Come as you are

Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, Cody Baker, Asher Brown, Raymond Chase and Tyler Clementi. These are the names of young people who have recently committed suicide rather than face the anguish and torment resulting from the bullying of peers. Why were they singled out? They were, it was assumed, gay.

Who truly knew? Perhaps even they were uncertain, for adolescence is a time of profound personal change, a riptide of new and startling emotions, a period of emerging sexuality. But if they were gay, if they were in the process of sorting out who they were and their place in the world, how do we understand the homophobic reactions of other adolescents to the point of unrelenting physical and verbal abuse?

Emerging from childhood and beginning the long rite of passage known as adolescence, young people begin the process of discovering who they are and who they might become. If that newly forming identity points to a future fraught with prejudice and discrimination, with pain and rejection, they lose the ability to imagine a future that is hopeful and embracing. As they look around, they receive an insidious and damaging message, one that is conveyed, implicitly and explicitly. We seem incapable as a society of freeing ourselves from the terrible affliction of homophobia that mirrors, in so many ways, racism.

Look at the tortured process we're going through over "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," a blatant and unconscionable violation of the civil rights of those who are gay and wish to serve our country. Examine the many state amendments prohibiting gay people from marrying (to include Oregon), and consider the message these amendments convey to our young people. Listen to the leaders of mainstream religions as they lobby against gay rights, selectively quoting arcane scripture while insisting that being gay is an affliction that can be cured and framing gayness as if it were a disease. Our children are listening.

Imagine the existential pain, the abiding torment that a young gay person must experience to conclude that suicide is the only answer. What canyon of despair and hopelessness must a young person live in to plan and then execute his or her own death? By definition, to be young is to be optimistic and enthusiastic. Young people embrace life and live it intensely. For young people to take their own lives because of who they fear they are is unimaginable. Yet, how else to explain the existence of a closet?

In response to these disturbing trends of suicide involving gay youth, and acknowledging that they may represent the tip of a much larger iceberg, prominent entertainers and politicians have joined with the "It Gets Better Project" and appeared in public service announcements wherein they remind young people who have concluded (fear?) they are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to hang on. In other words, though their lives may seem bleak and intolerable, they plead that they must not view suicide as an option. Things will improve.

Imagine: We bear witness to this terrible prejudice that still permeates our society, a form of intolerance that has brought us to the point of telling our children who are gay not to kill themselves, despite what their lives are like now, no matter how difficult the bullying and prejudice and discrimination may be. Things will get better, we counsel and reassure; all they have to do is survive their teen years and have faith that no matter how terrible the struggle, no matter how dreadful the ridicule, everything will soon change. It's tragic.

While it's admirable and necessary to remind young people that the pain they are experiencing will not define their lives, there has to be something more that we can offer them than our counsel of patience. Why not a robust, concerted effort to end this form of blatant and indefensible discrimination?

Our schools offer a perfect platform to reinforce and insist, with no exceptions, that everyone is worthy of respect. Bullying continues to plague our schools, and targeting gay kids is but one disgraceful example. These are fundamental civil rights issues. Every school should model tolerance for all, no matter their ethnicity, religion, size, dress, values, or sexual orientation. That is the essence of our democracy. Come as you are defines us, hence we protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. It's time for our educators to have a serious and committed national dialogue about bullying and about those young people who are part of their community but feel that they must exist in a place apart.

Chris Honoré lives in Ashland.

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