how he had been when they had known him. Near the end of the service, his father stood up, breathing deeply between each sentence, he delivered a short speech he had prepared for Daniel. “We are all affected by his death,” he said. “We need to remember him by learning to accept differences in others. This world needs to change. We need to let people be who they are.”

* * *

Curtis Proctor, a child and family therapist for Catholic Social Services in Rock Island, Illinois, recommends several methods for preventing suicides among gay adolescents. He says that schools should include gay and lesbian families when they discuss family planning, allowing gay teenagers to see that there are others like them. He also recommends that schools include books in the library that portray gays in a positive way. He specifically notes that conservative attacks on gay positive books can lead to a higher suicide rate among homosexual teenagers. He says that schools should include gay speakers and resources, as well as post phone numbers to peer counseling services. He also encourages family involvement in PFLAG, or Parents, Friends, and Family of Lesbians and Gays.

* * *

On that Halloween night, we all stood back by the door, discussing where we should go next since the night was young. I glanced at the dance floor which was nearly empty now. Only one figure continued to dance: Daniel. He closed his eyes, relishing the serenity and solitude of the moment, at peace on the dance floor.

Works Cited

“Homophobic Bullying Drives Teen To Suicide.” 5 December 2004.
Proctor, Curtis. “Risk Factors for Suicide Among Gay Lesbian, and Bisexual Youths.” Social Work 39.5 (504-14): 1994. Academic Search Premier. EBSCOhost. Albertson’s Library at Boise State University. 5 December 2004.
“Study: Homophobia Spikes Gay Health Issues.” 1 December 2004.

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