On 5 May 2011 Natalie Donaldson, wrote an opinion editorial in the Daily Dispatch looking at the high rate of gay teen suicide in the USA and relating this to the South African context for LGBTI Pride Week. Ms Donaldson is a Junior Lecturer in the Psychology Department; and a researcher in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) Psychology; and an activist in LGBTI rights.
The opinion editorial entitled “Being Gay is Not the Problem” draws on research on suicide of LGBTI youth in the USA and South Africa. The article points out that suicide is not the only issue of concern for South African LGBTI youth, but more pressingly the likelihood of being raped and/or murdered simply for being gay.
"During the month of September 2010 alone, it was reported that six young men took their own lives in the United States of America. The cause: relentless and cruel harassment and bullying from peers for being gay. Research in the USA has shown that suicide is the third leading cause of death in people between the ages of 15 and 24 and young people who identify as lesbian, gay or bisexual are four to five times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to commit suicide. Further USA research has shown that nine out of ten youth have been harassed and bullied at school for disclosing their sexuality or merely being perceived as being gay. In South Africa, the statistics are just as alarming with a recent study stating that 31% of South African LGBTI (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex) people had thought of committing suicide, while 21% had actually tried. Therefore, LGBTI teens committing suicide is not a new phenomenon, but rather something that is only now gaining media attention.
This increased media interest was a catalyst for the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign which asks celebrities and ‘ordinary’ people to post videos of support/solidarity/encouragement for LGBTI people, assuring them that they are not alone, that there is support, and that they will eventually reach a point where they will feel happy and positive about their own lives. The aim is to convince gay youth that being gay will and does get easier. The campaign includes videos from President Obama and Hilary Clinton, as well as openly gay celebrities such as Adam Lambert and Ellen DeGeneres. While we cannot criticise an attempt to prevent gay teens from taking their own lives, and we should commend those actually trying to do something positive to deal with this very important issue, it is also imperative that we do not lie to our youth. It does not ‘get better’. This assurance implies that living as a gay person becomes easier to bear or cope with. However, it cannot ‘get better’ unless the majority of the people in the world change their own prejudiced, heterosexist and homophobic mind-set.
One of the fundamental flaws in the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign is that it individualises the issue. The responsibility of dealing with homophobia is shifted to the gay individual who is now expected to persevere through the hatred and bullying until s/he reaches this so-called ‘better’ place — one which may never exist. The implication then is that, if the gay youth cannot persevere, they are (once again) lacking in some way, putting more unnecessary pressure onto LGBTI youth. It is not the gay youth that needs to change or adapt to the environment. This potentially amounts to blaming the victims. Instead, after decades of LGBTI rights activism, is it not time for the social and cultural environment to adapt to accommodate LGBTI youth? In the words of Gabriella Rivera, a young lesbian woman, who posted a video for the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign: “It’s never a problem to be gay; the problem comes from everybody else...”
As a recent study published online this year indicates, gay teen suicide rates can be reduced by improving the social environment in which LGBTI youth live. This finding is derived from statistics in the USA which show that the number of LGBTI youth who attempt suicide drops from 25% to 20% if they live within more accepting and supportive social environments. Interestingly, it is important to note that only 4% of heterosexual youth attempt suicide regardless of their social environment. The solution then is not for the world to try to change how LGBTI youth deal with their ‘gayness’, but rather to increase social support and acceptance in the form of gay-straight alliance organisations in all schools and University campuses, implementing anti-discrimination and anti-bullying policies in all schools and University campuses and, more importantly, ensuring that LGBTI youth are taken seriously when they do report instances of anti-gay bullying and harassment.
We only need to look at the situation closer to home, here in South Africa, to see that the problem lies with others. South Africa has been praised for having one of the most liberal constitutions in the world demanding equal rights and protection for all people regardless of their sexual orientation. Yet, only last week we were confronted with the brutal and barbaric rape and murder of Noxolo Nogwaza, a black lesbian woman living in KwaThema Township. The rape and murder of this woman echoes that of Eudy Simelane in 2008, also in KwaThema Township.
Discriminatory discourses of homosexuality as ‘unnatural’ and ‘un-African’, which result in horrific hate crimes against LGBTI individuals (such as corrective rape), contribute to the social and cultural intolerance of homosexuality. Suicide is not the only issue that is of concern for our South African LGBTI youth but, more pressingly, is the very likely probability of being raped or murdered simply for being gay. A 2006 South African study found that 20% of gay/bisexual teenage males and 19% of lesbian/bisexual teenage females had been raped or sexually assaulted. So, it does not get better and we cannot fool our youth into believing that it does. Not in South Africa, anyway. We need to turn our focus to putting into practice the rights and protection that our constitution demands for us.
In a similar way as the gay teen suicides in the USA last year received media coverage, the murder and rape of Noxolo Nogwaza for being a lesbian woman has received much press coverage. Human rights organisations have embarked on protests in front of parliament in Cape Town demanding that authorities put an end to the rape and murder of South African lesbians. This fight needs to include every single South African, gay or straight, since this is not about a crisis in the LGBTI world; this is about a crisis in humanity." - Daily Dispatch, 05 May 2011, p8