Written for Color Magazine (November 2010 Issue)

In September, just short of one month into the new school year, 5 out of the 9 reported suicides were confirmed to have been motivated by “anti-LGBT” bullying. Since then, I’ve witnessed a strong sense of urgency to end what is currently being referred to as an “epidemic of LGBT youth suicides” lead to a push for more LGBT-based protections and formal systems of support (e.g the creation of more Gay Straight Alliances in schools and colleges). However, these singular-identity based solutions fail to adequately address the problem of providing comprehensive support systems to youth of color due to their multicultural identities.

As an activist, I understand the LGBT community’s natural inclination to respond to the recent tragedies via overtly LGBT-specific suicide prevention campaigns, particularly as we face budget cuts to AIDS/HIV research programs, delays in ending employment-based discrimination in the workplace (ENDA) and in the military (DADT), and setbacks to our fight for federal equality via equal marriage. But as a queer woman of color who is also a survivor of attempted suicide, bearing witness to passionate, yet single-issue LGBT political rhetoric that continually lacks inclusion of the voices of people of color, on top of the seemingly lackadaisical response to this issue from straight communities of color, has been extremely frustrating.

Single-Issue Politics Alienates People of Color

I recently participated as a feature speaker at a “Candlelight Vigil for the Victims of Anti-LGBT Bullying” in front of the MA statehouse. That evening, I was delighted to see over 400 people in attendance and a crowd rich in cultural diversity, sexual orientation, age etc. Yet, in spite of a very diverse turnout, all but one of the speakers before me had placed nearly all of their emphasis on political/policy improvement action as it affected LGBT youth specifically, from “increasing funding for Gay Student Associations (GSAs)”, “introducing tougher legislation to protect youth from harassment based on their sexual orientation (via the Safe Schools Improvement Act)” to “calling state senators and demanding LGBT equality.” It seemed that yet again, the LGBT movement was on the brink of being consumed by the same single-issue politics that spear-headed Prop 8 into a brick wall and then blamed the African-American community for not standing by LGBT rights, as though they didn’t acknowledge African-Americans as an intersecting subpopulation of the LGBT community and that the language and/or how the Prop 8 movement talked about equality (framing it specifically around “marriage”) failed to align with or resonate with their (and other groups’) cultural values.

In the case of the vigil, our country, almost overnight, had received a shocking message (or reminder) that LGBT youth weren’t just at “greater risk of attempted suicide” as compared to their peers (a stark 4 to 1 ratio), but that this already alarming data fact had moved from clinical euphemism to harsh reality: LGBT youth were no longer just at risk, they were dying, and we needed to do something about it. Given the impact of these events on the gay community specifically, vigils and rallies such as the one that helped bring Boston’s progressive community together in response to these tragedies, have played a critical role in building momentum for change. However, like the gay white marriage movement, the collective call to legal arms and protections misses the mark by alienating people who are put off by political jargon but are empowered by the idea of more personal, direct, empathic, and inclusive strategies to create safe spaces for all of our youth; one that, for instance, recognizes that transgender youth are still marginalized within alleged LGBT-friendly spaces, and that the voices of people of color are often muffled by the cultural incompetencies of whitestream organizing strategies; one that is aware that equal protection as described by mainstream LGBT activists doesn’t automatically guarantee equal protection for the people that fall into any of the afore-mentioned identity groups, myself included.

Lack of Cultural Competency within Formal Support Systems

When I left Nigeria for the world’s largest melting pot, I was met with a shocking reality. Ironically, a group of African-American students — the students who actually “looked” like me — became my biggest bullies and oppressors for the two cold years I spent in boarding school in New Hampshire. Go figure, my African accent and cultural mannerisms were target for ridicule in a racially diverse school with almost no Africans represented.

I received daily hate mail in my PO Box with words that would be inappropriate to disclose, a group of girls began spreading really nasty rumors about me, and they sang profane songs with my name inserted whenever I was in sight. This soon escalated to more physically aggressive attacks — name calling in the cafeteria, stalking me back to my dorm, shoving and worse. I remember staying in my room for two whole days, starving, because I was afraid of running into them in the dining hall.

I felt completely alone. My family was halfway across the world, worried enough that their 17-yr old was alone in a foreign country. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that staff from the “multicultural students office” (a school-sanctioned support system for students of color) to whom they’d entrusted me accused me of “constantly evoking aggression by asserting my African identity all the time”. They frequently dismissed my pleas for intervention for fear of “making other students of color look bad.” When my dormitory head noticed my mood and school performance were on the decline, she encouraged me to see student counseling because I knew the school policy on harassment but didn’t want to get anyone suspended or expelled. Unfortunately, the counselor’s casually expressed class prejudices about the “poor” and “unexposed” black students who were bullying me (even though they were, in my defense) made me uncomfortable. Needless to say, I never went back.

To the outside world, it would seem that my prestigious boarding school did provide me with sound systems of support: a multicultural students office, a resident authority figure in my dorm, unlimited access to confidential counseling services and much more. But none of these formal support systems were equipped to deal with me wholly. In fact, they contributed to the feelings of isolation I felt by warranting that I fragment (or silence) parts of myself to receive the aid and support I needed. They couldn’t appreciate the complexities of my experience as an international student, or a student of color who wasn’t American, nor as an African student struggling to define herself in a world where even black people saw me as an “other”.

The result of a lack of diversity within the formal support systems in my school was that resources became inaccessible to me. I didn’t trust anyone to understand what I was going through. In addition to cultural barriers, their incessant recommendation of resources — brochures, peer hotlines, counselors etc — felt too much like the feeling you get when a doctor prescribes Ibuprofen before you disclose the nature of your symptoms. Too often, I was told what to do – report the bullies, stand up for yourself, ignore them — to counter one part of my problem, when all I needed was someone to listen to me, acknowledge the entirety of my experience rather than offer me impersonal “resources” for select parts of my identity.

Lack of LGBT-Awareness within Multicultural Support Groups

Two years later, a really diverse orientation week at my new college campus confirmed that I no longer had to suffer the loneliness of being an “other”. Relief. There was an African students association, a Black Student’s Union, and even an International Co-Ed living group that I decided to join. Moreover, my dormitory housed multiple language houses, which further satisfied my need for a cross-cultural community. I made friends easily and figured it’d be smooth sailing to graduation. But just when I thought I’d finally arrived at a point in my life where I could fit in, I began to question my sexuality, which alienated me almost instantly from all of the perceivably homophobic affinity groups to which I belonged.

The most cited approach to LGBT suicides that I’ve heard is the creation of more GSAs. I won’t speak for every student, but will say that for me, as a person of color, I never sought out the GSA because every flier, brochure or representation (in the form of students or faculty) that I came upon didn’t resonate with me at all. I often thought to myself that those weird white people that hung out in some lounge on Thursday evenings didn’t have anything in common with me. How could they? They talked about shunning their families for independence and recreating families from a network full of strangers, a philosophy that clashed too much with my cultural beliefs.

But even with my initial resistance to my school’s GSA, I’m sure that I’d have visited at least once if the director had been person of color. Conversely, the black student union was no better. I never felt comfortable among devout Christians who went to church as a group every Sunday, then casually expressed their homophobia over brunch, along with a tirade of derogatory comments made about my African heritage. In a campus that was overzealous with providing resources, support groups, and counseling, I faced the same issue I’d experienced in my high school: lack of diversity within each formal support group, which left me feeling isolated, fragmented, and one night, without any hope. I attempted suicide.

Diversity Saves Lives

Diversity is about perspective. None of the formal support systems at either of my schools had been equipped with adequate enough perspective to empathize with my needs and so they failed in supporting me. It isn’t going to be enough to just harp on administrators and legislators to act quickly to improve anti-bullying policies and create more formal support systems if students with multiple identities continue to fall out of the scope. We must put just as much (if not more) effort in expanding the reach and improving the relatability of formal support systems as we do in creating them. Hiring more POC staff — not just “white allies” — toincrease cultural competency in LGBT spaces is a good start. But straight communities of color must also commit to developing LGBT leadership within POC spaces if we are to achieve full equality for all.

And yet, while we support the efforts of school administrations and advocacy groups, it is important for all of us to be open, transparent, and visible, so that kids/teens don’t feel so alone, or like their struggles can’t be overcome. It is hard to know which parts of our identities a kid/teen may need to see to feel real hope. But diversity begins with the courage to present all aspects of ourselves to the world, all the time, and without fear. So for the sake of our youth, we must be brave enough to be ourselves.

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10 Responses to Preventing LGBT Youth of Color Suicides: A Case for Diversity

  1. Ashley says:

    Incredible article. The last two lines were where it really hit home for me. How can we expect others, and more specifically our youth, to stand up for themselves and have the courage to be themselves if we, as "adults", can't even do it?

    I was watching a number of the It Gets Better and Make It Better videos and I thought to myself that I have so much love and respect for the youth who come out when they're young and put themselves in a position where they're constantly having to fight back again intolerance and hate. I know I didn't have the courage to do that when I was younger and like you I came close to paying for it quite dearly because of the intense isolation that I experienced. It wasn't until I found Rugby, believe it or not, that I really felt like I had found my community and people who truly understood ME in all of my complexities. Even with an active GSA at my school I didn't feel that personal support or connection that you mentioned. I'm not sure why but I didn't identify with anyone in that room either. I appreciated that they were there and I have an immense amount of respect for my high school and the people involved with the GSA but it just wasn't ME.

    In the end, we all have a responsibility to stand up. If not for ourselves, the for those who are looking at us for guidance and support. If we can't do it, how can we expect others to?

    • Spectra says:

      Ashely, thanks so much for reading, and for your comment. I completely relate to your finding community in rugby. For me, it was the girls in my dorm, and later in college, people who loved writing and theater, and a few really awesome teachers/professors.

      I can certainly say that the support that I did have came informally from people who acknowledged who I was, that were brave enough to show me who they were and give me inspiration when I needed it e.g. my French teacher who empathized with my being away from home because she too missed her family. She could've remained my "French teacher", but her openness about where she was from, missing tomatoes from Europe, and feeling homesick around US holidays made me feel less alone.

      I really appreciate your comment :) I honestly never know who's reading (or if any of this matters) so it's affirming to hear that it resonates with others, and that they too are empowered to share their own stories. Much love!

  2. Reed says:

    Adaora! That's really super brave of you to share your personal life and struggles publicly like this. I'm glad to hear that you perceived there to be diversity at the vigil in Boston, however it sounds like the solutions proposed fell short.

    To me, it feels like most organizations promoting LGBT rights are coming at it with an assimilationist strategy…instead of truly celebrating the variety of LGBT backgrounds, cultures and lifestyles, they charge forward trying to convince powerful Americans (read: affluent, white,capitalist, heteronormative) that we're "just like them". We're not all just like them, and I couldn't be more grateful. We need to spend more time affirming our beautiful, diverse selves and struggling in solidarity with each other!

    Where I went to K-12, in a suburb of Rochester, NY, we had an "Urban-Suburban" program. About 5% of the students were black, lived in downtown Rochester and were bussed in daily (there were a few black students who lived in my town, too). Outside of sports, our parents didn't encourage/drive us to hang out with each other. The students often ate lunch together etc. and likely felt pretty isolated. One student ended up at the same college as me (university at buffalo), and I met her when she was tabling for the Black Student Union and seemed like she couldn'tve been happier. We were taught to think of the program as a charity, and as the students as lucky beneficiaries of the better education they could get. Rarely did white people bother to think about how hard it must have been to be in the program. The mayor at the time ran for county executive, and part of his platform was a county-wide school system which would've bussed kids from all of the burbs and the city in all directions, mixing it up and introducing kids to one another. He did not win, and the county and it's residents lost.

    Having moved from Buffalo to Boston, I had heard that people hear were racist. Liberal, but racist. Ya know, Martin Luther King was great types, but the analysis ends there. At MIT, people in discussions of diversity will say "look around! we're so diverse" and people in the room will observe that a good portion of the room is from other countries. It's rarely discussed that people of color from the states are underrepresented, and that that has nothing to do with intelligence and everything to do with opportunity and institutionalized oppression. At a planning session for LGBT students, we were prioritizing campaigns for the coming year. When I proposed 'solidarity with anti-racist campaigns" you could hear a pin drop…on carpet. Most LGBT people aren't talking about it enough. That needs to change.

    So yes! Up the diversity! But I'm still not thrilled about that word. It seems quantifiable, as if a diversity index would truly represent the variety of people there, and could lead to some serious tokenization. Maybe part of what it's about creating new ways to talk about diversity that come from people seeking inclusion themselves? Then again, I'm no expert on the history of that term. I could use some education in the area if someone has the time…

  3. Brilliant piece! My favorite part:
    "…none of these formal support systems were equipped to deal with me wholly. In fact, they contributed to the feelings of isolation I felt by warranting that I fragment (or silence) parts of myself to receive the aid and support I needed. They couldn’t appreciate the complexities of my experience as an international student, or a student of color who wasn’t American, nor as an African student struggling to define herself in a world where even black people saw me as an “other.”

    As a queer, immigrant, Latina, you are one of the first I know who have put this experience, which I can completely relate to, into words, and name it as a problem we all have a hand in solving.

    Thank you for reminding us about our collective humanity and the necessity of claiming/naming/supporting all of our identities instead of glossing over them idealistically (and dangerously as you put so well!) in the way that I think America has come to view diversity. (ie: Melting Pot…claiming "I don't see race, I see people", and thinking this is enough)

    Your article helped me think back to my own coming out and feel a little less crazy for never feeling like I fit into the groups on campus. It's so brave of you to lead by example and loudly "present all aspects of [yourself]" DESPITE the fear. While youth are the ones being highlighted in the stories we hear on the media I think ALL of us- queer, POC, Immigramts, white, straight- need to hear your words..I know I did :) xoxo

    • Spectra says:

      Thank you so much Idalia! This line, "Your article helped me think back to my own coming out and feel a little less crazy for never feeling like I fit into the groups on campus" made my entire day :-)

      I couldn't agree with you more about how it's important that adults hear this too. So many people, I think, don't feel like they're in a position to change anything or impact younger people (or other adults!) lives; they're leaving it to the "experts" to "fix things" in schools. But we can all certainly strengthen our movement, communities, organizations etc by being out and open about who we are. In doing so we can support those who aren't as ready to do so. By paying it forward via bravery to be ourselves, the cycle of support can continue on to touch people who need it the most.

  4. Beth says:

    Spectra, I am consistently struck by the way that your writing is made so powerful by being so personal.

    You bared your soul here, and the conversation it's already evoking shows the ripple effect this kind of candor can have.

    For some reason when I finished reading it, i had a vision of you making a film or documentary to use as a vehicle for this message (you're a lighthouse <3)

  5. Mary says:

    Wow Spectra! This was an amazing read–the candor and bravery you consistently reveal in your writing is inspiring. You said a lot of things here that needed to be said! Could I post a link to this piece on my blog?

    Speaking for my own self, the older I get the more frustrated and impatient I am at others resistance to admit how racist our society still is and how intolerance for diversity silences (or causes folks to turn a blind eye to) so many people every single day. I agree with Reed's comments about the racism to be found amongst Boston liberals. Specifically, as someone who is white and considers herself a liberal, I'm turned off by the smugness exhibited by so many "diversity embracing, liberal" white folk–especially the Baby Boomer generation, who seem to me to be the most afraid to admit that the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s didn't make everybody love each other and want to buy the world a Coke. I'm sick of movies where "inspiring" white teachers float into troubled inner-city high schools like Glinda the Good Witch in her magic bubble and in an hour and 45 minutes of screen time show the predominantly non-white student body how they too can do whatever they set their minds to. I'm sick of people patting themselves on the back so hard they are hardened to the fact that so many people of color are still getting the short end of the stick. And yes, now that you have given me a feast of food for thought Spectra, I am sick of how "white-centered" the LGBTQ Equality movement is–that first image of the fist clutching the rainbow banner hit the nail on the head! Of course, racism, homophobia etc. is not the exclusive province of the white community as your post most definitely shows, but I do think a lot of white activists would benefit from doing less talking about equality for all & more listening to all.

    Thanks again for stirring up thoughts, feelings and discussion!

  6. Farah says:

    Spectra!

    After months of seeing references to your blog / what you've been up to on the newsfeed on facebook I was lured into reading this particular piece because I was very intrigued.

    While I don't relate to the particular identity / belonging struggles that you've put forth here, I've definitely had my fair share of points in my life when I felt like an outsider / was aggressively bullied and when the organizations that were meant to 'help' me tried to do so by stifling who I was or trying to mold me into an 'understandable' form.

    I, too, seem to have ultimately found 'my people' randomly and over time. Some friends from MIT, the writing program at NYU, the choir I sing with in Jordan – and it was through those people that I slowly gained the courage to come into my own and be able to get to know, love and be myself.

    What most resonated with my was the thought of us as adults (I still don't even perceive of myself as an adult; such is the plight of being the eldest daughter in a middle-eastern family!) needing to be brave enough to be ourselves, so we don't perpetuate the cycle that we lived through and put our own youth through it. Nothing I read about this ever rang so true. It is perhaps the most difficult but rewarding thing I try to do – and try doing it in Jordan! But with every triumph, not matter how small, I feel like I've conquered a little piece of the negative influences that drag me down and away from who I am. Thank you for this inspiring piece! Really! And I am so proud to read about everything you've been up to.

    Love,
    Farah

  7. Lisa says:

    Thank you for the open, honest, genuine, and truthful experiences. They resonated with my life and reminded me of what I still encounter on occasion.

    I currently live in Vermont, a person of color, lesbian. And even though people are quite open-minded, when I find myself in a group that refers to 'diversity', they typically mean it in reference to income. My heart sinks everytime, thinking I must have found a group of people who surely have an idea of what that typically means. But, no.

    Thank you again for your honesty. It is a reminder for me that I do have my unique experiences in this world, and I do not need anyone to tell me otherwise.
    Lisa

  8. EMILY K says:

    AMAZING AND INSIGHTFUL!!!!!

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