LGBT Suicides: The Fire This Time

Posted October 3, 2010

I don’t know whether to call it a rash or not, but the recent reporting of the suicides of young gay men should certainly raise alarm bells. I would be interested to know if this was a cluster or just an average that is finding the light of day because of the higher profile of some of these tragedies. In any case, it stands in stark contrast to the popular version that official Hollywood, the mainstream Gay movement and the current administration currently pedal where gays are widely accepted and on their way (if not in this election cycle, the next) to full equality.

It was only a few years ago where films like Boys Don’t Cry, a surprising breakthrough at the time, were out there setting some of the tone. The years of demonization combined with the heroic and radical movement of the 80s and early nineties (ACT-UP and many others) forced the issues. The issues (well, some of them), surprise surprise, have been appropriated, including, hesitatingly to be sure, by leading elements of the Democratic Party. DADT? Don’t ask.

But it is in Hollywood that has become the epicenter of the zeitgeist of a (catered) coming out party this last decade. The gay and lesbian market is now a normal consideration for advertisers; capitalism is loathe turn down a new market. And with the market comes all things base, venal and superfluous. Now the gay experience has, not in all cases for sure, been reduced to slightly sassy banter and an obsession with what people are wearing à la Sex In The City or a hyper-sexuality (though mostly devoid of actual sex) designed to make straight men squirm (for ‘comedic’ effect) à la Brüno. The latter likes to see itself as “challenging” when it only reinforces, while the former sees itself as promoting and “humanizing” when it really neuters (or spays as the case may be) gay experience(s). We remain, with a few salutary exceptions, in the realm of caricature (and crude caricature at that) in the public mind melded by the mass media.

It should also forcefully point out to those of us who are activists the seriousness with which we should take such attitudes that still pervade too much of our culture when they apparent themselves in the movement, in the workplaces, our unions, etc. Any environment which makes life deemed too difficult for our LGBT brothers and sisters work, study, date, fuck, love, to live for Christ’s sake, is an environment not worthy of any members of our species; it’s not a society for human beings as we really are. If we can’t find ourselves standing forthrightly with our LGBT brothers and sisters against intimidations and prejudice than what right do we have to claim to speak for any of the oppressed, the oppressed class entirely included (which, incidentally and of course, includes many millions of gay brothers and sisters)?

I think back to the gay jokes and ribbing and sometimes worse that were everywhere in my junior high and high school in those years when ACT-UP was first challenging the country. To my great regret and shame; sometimes engaged in by a young and ignorant me as well). What kind of damage was done? I don’t know, but I am sure it was done. My god; I’m a straight guy, and white at that, and I know how derision and general teenage evilness directed my way left me in a torrent of pubescent doubt and self-hate; not entirely recovered from, I might add. For gay and lesbians of my generation and before, and so painfully obvious, the latest one as well, such things carry enormous weight and consequences; socially, economically, psychologically, with their family and friends. It can and does kill. It may kill suddenly; suicide or murder, or it may kill slowly; the accumulated daily violence and humiliations afforded to the oppressed in too great a measure.

One of my responses to the posting of the video that led to the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi was just how normal we think such an egregious invasion of privacy has become; even our private lives are to be publicly consumed, along with the increasingly widespread commodification of sex and sexuality in all of its form (along with every decent thing we humans might get up to). A maelström of false-consciousness and exchange values where ‘all that is sacred is profaned’. A multiplicitously sick, alienated and enslaved society. Oh that we could say, with confidence and in chorus, never again. But it will happen; again and again. Rights may be won, they have been won, and with enough struggle more can be won (a reminder- rights can also be taken away); but liberation requires something more and something quite different.

The roots of this cancer run deep. Back before capitalism surely, but as it lives now, this bigotry is a thoroughly modern problem. One based in the family and gender roles developed and developing under capitalism. This is not to reduce LGBT oppression to some sort of political economy of the family, the web of our enslavement is so much more complexly weaved than that. However, as with all things, roots matter. Weeds can be trimmed, but to kill them they must be rendered from the earth; root, stem and branch.


2 responses to “LGBT Suicides: The Fire This Time”

  1. Enku Avatar

    In (long, rambling) response to the article:
    Gay and Lesbian identity has certainly been identified as a niche market by capital, and twisted to meet the needs of capital, and not of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Queer folk. Most recently, the “gay male aesthetic” is being used as a tool to “reform” straight men into better consumers, especially in the realm of “self improvement.”
    As a queer guy, I have seen too clearly how this imagined and propagated role has infected the identity of my community — where the revolutionary potential of breaking with bourgeoisie gender norms has been co-opted by the elite under our current phase of capitalism. I have also met many gay men who are “struggling” with their sexuality for this very reason. For many rural gay men, mass media portrayals are the only scripts we have to go by. Growing through adversity and loneliness, I think, many of us either internalise the “queer eye gaze” and thus tie up our identity with consumption and vapid hedonism, or we cling to heterosexuality (and heteronormativity) as the only alternative we see.
    On the gay youth suicide: as a sociologist I’d be interested to understand this better — for example, are queer youth suicides on the rise, or did they just make it into the media cycle? Also, I do worry that the “copycat” factor might be playing some role in actually promoting these suicides…it’s pretty well documented that when a suicide receives a lot of media attention, there are more likely to be increased suicides. Regardless, LGBT oppression (I find it interesting that all of the suicides I’ve seen have been among [white?] gay males) must be dealt with at the root, in the schools and communities that have been generally ignored by the “Gay Inc.” movement organisations. In my home state of MS, the ACLU is doing some great work around this with their “safe schools coalition.” [for an overview of resources and ideas for educators, see my upcoming review of “The Right to be Out” in ATC.]

    In response to Nicholas’ comment:
    Yes, our gender ideologies have long histories that predate capitalism…however, our ideologies are closely connected to the economic system (look at the rapid changes in gender relations since the mid 1960s). The current manifestation of queer oppression (and queer ‘liberation’ as envisioned by many today) is directly tied to capitalism.
    And, to say that LGBT people are not generally “worse off” than hetero cisgender folks is a jewel of homosupremacy ridiculousness -we are overrepresented among the homeless and the abused; we have higher drop-out rates, and violence committed against us. I am personally very happy to be queer, but we must recognise the challenges of our community (especially those of us who are rural, working class, transgender, people of color, people from conservative religious backgrounds and who don’t fit into the idealised “novelist, artistic, creative” archetype on which you rely to define our community). We are not all ‘fabulous’ nor should we need to be in order to be counted as equal members of the LGBT community. Also, while I had to live through the closet, I reject essentializing our oppression. For many of us, it brings us strength and resilience — but many of us get lost in the shuffle, killing ourselves or living a lie or simply becoming completely screwed up by the process and internalizing our oppression. The problem with a “trial by fire” is that many of us get deeply burned.

  2. Anonymous Avatar

    To insinuate that the roots of gender bias and homophobia are a “modern problem” which might be traced back to gender roles “developed and developing under capitalism” evidences both an atrophied intellectual conscience and a suspicious inability to interpret history as it is – that is to say, outside of a pseudo-Marxist neo-materialist lens. In your defense, it is all-too-common that people allow their political agendas to obscure the actual Truth of the situation; but as a homosexual with a great amount of stake in the matter, I feel obliged to speak up.

    First and foremost, the problematization and subsequent demonization of homosexuality started before the birth of Christ. It was not a Christian movement, it did not come about through some sort of “Victorian” zeitgeist, and it was surely not a capitalist movement – Xenophone, Epicurius and most notably Plato all played major roles in turning homosexuality into a “problem” to be “dealt with.” When we read ante-Marx, we come to a better understanding of historical development before him – as a Hegelian, I’m sure he would have appreciated that.

    Second and secondmost, the “unworthy” environment that you speak of is the environment that every human being lives in each and every day – and you try to tell me that your LGBT brothers and sisters are worse off!? Fie! You have no idea how liberating homosexuality can be, and how horribly mundane heterosexuality appears to us! We dance and skip around ideas like marriage and abortion, which are so cumbersome for you who have to deal with them. We approach questions of fidelity and child-rearing with a lightheartedness that you, child-producers, cannot imagine! For every burden we bear (i.e. the ones that you “conceive of” for us), we are spared the burden of Straight!

    If you are afraid for the gays of the world, turn round: you should be afraid of us. We are the unshackled, the Outsiders par excellence, who run the risks that a “straight” society could never permit itself; we are the experimenters, the novelists, the Creators – and you, my friend, are jealous. You want to put us in a cage, where no one can harm us, but a cage nonetheless! You want us to give up our liberties, our freedom of speech, in fear of the chance that we take too many liberties and speak up.

    When a human being exercises his or her freedom, they are exposing themselves to the world – to all of its beauty, vitality, danger and evil. You might think a world devoid of pain and suffering would be beautiful, but it would not: because such a world would never know joy, pleasure, or beauty itself. You must let us be ourselves, and run our own risks, if you want to see us be able to stand up and live our lives as we see fit. I look forward to the day that I can walk into a bar, shamelessly make eyes with another man, and enter into a conversation that may lead to a lifelong relationship – but that is something that I can only do on my own.

    Your friend,
    Nicholas Penske