There has been considerable news coverage over the past few weeks of the suicides of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi and four other gay teens. The timing of the stories is especially poignant since Oct. 12 will mark the 12th anniversary of the murder of University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard.
Only a handful of similar cases have made ripples in the news since Shepard was pistol-whipped, tortured and left strung up on a fence to die. Most people may think the killing of gays at this point is exceedingly rare, but more than 200 have been gay-bashed to death in the United States since Shepard's death rocked the nation into ... inaction.
The recent bullying/suicide stories hit close to home for me. I got picked on almost every day at St. Thomas More Elementary School and Bethel Park High School when I was growing up. I got beat up so often I tried to hide from my parents.
High school administrators could not have turned a blinder eye if they had buried their heads in the sand: One principal advised me to "fight the kid. If you don't, he'll just keep picking on you." Given that my tormenter had about 8 inches and 60 pounds on me, I didn't think that getting my head crushed would discourage him from abusing me further.
In my recently published novel, "Rounding Third," I used those experiences to provide background for the main character's struggles. Another character succumbs to abuse and attempts suicide. That is also not really fiction; it is based on a friend's story.
Since the book came out, I can't tell you how many heartbreaking e-mails and comments I have received from people asking if I had somehow surveilled them when they were in high school because the bullying and suffering I described told their stories, too.
One man wrote to say he was glad the word "iPod" appears on the first page of the book to set the story in the current day so people wouldn't think these sorts of things ended after the 1950s when he was in school. Relentless abuse was his daily existence back then, without even an iPod for escape.
The parents of one of the characters in the book disown their son and claim he was killed in a motorcycle wreck to explain his absence at family functions. They would rather have him mangled in a road accident than alive and gay. This story also was borrowed from a friend's life.
Several people have told me that they too are "dead" to their families. One young lady told me she has visited her own grave in Missouri. Her parents paid for a plot and a tombstone rather than accept a lesbian daughter.
Things have improved in the years since I was a student, but clearly not enough to prevent the recent tragedies. Most kids are still afraid to come out.
When I spoke at Bethel Park High School a few years ago, I learned there was only one openly gay student out of a school population of nearly 2,000. If we take the standard figure that 10 percent of the population is gay, that means 199 kids were still in the closet. Even if we take the low-end figure of 3 percent that the Christian right prefers, that means 59 kids in that one school are struggling every day with their identities.
Answers.com says there are 27,468 public high schools in the United States. Do the math. The number of kids in trouble is staggering.
It doesn't help when the National Organization for Marriage says that gay students are the bullies and argues that nothing should be done to protect gay kids in school.
Or when TV host and former presidential candidate Mike Huckabee says on "The View" that violence against gays isn't yet bad enough to warrant giving them civil rights protection. He has yet to specify a body count. Perhaps another 300 or 400 dead kids? I wonder how many dead bodies this Southern Baptist minister thinks Jesus would see piled up at his feet before he'd show compassion to these, the "least" of his children.
Pennsylvania and 42 other states have anti-bullying laws on the books, but like most hate-crime legislation, they lack specific protection based on perceived sexual orientation -- i.e., it's OK to call someone the f-word (fag), but not the n-word.
And even after the recent deaths, groups like Focus on the Family still oppose protections being considered in Minnesota, where three gay teens in a single school district have committed suicide within the past year. The Minnesota Family Council blames the suicides not on bullies, but on the "unhealthy lifestyles" of these young people.
These "family" groups are what make these kids' lifestyles unhealthy. No wonder nine out of 10 gay students report still being bullied.
The majority of kids who get called gay, though, are not. A common theme of high school shootings is that the shooter was often called "fag," but none has identified himself as gay. Every time some group shouts down an anti-bullying initiative as "promoting the gay agenda," they fail to realize that the kids they would deny protection could be their own "straight" kids. And they just assume their kids are straight. Gay kids pop up even in the most religious of homes.
Bullied kids kill themselves in households of all faiths, and they will continue to do so unless this latest wave of deaths shocks the nation into more concerted action.
Walter G. Meyer is the author of three books and lives in San Diego ( firstname.lastname@example.org ).