Suicide is an act of violence. Most of the recent spate of suicides committed by young gay men have been attributed to homophobic bullying. But killing oneself is not necessarily an act of fear and escape. The one who is bullied or harassed certainly feels threatened, and desires flight, but this is also accompanied by a feeling of anger at the world for allowing this, allowing this injustice, allowing such pain to exist. The gay youth is overwhelmed by a feeling of rage but cannot find a suitable outlet for his violent feeling that is compatible with the desire not to harm others. Because he is a gay youth and knows firsthand what it is to suffer at the hand and mouth of another, he does not, or cannot, produce pain he feels upon another. So he turns that rage against the very flesh that encloses the heart that feels hurt, futility, capture. Suicide is rage against the world turned inward.
Taunting and harassment will not stop. No level of sensitivity training and disciplining will stop the pack mentality that defines the experience of most teenagers. But stopping the spurting of homophobia at the level of verbal taunting is a kind of accomplishment. It is admittedly a very tiny kind of accomplishment. But when we think that verbal gang-banging can easily lead to real rape and murder, as in the examples of Brandon Teena and Matthew Shepherd: yes, as tiny as it is, to stop things at words is an accomplishment. What we must do as adults is to focus on equipping our LGBT (lesbian gay bisexual transgender) youth with an emotional resilience with which they can LIVE THROUGH IT.
There must be an arm of LGBT politics that embraces a form of militancy that is uncompromising. We must not forget that LGBT people are not the same as heterosexuals. But that our difference can change the world, make it unrecognizable, and that unrecognizability is in fact a sign of progress and social evolution. This is what we must focus on, rather than assimilationist goals: whether or not we can get married, whether or not we can go kill people of other nations under the American flag.
The centrality of assimilation — desire is a negative by-product of LGBT people’s increased visibility — as judges and contestants on reality television, award-winning roles for heterosexual actors, supporting characters in films and television shows. When representation becomes confused with political progress, things are bound to go wrong. Such representation really does reveal homosexuality as a “life style” rather than an emotional and political reality that demands a particular process of living. Thus, I believe there must be a comeback of sorts. There must be a return to serious, rigorous, and even somewhat…scary versions of “lesbian gay bisexual transgender.”
Joon Oluchi Lee is Assistant Professor of English at RISD.