You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
— Rodgers and Hammerstein, from “South Pacific“
Bigotry, as the musical’s Lt. Cable said, is “not born in you … it happens after you’re born.” In Utah, as in other parts of the country, expressions among teenagers of the bigotry they see in their parents and other adults all too often end tragically for gay and lesbian students.
A gay young man from Morgan County, Jack Denton Reese, whose story of being bullied was told to an audience at the screening of a documentary on bullying in Ogden a week ago, committed suicide the day before. His death is one of many among bullied gay and lesbian teens. It’s time parents, teachers and school officials put a stop to it.
Gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual youths are all too often the targets of cruel bullying in Utah schools that, in the most horrific cases, ends in the victim’s suicide. Unofficial estimates put the number of suicides among Utah LGBT youths and adults at one a week.
The Utah Department of Health reports that the Beehive State has the 12th highest rate of teen suicide in the nation; suicide is the leading cause of death for Utah boys and young men ages 15-19. Two Utahns age 15-19 are treated or hospitalized every day after suicide attempts.
Feelings of depression and alienation, which are often associated with bullying related to sexual orientation, are among the leading causes of suicide. And, as difficult as it may be to accept, children learn cruelty from adults. They learn from jokes and snickers that it’s OK to make fun of people who are gay. They learn from legislators who refuse to extend civil rights to gays and lesbians that “those people” are not as valuable as straight people.
Even parents who say they don’t hate gays and lesbians but who teach their children to avoid classmates who are homosexual are guilty of encouraging bullying. Adults who are comfortable with bigotry probably restrain themselves from expressing their feelings openly. But teenagers are much more vulnerable to peer pressure and are less inhibited.
Kendall Wilcox, a gay man fired by Brigham Young University after making a documentary about being gay and Mormon, said, “Whether the child is gay or not, the epithet with the most detraction is ‘fag.’” Sadly, bullies usually hear the word first from the lips of adults.