Op-ed: How to Really Make It Better

By Michael Sadowski

Originally published on Advocate.com April 10 2013 6:00 AM ET

Lindsey had been a chronic cutter until shortly before I met her at age 15. Having endured verbal and physical harassment in school and homophobic slurs from her stepfather and sister at home, Lindsey said the cutting had been a way “to show the pain that I was feeling on the inside on the outside, to make it kind of go away.”

Talking to others about what was happening to her, especially since she didn't feel safe coming out as lesbian, was not an option. It was not until Lindsey’s wrist-cutting escalated to a suicide attempt that her mother “heard” what was going on and brought her to a crisis center. The suicide attempt also forced the Lindsey to come out to her family. Her sister and stepfather started treating her with respect, and she began learning to speak up for herself and, ultimately, for other LGBTQ youth facing similar circumstances.

Through relationships with supportive people and organizations, Lindsey gradually found what I call a queer voice. After being silenced for years by harassing peers, abusive family members, and a society that she read as unwilling to welcome her as an out lesbian teenager, Lindsey learned to communicate with others in positive ways as an LGBTQ person. She joined her school's gay-straight alliance (GSA) and a community-based LGBTQ youth group, where she found friends and mentors with whom she could communicate honestly. With the support of her English teacher, she started learning and writing about gender and sexuality issues. She helped organize teacher trainings at her high school about anti-LGBTQ harassment and eventually became a peer educator on other campuses.

The once-isolated Lindsey learned to voice feelings and experiences that before only seemed expressible through self-destructive means. As she summed it up in one of our interviews: “I can talk to people now...[Before] I couldn't talk to anybody, and that was hard.”

Lindsey is one of 12 individuals profiled in my book In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood. Despite histories that included severe harassment at school and at home, reparative therapy, suicide attempts, and other risks to their safety and well-being, their stories ultimately illustrate the importance of creating opportunities for queer youth to express themselves in positive, self-affirming ways. Following a subset of these individuals into adulthood with another wave of interviews six years later, I heard the full emergence of unique queer voices—young adults with a strong belief in themselves and their right to live their lives as they choose. (When I checked in with Lindsay again at age 21, she was working in a restaurant but was considering going back to school to become a “role model” as either a lesbian police officer or a public speaker about LGBTQ issues.)

Lindsay and the other young people profiled in In a Queer Voice are the lucky ones. Despite what may seem like tremendous progress on many fronts, roughly one in four queer youth still attempt suicide, and far too many succeed. As I was writing a draft of In a Queer Voice in September 2011, news broke of the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer, a 14-year-old high school freshman from a suburb of Buffalo, N.Y., who been harassed relentlessly for his sexual orientation both in school and online. Eleven days before his death, Jamey posted on Tumblr, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. What do I have to do so people will listen?” A focus on queer voice can add a crucial missing piece to the important efforts already taking place to save LGBTQ youth from suicide and risk behaviors that some may view as the only way to draw attention to their plight.

For Lindsey and thousands like her, a school GSA can be a lifeline, yet according to research by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, more than half of American middle and high school students still do not have access to GSAs. And in many schools where GSAs exist, they are relegated to the fringes of school culture, oases in schools that otherwise remain unsafely homo- and trans-phobic. To have a true voice in school, LGBTQ youth need GSAs and more. They need to be able to discuss LGBTQ issues in their classes, write about LGBTQ issues where appropriate for school assignments, and feel safe being out among all their peers and teachers if they choose to do so.

Like many other youth interviewed for the book, Lindsey's community-based LGBTQ youth group was as crucial as the GSA to the discovery of her voice. These organizations provide a sense of belonging to many queer youth, but others in conservative and low-income communities continue to struggle in isolation, without this vital, in-person connection to peers and adults who understand—when it seems no one else can—where they are coming from.

In my interviews, I learned how important parents and other family members are to LGBTQ youth, but I also heard about the difficulties many families experience having frank conversations with their children about gender and sexuality. David, a participant who had violent suicidal thoughts during adolescence, said his parents would not discuss the fact that he was gay even though he had come out to them and they knew he was being relentlessly harassed for it at school. And Matt said his mother cried whenever he talked about being transgender “so I think it's better to just not mention it to her.” Supporting queer voice means helping families break silences and navigate conversations that may be difficult for them, but may also save their children's lives.

Finding a queer voice is one of the most effective means by which it can, in fact, “get better” for LGBTQ youth. The more we can understand and replicate the factors that help some young queer voices emerge from silence and self-destructiveness, the better it will get for those who are still at risk.

MICHAEL SADOWSKI (@sadowskimi) is the author of In a Queer Voice: Journeys of Resilience from Adolescence to Adulthood, recently published by Temple University Press, and an assistant professor in the Bard College Master of Arts in Teaching Program in New York City.