“It’s just ordinary social interaction. It will work itself out.” Sirdeaner Walker explains what she was told when she sought help from school officials for her son who was being harassed as gay.
On October 9, 2009 GLSEN held their fifth annual respect awards ceremony. Among the speakers was Sirdeaner Walker. Sirdeaner was the mother of Carl Walker-Hoover.
NEW YORK, April 9, 2009 – An 11-year-old Massachusetts boy, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, hanged himself Monday after enduring bullying at school, including daily taunts of being gay, despite his mother’s weekly pleas to the school to address the problem. This is at least the fourth suicide of a middle-school aged child linked to bullying this year.
Listen to Sirdeaner’s speech:
I just wrote a post about Durkheim’s classic text Suicide and Carl’s death and the high suicide rate among LGBTQ youth and then sadly my browser crashed, so you are getting the short version for now. (UPDATED)
In watching Carl’s mother speak so eloquently, as did his sister, at the GLSEN awards I got to thinking what might drive an 11-year-old boy to commit suicide. What might account for the disproportionate dispair and the negative outcomes for LGBTQ youth. And of course after years of studying social sciences I couldn’t help thinking about Durkheim’s classic work, Suicide.
Nearly one hundred and fifty years ago the sociologist Emile Durkheim famously and meticulously linked the personal act of suicide to the social production of identities when he compared suicide rates among Catholics to those of Protestants. His work offered a radical notion at that time, that a person’s individual actions might be deeply influenced by the communal identity to which they belonged. That the personal decision to commit suicide might also be a socially produce phenomena among a particular community.
With the current public health crisis in which LGBTQ youth are at least three times as likely to consider or attempt suicide as their peers, I began to think back on reading Durkheim and his interrogation of the Catholic and Protestant identities of the period.
Then, I took a few minutes to look at the social production of ‘homosexuals’ in our contemporary society to consider why an adolescent might become depressed or hopeless if they were labeled fag, homo, or dyke by their peers.
A quick google search of the past few weeks in the U.S. news confirmed for me that the public identity of homosexuality presented to all children includes:
* an entertainment industry which regularly mocks gender ‘reversals’ as well as the gay community (This past summer I recall walking my children around the block to avoid Bruno billboards)
* a pop culture in which slang terms like ‘no homo’ are considered hilarious and irreverent
* a democracy in which the majority is allowed to vote down the civil rights of a minority group
* a society that debates the merits of banning the gay community from military service
* an education system in which homophobic bullying is ubiquitous
* a public service system in which begin gay is considered grounds for termination
* a civil society in which the term ‘gay bashing’ is the self-proclaimed name for a Friday night activity
For a child to be labeled homo, fag, dyke, gay carries with it all of these public rebukes of identity. To feel an internal solidarity to the gay community and/or to have that label stick against your will is to literally become the physical location of all of this social stigma and shame.
So I listen and act when GLSEN or GLADD ask me to remember a child like Carl, or to stand up against nonsense like the homophobia being spewed by pop culture icons, or transphobia being perpetuated in teen magazines. And even though each move feels like the tiniest of acts against something so immense, I’ll raise my pen, I’ll sign my name, I’ll step out into the light and stand up – again and again.
So here is Carl’s story – pass it on.