The difference between life and death

The suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi in September — and several other young adults and teens in recent months — is anything but a distant memory. Clementi and these other young people ended their lives because of people bullying them about their sexuality.

The tragedy of these suicides, and the headlines they generated, shed some light on the fears and insecurities faced by gay youth, particularly in the era of the Internet, where, through social networking sites, their business can sometimes become everyone’s business. In Clementi’s case, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a gay sexual encounter of his was posted online by classmates.

The deaths moved a nation to act. In several states across the country, lawmakers are drafting anti-bullying legislation, and more stringent regulations on college campuses, in an effort to protect our young people — especially those who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. Now, new research finds that acceptance and support from the homefront could help protect gay youth.

Support begins early

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, homosexuality is defined as the persistent sexual and emotional attraction to someone of the same sex. It is not a mental disorder, and the Academy says it is not a matter of choice.

Some parents feel deeply conflicted about having a gay teen, whether it be for religious or societal reasons. But experts say it’s important for families to realize that many LGBT individuals first become aware of, and experience, their sexual thoughts and feelings during childhood and adolescence, so the support process can sometimes begin well before those difficult teenage years. It may also be helpful to recognize that societal attitudes have evolved into more accepting norms, and that can help LGBT youth feel more comfortable with their sexual orientation.

Recognize distress

Certainly, all teenagers can be moody and withdrawn at times, but LGBT youth have particular concerns that may lead them to think they are fighting an uphill battle alone. The Academy says parents need to be on the lookout when LGBT teens begin to exhibit socially isolated behavior — withdrawing from family and friends — have trouble concentrating, and act as if they have low self-esteem. The child’s worries and concerns can often stem from:

• Feeling different from his peers

• Rejection and harassment by friends and family

• Discrimination when joining sports clubs, seeking admission to college, and finding employment

• Feelings of guilt about his sexual orientation

• Concerns about AIDS, HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Family acceptance

Studies suggest the attitude of family members can also have a dramatic impact on a teen’s ability to cope and to be protected.

Two years ago, a study in the journal “Pediatrics” concluded that LGBT teens and young adults — as a group — had one of the highest rates of suicide, as well as some health and mental problems, including substance abuse.

The good news is this: that very same study suggested that parental acceptance, and even neutrality, with regard to a child’s sexual orientation, can play a large role in reducing that statistic.

Recently, a separate study was published in the “Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Nursing,” which found a clear link between family acceptance of LGBT youth and better overall health in adulthood. The study included 245 white and Hispanic LGBT young adults in California, ages 21 to 25, who were open about their sexual orientation to at least one caregiver during adolescence. The results? Positive family attitudes and behaviors toward LGBT teens can reduce their risk of depression, drug abuse and suicidal thoughts when they become young adults. Examples of positive parental acceptance included supporting gender expression, and advocating for children when they’re mistreated because of their LGBT identity.

Families can use the media attention given to cases like Clementi’s as a catalyst for discussion.

“At a time when the media and families are becoming acutely aware of the risk that many LGBT youth experience, our findings that family acceptance protects against suicidal thoughts and behaviors, depression and substance abuse, offer a gateway to hope for LGBT youth and families that struggle with how to balance deeply held religious and personal values with love for their LGBT children,” said Caitlin Ryan, the director of the Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University.

For more on the study, visit

And for more information on the support process, reach out to Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — a national, non-profit organization with more than 200,000 members and supporters and over 500 affiliates in the United States. This vast grassroots network is cultivated, resourced and serviced by the PFLAG National Office, located in Washington, D.C. You can visit the website at PFLAG.ORG.

Monica Brown is a cable television news anchor and freelance journalist who writes for several publications throughout the tri-state area.