Beware The Heroes We Create
September 27th, 2011
First, let me stipulate one thing: Lady Gaga’s advocacy on all manner of LGBT-related topics are powerful and heartfelt. While some might see her advocacy as just another means of self-promotion, I just don’t see it that way. And I don’t even see her advocacy as being “loyal to her fan base,” a poor excuse for advocacy if I ever heard one. It’s another way of saying an entertainer simply knows where his or her bread is buttered. I think Lady Gaga would be a strong advocate regardless of what her “fan base” may be. Her career is built upon many things, including image and self-promotion, but her advocacy seems, to me at least, to be genuine and passionate.
And yet, as I watch this video of her performing “Hair” and dedicating it to Jamey Rodemeyer at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in Las Vegas, I can’t help but thinking that, in some small way, Jamey achieved in death something he never had in life: a song dedicated to him from the star performer who he described as a huge inspiration to him. If he were alive — and I’m assuming he was like most star-struck teens who worshiped their musical idols — his thrill at her mentioning his name before thousands of adoring fans would have been unmeasurable. But he’s not alive. He killed himself last week after enduring yet more bullying, even after he himself had made his own “It Gets Better” video last spring.
I don’t think there is a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender person alive who hasn’t experienced bullying, peer rejection and torment. For some of us, that experience has been indescribably brutal. But the fact that we are alive is proof that suicide is not a natural response to bullying. If it were, we’d all have killed ourselves. For some, however, there is at least one other ingredient in the mix somehow which leads then to kill themselves while others press on. Those ingredients vary from individual to individual, but suicide research shows that one common denominator is often depression, which can express itself in many ways. It brings an extra vulnerability for teens to carry, a vulnerability which makes it extraordinarily difficult to predict the specific incident which could trigger the next suicide.
As I watch this video, I can’t help but recall moments of darkness and despair in my own life when I imagined the huge wave of grief that would be unleashed by my own funeral. I dreamed of my tormenters’ lives forever ruined by their guilt for having pushed me over the edge. Everyone else would know who they were, and they would shun them the way I was shunned. Who’s sorry now, huh?
Who among us haven’t imagined something like this for themselves? The wailing and rending of clothing as people finally realized that their cruelty and neglect would haunt them for the rest of their days, the outpouring of love in death that we felt was withheld from us in life, and, in the scene’s dénouement, a song in our honor because even the greatest pop hero (in my version, it was either Bobby Sherman or, later, Cher ) would know our names.
I needn’t point out the obvious that I never did try to make my fantasy a reality. My self-esteem was so low that I feared that I was too incompetent to actually kill myself and I’d end up a life-long vegetable. I guess you could say my depression was so deep it actually saved me. But we do know the phenomenon of copy-cat suicides, where the aftermath of one person’s death may begin to look pretty good to others who are watching. Which is what makes watching this video for me so horrifying. Jamey talked about his love of Lady Gaga in his “It Gets Better” video. But to most of us watching that video, we would naturally come to the conclusion that it didn’t get better. And, for most of us, it will be obvious that with Jamey gone, it will truly never get better for him on this earth because he’s not here on it.
But is it so obvious to other Lady Gaga fans? To other teenage, bullied, depressed, and hopeless Lady Gaga fans? A Lady Gaga fan who would kill for that kind of a shout-out, even if it is a posthumous one? The LGBT Movement Advancement Project, a joint effort of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, GLSEN, GLAAD and others, have a very informative 12-point guide for talking about suicide (PDF: 642KB/4 pages). Points 7 and 8 are particularly relevant here:
7. DON’T normalize suicide by presenting it as the logical consequence of the kinds of bullying, rejection, discrimination and exclusion that LGBT people often experience. Presenting suicide as the inexplicable act of an otherwise healthy LGBT person—or drawing a direct, causal link between suicide and the bullying or discrimination that LGBT people often face—can encourage at-risk individuals to identify with the victim (or the victim’s life circumstances) and increase risk of suicidal behavior.
8. DON’T idealize suicide victims or create an aura of celebrity around them. Research shows that idealizing people who have died by suicide may encourage others to identify with the victim or seek to emulate them.
As I look through the list, I see several important points which show that there have been times when BTB did not do such a good job in talking about teen suicide in the past. I do know that we have broken some of the recommendations in this list. Our mistakes were honest ones, but we can ill-afford to keep making them. This isn’t to say that we cannot talk about suicide or report future cases in which teens take their own lives. Not talking about suicide won’t make it go away, and not talking about bullying won’t make things better for gay teens. But there are things we all can do to better respond to our collective grief and anguish when the spark of yet another young life flames out in self-destruction, particularly when we can easily identify with the pain that led to those final moments.
We don’t know what final spark led Jamey Rodemeyer to kill himself. And chances are we won’t know the actual trigger for the next person who reaches that moment of despair where the only option they believe they have is to follow in Jamey’s footsteps. But we do know that we can chose to honor Jame’s life in a way which can be helpful to other teens who might be at a similar point of hopelessness in their lives. If Jamey’s death is to mean anything, it must be found in the commitment to ensure that people like him can find the help that they need when and where they need it, and to surround them with supportive adults to help them — whether those adults are inside their families or outside; in the schools or off school property. Let Jamey’s death be not an occasion for another poignant music video, but a call to action to make sure every teen knows that there is someone they can turn to. And to make sure that when they need to turn to someone, there really is someone there to help.
For more information on general suicide prevention, research and help-seeking resources, see the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP). If you or someone you know needs help, see The Trevor Project’s web site or call the Trevor Lifeline: 866-4-U-TREVOR (866-488-7386).