Preventing LGBT Youth of Color Suicides: A Case for Diversity

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.