Standing up to homophobia is one way to cut suicide rate


OPINION:It is disturbing but not surprising that almost one-fifth of gay people have attempted suicide, writes QUENTIN FOTTRELL.

IT WAS a headline that only people outside the gay community might possibly view as news. “A fifth of gay people tried suicide – report.”

Surprise, surprise. Well, really. What does one expect in a society that only decriminalised homosexuality 15 years ago, one where bullying of gay students in schools is only now limping on to the political agenda, and where children as young as seven have been taught that the word “gay” is a particularly effective term of abuse?

That said, this recent study was both valuable and timely. Supporting LGBT Lives: A Study of the Mental Health of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Peoplefound that almost 18 per cent of LGBT people have attempted suicide. Another 27 per cent of those surveyed said they had self-harmed at least once. The study, carried out by the Children’s Research Centre in TCD and School of Education at UCD, of 1,110 online respondents and 40 face-to-face interviews, was financed by the National Office for Suicide Prevention, and commissioned by the BelongTo Youth Service and the Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (GLEN).

My only surprise reading it was that the figure wasn’t even higher. After all, most people “come out” about their sexuality in their adolescence, an especially vulnerable time for any individual, regardless of their sexuality. And let us not forget: suicides of young men under 35 account for about 40 per cent of all Irish suicides.

We live in a country with the fifth-highest rate of youth suicide in Europe, according to the National Office for Suicide Prevention, so it is clearly a widespread problem that crosses all age groups, genders and sexualities. Most suicides are obviously among heterosexuals, given that gays make up a minority of the population.

But 18 per cent is high for any group. Few people think of themselves as homophobic. But we can start by asking what we all can do to help? Parents can tell their children early: “Gay or straight, I love you. As long as you are happy, I am happy.” We can take notice if a brother, sister, friend or child is isolating themselves, which could be just one of many signs.

Alan Doherty grew up in Buncrana, Co Donegal, and came from a large, loving family. Please remember his name. Alan had moved home after six years in London. On November 8th, 2005, at the age of 32, he took his own life. He left a note in which he specifically said he could no longer cope with the homophobia in his home town.

His sister Carol told me at the time: “He was so spiritual and artistic. He loved walking on the beach because he was a composer as well. But the comments and attitudes sapped his self-confidence . . . I have this hole in my heart. I don’t want this to happen to any other beautiful person . . . Homophobia chips away at beautiful spirits.”

Supporting LGBT Liveshas the evidence: 80 per cent of online respondents were verbally abused for their identity, 58 per cent were bullied in school, while 85 per cent of those who self-harmed once had done so again, a big risk factor in suicide.

Plus, of those 25 and under, more than one-third thought about ending their life in the past year. In the last year alone, I know of four young men who took their own lives. Two were heterosexual and two were gay. Each time the news was delivered it was done so with a depressingly familiar air of normality and resignation, as if the person had died from a common illness. Suicide is that ingrained in our society.

One of those gay men was in his early 20s. His friends held a birthday party/wake for him. Images of him throughout his life flashed up on a screen: a hopeful young boy, a starry-eyed young man with sparkly eye shadow. I remember his father, who had had difficulty accepting his son’s sexuality, sat with tears in his eyes, watching his son on the screen.

Prayers for Bobbyis a TV movie just broadcast in the US, which I hope RTÉ or TV3 screen here. It tells the story of Mary Griffith, who had tried praying away her son Bobby’s homosexuality. She took him to a psychiatrist in the hope that she could “cure” him of his homosexuality and urged him to seek solace in their Presbyterian Church.

Bobby became ever more depressed, felt rejected by his parents and condemned by his church, and, aged 20, jumped to his death from a bridge in Portland, Oregon. His mother Mary subsequently questioned her interpretation of Scripture. She then joined an organisation for parents of gay children, and has since become an iconic activist for gay rights.

Last month, she said: “Until Bobby’s death, I was convinced that I could fix him, and nothing was going to change my mind about that. I guess his death was the moment. It wasn’t until then that I realised how close-minded I had been.”

And now?

“I would tell Bobby that he’s an equal, lovable and valuable part of creation.”

These are just some real-life stories behind statistics that are hopelessly entangled with legislation that restricts the rights of gay and lesbian people to marry or adopt children as couples, stories often framed by violence or abuse. Anyone, gay or straight, who is harassed or ignored because of simply who they are would have a similarly difficult time.

Fortunately, there are also many more inspiring stories out there that are about survival, about those who do go on to live happily, or indeed hopefully, ever after.