Alexandria’s Echo Press ignores Lundsten’s toxicology report
March 8th, 2011
On Saturday, January 15, 2011, openly gay 18 year-old high school student Lance Lundsten died. Fellow students reported that Lance was openly gay and subjected to bullying at school and expressed their sadness and their wish that some adult had protected him. But the adults in Lance’s life had an entirely difference response.
Jefferson High School, where Lance was subjected to homophobic bullying, has no gay-straight alliance, has no inclusive anti-discrimination policy, and no acknowledgment of the existence of students like Lance or any provisions to address their need or concerns. The school superintendent Terry Quist issued a statement that not only refused to consider that bullying could have played a part, but chastised and criticized Lance’s friends for suggesting that Lance’s death may have been at his own hand and due in part to bullying he experienced while under Quist’s supervision.
We are aware that statements attributed to unidentified students have been reported by the media. However we have no information regarding the source of or any factual basis for the statements. It would be disrespectful, as well as a violation of privacy laws for us to engage in speculation regarding the cause or circumstances of Lance’s death.
But lack of “factual basis” did not limit others from engaging in a public relations effort to deny who Lance was, squelch any talk about issues that could have led to his death, and craft a pretty lie to replace the story that fellow students were presenting. Rather than allow the tragedy to be an opportunity to acknowledge that Alexandria, MN, has a culture of animus and hostility towards gay people, including their own children, those who should have protected Lance instead joined together to bully him after his death.
Lance had a strained relationship with his parents and was living with his grandparents at the time of his death. After his son killed himself, his father stepped up as spokesman for his estranged and now dead son and declared that it was a medical condition that killed the young man.
And although the coroner refuted this claim, Jon Lundsten was not interested in considering whether his son had been bullied or whether Jon’s own difficulties with his son had contributed in any way to Lance believing that life was not worth going on. So he stuck with his “enlarged heart” tale.
Besides diverting any need to talk about any icky gay stuff, this solved a more immediate problem. Declaring Lance’s death not to be a suicide allowed for his memorial and burial to be through the Catholic Church. Rev. Father Steve Binsfeld could officiate.
And Jon Lundsten had found himself an ally in his campaign of denial and deceit: Al Edenloff, the editor of the local newspaper. Over the next several days, the Echo Press, which calls itself “The Official Newspaper of Douglas County!” ran several stories on Lance’s death:
Throwing caution (and subtlety) to the wind, the first, on January 18th, was titled “18-year-old from Miltona, Minn., dies from medical condition”
According to preliminary autopsy results that were shared with the family, he died from cardiac edema, a condition caused by an enlarged heart.
There was no evidence that drugs or alcohol played any role in the death, according to a family member interviewed by the newspaper. The family was told that it would be six to eight weeks before complete toxicology results are determined.
This was a pure fabrication. But on the 21st, that story was expanded and renamed “School copes with loss of 18-year-old“. It repeated the “preliminary autopsy report” claims.
But across town, the television news was not going along with Jon Lundsten’s diversion. Instead, they ran a story on the reports of bullying, talked with the coroner’s office, interviewed a gay former student from Jefferson, and exposed the truth that Jon Lundsten, Al Edenloff, and Terry Quist wanted to keep hidden.
And fellow students who saw through all the denials began to band together, insisting that if the adults wouldn’t protect gay kids, then they would do what they could to help. Being of the social media generation, they used Facebook to not only expose the lack of concern of the adults, but also to reflect on how they could work together to address bullying.
This was certainly not the message that reflected well on the adults. Rather than have media interest in Lance’s death quickly die off as a tragic tale of a young man cut down early by a heart condition, the story began to grow as one about callous administrators who refused to take responsibility for their own actions. Even worse, the public was becoming aware that the school board’s decision not to protect gay students could lead to death.
So Edenloff went into crisis mode, writing an editorial that again denied that Lance had broken under
Alexandria’s intolerance and the lack of support in his family and his school. Seeking to keep the city and the school from being portrayed as “a backwoods little punkwood town”, he went on the attack against those students who dared to make a difference.
Calling his scold piece “Editorial – Lessons from the death of an 18-year-old”, Edenloff began with a lecture:
Don’t believe everything you read on Facebook. And don’t post things on the Internet that you’re not entirely sure of when it comes to someone else’s life.
And although by this time Edenloff had to know that Jon’s story was not being backed up by the medical examiner, he surged ahead with accusations and insinuations.
Unfortunately, whipped up by the Facebook frenzy, the distorted story of Lundsten’s death took on a life of its own. A TV station reported about the Facebook speculations and it snowballed quickly from there, getting reported by other media outlets as well – a sad case of media reporting what other media were reporting, even though it was untrue.
Today the toxicology reports came back.
Lance’s death was a suicide.
The mystery surrounding the January death of Lance Lundsten, the Miltona teen whose controversial death sparked a conversation about teen suicide across the nation, has now been revealed by the Douglas County Medical Examiner.
Dr. Mark Spanbauer confirmed Monday, March 7, that the teen’s manner of death was ruled suicide. The toxicology report from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and MEDTOX, determined the cause of death to be a mixed drug ingestion, according to Spanbauer.
“It was a mixed drug ingestion and suicide was the manner of death,” Spanbauer said.
The Echo Press decided not to cover this story.
UPDATE: At some point after we posted this commentary, the Echo Press ran a blurb noting the cause of death.
Denial over Lance Lundsten’s death
January 25th, 2011
Suicide can devastate a family, especially when the one who takes their life is a youth with great potential. Some of those left behind wonder what they could have done differently, what they contributed.
But it is not unusual for other family members to find peace by adopting a position of denial and looking for any other possible explanation, a scenario in which they can be absolved of their self-imposed guilt. This might be by finding another culprit to blame (“her bad-influence friends”) or by simply pretending that the suicide never happened (“that was an accidental overdose”).
So I did not find it surprising that Lance Lundsten’s father had declared that Lundsten had not ended his own life but rather had died due a coronary edema brought on by an enlarged heart. According to the coroner this was simply not true, but undoubtedly the discovery of this incidental medical condition allowed Lance’s father to concoct an alternate reality in which there was no blame or shame or regret.
But denial is not healthy, and there are times when it is appropriate to ask oneself, “Did I contribute to this, should I change?” And in the story of Lance Lundsten, I am finding more than a few, family and community alike, who are unwilling – or afraid – to look at themselves too closely to see what part they might have played in Lance’s death.
The coroner’s toxicology reports are not in and at this point we simply do not know the cause of Lance’s death. And even if suicide is determined to be the cause, it is not possible to identify which specific pressures were felt the greatest or what incidents contributed most to his state of mind. But we can readily identify some facts of Lance’s life that would be troublesome to most teens.
Lance’s family life was not without complication. Although his father has asserted his role as family spokesman, Lance actually lived with his grandparents and comments he made on his Facebook page suggest that his relationship with his parents was strained. Further, this tension appears to be due, at least in part, to religious differences, likely due to his sexual orientation.
We also know that the administration at Jefferson High School is not supportive of gay students. The school policies do not ban anti-gay discrimination or harassment, and fellow gay student Caleb Shafer reports that the school would not protect him from bullies. It is telling that District 206 Superintendent Terry Quist released a statement about Lance’s death that went out of its way to avoid any mention of Lundsten’s sexual orientation or bullying of any kind and suggested that the “respectful” way to “honor Lance’s memory” would be to ignore all of the concerns his friends have raised.
But the denial and refusal to consider Lance as who he was, rather than the person they wish he was, extends beyond his parents and his school. The community in Alexandria seems determined not to address whether their gay kids are being tormented and refuse to see Lance’s death as a means of introducing that discussion.
The local newspaper, aptly named the Echo, went so far as to run an editorial in which they repeated the father’s assertions, even though the coroner had disputed them, and chastised Lance’s classmates and the local TV news for suggesting otherwise. (Echo)
Before people started gossiping and drawing conclusions on the Internet, they should have stopped and considered the family. They should have asked themselves if they would have liked the same kind of unsubstantiated rumors swirling around about someone in their own family.
Unfortunately, whipped up by the Facebook frenzy, the distorted story of Lundsten’s death took on a life of its own. A TV station reported about the Facebook speculations and it snowballed quickly from there, getting reported by other media outlets as well – a sad case of media reporting what other media were reporting, even though it was untrue.
Some Jefferson High School students threatened a walk out, believing the school wasn’t taking the bullying issue seriously enough.
Anti-bullying groups were quick to pick up on the death, spreading the story further. U.S. Senator Al Franken called attention to the incident to drum up support for anti-bullying legislation. Images of Lundsten connected to headlines of bullying and suicide popped up all over the Internet – even on a website in France.
It shouldn’t have happened this way.
Although the editorial never once uses the word gay or mentions that Lance publicly identified as such, it isn’t too hard to figure out who the Echo means by “anti-bullying groups” that didn’t “consider the family.” And they clearly feel betrayed and angry at KSAX for daring to suggest that perhaps something is amiss in Alexandria. (CityPages)
It’s true that Lundsten’s death has not yet been ruled a suicide–toxicology test results aren’t expected back for more than a month. But the Echo Press has been insisting all week that Lundsten’s death wasn’t a suicide, without even bothering to pick up the phone and call the medical examiner. Isn’t that rush to judgment exactly what they’re accusing Lundsten’s classmates of doing on Facebook?
“Absolutely not,” Edenloff told City Pages today. “I’d much rather report what a family member said than a bunch of kids who didn’t even know what he was all about.”
Edenloff says the coverage by KSAX and the internet response to the story have painted Jefferson High School and the city of Alexandria unfairly.
“The school and the city have been portrayed as really backwards on this,” Edenloff says. “The idea that we’re a backwoods little punkwood town that doesn’t know how to deal with these issues is totally false.”
Suicide can devastate a community, especially when the one who takes their life is a youth with great potential. Some of those left behind wonder what they could have done differently, what they contributed.
Others, like Lance’s father, the administration of Lance’s school, and the local newspaper have adopted a position of denial. They don’t want to know whether they played a part. They would rather tell themselves pretty stories than consider what they could have done differently, what they contributed, or how they could change.
Lance Lundsten update
January 20th, 2011
More information is coming out about Lance Lundsten’s death, and some of it is contradictory. As is sometimes the case in these situations, answers are not easy.
Lance’s father, understandably, took an autopsy finding and clung to the hope that Lance’s death was natural (Herald)
Lance’s father called KSAX and said he received a call from the coroner saying Lance had an enlarged heart and died of a coronary edema. He said he believed it was not a suicide.
He also believed there were no signs of drugs or alcohol in his son’s system, but the toxicology report has not been finished according the medical examiner’s office.
However, the coroner has said that this was not the cause. (KSAX)
The preliminary findings in the autopsy of 18-year-old Lance Lundsten showed the teen did not die from an enlarged heart, according to Douglas County Medical Examiner Dr. Mark Spanbauer.
The teen’s heart was slightly enlarged, but that finding was a secondary finding to an undetermined cause, according to Spanbauer.
Lance’s will be determined by the medical examiner after the autopsy process and laboratory testing is complete, a process that may take weeks.
Meanwhile, another gay kid has gone on record about the atmosphere at Jefferson. (KSAX)
The death of 18-year-old Jefferson High School student Lance Lundsten caused several to speak out about bullying in Greater Minnesota schools. Nineteen-year-old Caleb Shafer said he was bullied from middle school through high school.
“I was suicidal,” Shafer said. “I was very depressed … I didn’t want to talk to anyone … I would cry myself to sleep.”
Shafer attended Jefferson High School at the same time Lundsten did.
The school district has responded – predictably – by pretending that the situation didn’t happen and that there is no bullying going on at all. (KSAX)
At times like this, people are trying to make sense of the loss. We are aware that statements attributed to unidentified students have been reported by the media. However we have no information regarding the source of or any factual basis for the statements. It would be disrespectful, as well as a violation of privacy laws for us to engage in speculation regarding the cause or circumstances of Lance’s death. Today, and in the days ahead, we need to pull together and honor Lance’s memory.
Missing from the four paragraph letter were the words “gay” and “bullying” and “suicide” and “problem” and “policy” and “correct” and ” avoid.” Nope. Nothing to see here, folks, move on along.
But they are going to offer counseling for those students who are having “a tough day.”
Although this story hasn’t, as best we can tell, seemed to much impact the administration at Jefferson other than perhaps some minor inconvenience, it has changed the perspective of one student. Alex Sonju, in his words:
This is the Truth
As most of you know, a kid in my school commited suicide due to bullying him about his sexual preferance.
I never thought it would be a reality. I’ve heard about suicide, and thought to myself “Wow, that’s horrible”, then went on with my normal day. But when someone in my own town, in my own school does it, it really changes my thinking.(found out it’s a heart condition, but i still feel exactly the same on this issue) It makes me think of how just a few words can change so many lives. To anyone I’ve ever said anything mean about, I truely am sorry. I don’t care if it was as a joke, or if I was serious. We’re all guilty of saying mean things. Joking or not. Because in turn, those jokes, cause death.
Now a days, bullying isnt the typical “give me your lunch money” or getting beat up at recess. Today’s bullying is much different. I know what it’s like to hear mean things. I’ve been called gay before, I’ve been called fat, I’ve been laughed at, I’ve been talked about. And to all those people that have done this to me, I forgive you. I hope with Lance’s story, it serves as a wake up call to everyone. Your friends might find it hilarious, you might get a couple high fives from them, but what are they gonna be doing when you tell them “I’m the reason someone killed themself! High five anyone?” No.
I pray to God that Jefferson will change from this. I hope that teachers won’t just sit by and stare anymore. I hope more kids will stand up. I know I will. I’ll do it for you Lance. I don’t care if I don’t like the kid they’re making fun of, or if I love them. I don’t care if they’re black or white. I don’t care if they’re gay or straight. I won’t care. I know it will take alot of strength, but I’d rather stand up for someone, then to see them go. And I hope you do the same.
Most of the time though, when you do confront a bully, they usually say “I was joking”. Yeah, well, sorry to say this, but suicide isn’t a joke. Either is any form of self harm. In fact, it’s the opposite of a joke. Some people say that self harm is a way to attract attention… well, it kind of is. It’s like they’re trying to tell people “look what your doing to me”. And it’s also trying to tell everyone else “I need help”. Most of the time, all they need is someone to talk to, someone to have trust in. I’ve been at some low points in life. I’ve been made fun of. I know what it’s like. The thing that would have helped me the most is easily someone to talk to. Just someone that will say “hey, how are you”. Just by talking to that one person, it shows that you care. So, that’s why if anyone, and I mean anyone, want’s to talk, about anything at all, PLEASE talk to me. I’d love to talk to you. I know I might not seem like the person that would be able to hold a serious conversation, but believe me, I can have deep heart to heart talks. If you ever want to talk, feel free to talk to me on chat, or message me.
Well, I could go on for hours, but I think I would bore you guys. I’m just trying to get across my point that bullying is serious, and if you guys ever need to talk, I am ALWAYS here for you. You guys are all loved, and your all amazing people, no matter what anyone says.
It’s really all so predictable. At some point school administrators have to act or accept the blame for their failure to do so.
January 17th, 2011
We’ve all seen dating ads that say, “Looking for White, Asian, Hispanic or Middle Eastern.” Those ads don’t need to tell you who they aren’t looking for, when you read the list you know exactly what is meant. You know who need not apply, who isn’t “their type”.
And when I hear the list of who is protected from harassment and discrimination and it runs merrily on with a list of everyone but the LGBT community, I know what that means as well. No one is fooled. Especially the kids.
This is from the student/parent handbook for Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Minnesota:
E. Verbal Assaults: Verbal assaults are abusive, threatening, profane, or obscene language, oral or written, toward a staff member or another student. This includes, but is not limited to, conduct which degrades people because of their race, sex, religion, ethnic background, physical or mental handicaps.
And “the majority of violations” of policy “that occur in the schools” include:
Assaults that are abusive, threatening, profane, or obscene whether oral, visual or written, toward a staff member or another student. This includes, but is not limited to, conduct which degrades people because of their race, sex, religion, ethnic background, physical or
If it’s religious, racial or sexual assault, then the Human Rights Officer is notified. But if it’s sexual orientation or gender identity then I guess no one cares at all. Or they certainly didn’t care enough to list it in their handbook.
On Saturday Jefferson High School Student Lance Lundsten committed suicide. (Dallas Voice)
According to his Facebook page, Lundsten was openly gay. On a Facebook memorial page in Lundsten’s honor, friends said that Lundsten had been bullied at school for his sexual orientation. Some students who knew Lundsten believed the bullying may have led to his suicide.
Look, this isn’t an isolated incident. In fact, I’m sick of writing this story. Over and over, changing the names but little else.
And again and again it’s the same pattern: a school that couldn’t care less, mean kids picking on the gay kid, frustrated parents and friends. And it’s not like we don’t already know what happens when you stick some gay kid in a tiny town where he or she is bullied and no one responds.
And they are all sooo surprised, sooo convinced that everything was just hunky-dory. As Principle Chad Duwenhoegger says on the school website:
We are very proud of our students. We have several leadership teams that provide a voice and an ability to create a culture and climate where all students feel comfortable and connected. Our students have taken ownership of Jefferson and strive to create an environment that is welcoming to anyone who enters our building.
I am so very sick of school administrators who do nothing or who assume that “it won’t happen here”, not with their lovely little good straight white Christian students in middle-America.
Well I have a message to the Principle Chads out there: Yes, it happens here. Right here where you made no effort to stop it. Right here where your policies said we’ll protect everyone except the queer kids. Right here where you are busy crafting a statement to release to the press which absolves yourself from any guilt over the fact that it was all so completely predictable.
Anoka-Hennepin School Board to parents concerned about bullying: You’re all liars
December 16th, 2010
The Anoka-Hennepin School Board has a unique approach to the rather serious problem of bullying and suicide in their district: deny that it exists. Although there have been nine student suicides in the past year and significant media coverage of first-hand reports of bullying, the School Board has chosen to set aside testimony from parents and students and instead rely on their paperwork to “discover” that none of the bullied students that killed themselves were bullied.
Monday night’s meeting of the Anoka-Hennepin School Board was a contentious one as the issue of bullying and suicide in the district again came up. The state’s largest school district opened an investigation into the suicides of nine students over the past year — some by students who were allegedly bullied for their sexual orientation — and said that it found no evidence that any of the nine were bullied. Students and parents criticized the district for its statement — at times the conversation devolved to shouting — while district officials said there’s not much they can do if students and parents don’t report incidents to the schools.
No one – not one living person affiliated with these schools who has even the slightest smidgen of honesty and decency – is unaware of the fact that gay kids are being tormented in the Anoka-Hennepin School District. But the School Board seems determined not to know about it. (Minnesota Independent)
Over the last 18 months, the district has been at the heart of the debate over LGBT-bullying. In late 2009, a high-profile investigation by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights found that two teachers in the district conspired to harass a student they thought was gay. The teachers went on leave, and the district paid $25,000 to the student.
Then, in July, the suicide death of gay 15-year-old Anoka student Justin Aaberg sparked an uproar. Parents, teachers and students held a series of press events and gave testimonials before the school board where advocates said that as many of four students took their lives at least in part because of bullying.
Carlson said that these statements by students, staff and parents at school board meetings weren’t truthful based on data from the district’s student services department.
“None of the suicides were connected to incidents of bullying,” said Supt. Dennis Carlson
“As we all try to heal from the pain of these deaths the continuation of inaccurate information is not helpful,” he said. “Once again we have no evidence that bullying played a role in any of our students deaths. In a few instances, people told the school board and district leaders that employees stood by while a student was bullied. These statements are also not true. We have no evidence of that occurring.”
Nor are they likely to get “evidence.” Because a policy actively discourages students from reporting bullying based on sexual orientation and teachers from discussing it.
From 1995 until February 2009 (yes, last year), the School Board policy was to ban teachers – including health staff – from referring to homosexuality “as a normal, valid lifestyle.” In 2009, this policy was changed for the better:
“Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations. Anoka-Hennepin staff, in the course of their professional duties, shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation including but not limited to student led discussions.”
However, this is still well understood by teachers to continue to mean “don’t talk about this.” Any mention that Michelangelo was homosexual, or Alan Turing, or Harvey Milk, for that matter, was not “neutral.” So rather than risk punishment, teachers are forced to pretend that gay people don’t exist.
But worse, teachers assumed that stepping to stop anti-gay bullying – or even saying that such bullying was bad – was not “neutral” position. And, as Focus on the Family and other anti-gay activist groups have made clear, any opposition to anti-gay bullying is labeled “the homosexual agenda.” Nor did the district’s anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies include any mention of sexual orientation.
All of the discussion about not tormenting gay kids was “best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations” like the Parents Action League where it can be augmented with such messages as gay people choose to be gay, are pedophiles, are rife with horrible diseases, and die 20 years before good wholesome real people. And besides, the blame for the suicides is “a continuous onslaught of pro-homosexual diversity”, anyway.
So bullying is rampant. And teachers were left with no message from the School Board that they should stop it and a more than subtle hint that they should not get involved.
Nor are students likely to report it themselves. As one teacher told the Independent “any mention of homosexuality is supposed to cause the teacher to make a referral to the counselor or school psychologist.” Rather than be protected, the kid is presumed to need mental health advice.
Finally in October of this year, after fiery denunciations of the Board from the parents of dead children, the Board revised their anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies to list protected classes, including sexual orientation. But they angrily refuse to change the “neutrality” policy that silences any reference to gay people at all.
And the Board has dug in its heels and is absolutely refusing to acknowledge that anti-gay bullying really exists or that it is part of the problem of suicide in their district. The bullied children didn’t fill our the right paperwork, you see, so therefore it didn’t happen.
And that is enough for the Anoka-Hennepin School Board.
An obvious but necessary report about depression
December 6th, 2010
One of the tools used by those who deeply desire to make your life more stressful and difficult are statistics about depression. Because, yes, gay people suffer higher levels of depression.
And while it’s pretty obvious that being treated with contempt by the government, many families, more than a few churches, about half the politicians, and a whole lot of society would certainly seem like a cause for depression and a threat to mental health, anti-gays would like society to believe that homosexuality is inherently a cause of mental illness, if not a mental illness itself. They argue that somehow homosexual behavior (because “no one is really gay”) is so obviously against “natural law” that the depression we feel is really guilt and shame over our deviance.
Now a new study provides evidence of the correlation between family support and mental health. (Time)
Now a study reveals for the first time the impact that a supportive family can have on the physical and mental health of gay, lesbian and bisexual children. Researchers led by Caitlin Ryan, director of the Family Acceptance Project, a research, education and policy initiative designed to better understand the role that sexual orientation has on family dynamics, found that teens from families who supported their sexual orientation were less likely to abuse drugs, experience depression or attempt suicide than those in less accepting families. The teens in the more supportive environments also self-reported higher levels of self-esteem and self-worth.
Oh, and as for “helping” your kids by trying to make them heterosexual… well, Exodus isn’t going to like this study much.
Ryan points out, for example, that parents who tried to show support by attempting to change their children’s sexual preferences — in order to help their children become more accepted in school and society — were instead perceived as rejecting their child’s individuality and sexual expression. “What we showed was that by trying to prevent a child from learning about their sexual identity or from being part of support groups, or by telling them they are ashamed of them or not talking about their sexual identity, these kinds of reactions are rejecting behaviors that are all linked to negative health and mental health outcomes in children when they become adults,” says Ryan.
Now those who believe that Teh Gheys are a threat to all that is good and dear will just ignore this study. They aren’t that much invested in reality to begin with, and they are quite suspicious of things that challenge the “Truth” that the have chosen to believe.
But this study will be quite useful to decent folk who aren’t really sure what to do. It lists specific responses – dos and don’ts – for how to keep your kid feeling supported and healthy.
Researcher Questions Intense Focus on LGBT Youth Suicide: Is it Time for a More Holistic Approach to Supporting LGBT Youth?
October 22nd, 2010
On October 21st, Ritch Savin-Williams, professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University, was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel about LGBT youth suicide and the significant attention the issue has received over the past several weeks. In the interview, Savin-Williams claims there is no “epidemic” of LGBT teen suicide and that attention to the issue may be stigmatizing the majority of LGBT youth who are, in fact, just as happy and healthy as their straight peers.
SIEGEL And what, if anything, is harmful about all this attention?
Prof. WILLIAMS: For me, first off, scientifically it’s not true. That is that, as a developmental psychologist, when we look at the wide population of youth who identify as gay or who have same-sex attractions, it appears to me when I look at the data that they’re actually just as healthy, and just as resilient, and just as positive about their life as are straight youth.
So from a scientific perspective, there is certainly no gay suicide epidemic. But the more problematic aspect for me is that I worry a great deal about the image that we are giving gay-identified youth.
Savin-Williams is a noted researcher and published author. He isn’t a right-wing hack with an anti-gay agenda hiding behind a faux academic mask.
Rather, much of his work has focused on the experiences of LGBT youth, the resilience factors present in their lives that enable them to thrive in anti-LGBT climates, and the new ways LGBT youth are assimilating and expressing their identities, often without adopting the labels used by established LGBT culture. (For more, see his book The New Gay Teenager).
When asked in the interview about the differences between reported research confirming that LGBT Youth are significantly more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers and his own conclusions, Savin-Willams claims that those results may be skewed by lack of representative samples:
…As we get a more representative sample of youth who identify as gay, who have sane-sex attraction, what we discovered is that difference begins to narrow considerably. So, do we emphasize this kind of difference, group difference, or do we begin to say, well actually it’s not quite as bad as we have portrayed it to be , or at least as how the medical sciences, the mental health providers and research, and the public policy people have said.
While many academics are just as quick to point out limitations of research on LGBT people – an issue often discussed here on BTB – Savin-Williams seems to stand nearly alone in his conclusions that life for LGBT teenagers is not that bad. He admits that it is possible to “cherry pick” studies that support either conclusion about LGBT youth, but for him it is more about the strategy and message employed by those working to support and protect them.
Do we solely focus on the cohort of LGBT youth struggling the most? Or, should we broaden our attention to the larger proportion of LGBT youth who are healthy, well-adjusted, and not suicidal?
In the interview, Savin-Willams concludes:
Most gay youth – how many gay youth? I would say 90 percent – are actually doing quite well. They are not depressed, They are not anxious. They are not attempting suicide. They are really quite ordinary adolescents.
On the surface it may seem like this interview is fodder for anti-gay leaders’ efforts to discredit research on LGBT populations and absolve themselves of responsibility for the affect the homophobic society they create has on young people.
However, Savin-Williams is simply trying to get us to look at the “other side” of the data often cited when we are confronted by tragic incidents of LGBT youth suicide.
For example, in 2007 the American Journal of Public Health published the results of a study of over 14,000 youth ages 18 to 26 who participated in the federal National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. Nearly 5 percent of youth who identified as LGB in the study reported attempting suicide compared to 1.6 percent of non-LGB youth. In other words, LGB youth were over three times more likely to attempt suicide – certainly cause for alarm.
However, approximately 95 percent of the LGB youth in the study did not report that they attempted suicide.
This is not merely a matter of semantics. There is a critical need to examine the lives of the overwhelming majority of LGB youth who are not suicidal. The goal is not to be critical of the focus on youth in despair. Rather, a better understanding of the factors and circumstances that support resilience and health in the lives of LGB youth will help us further support and decrease the prevalence of suicide for those most in need.
Still, I personally struggle with trying to balance focus on the lives of LGBT youth when confronted with the seemingly never-ending, heart-breaking stories about those who have completed suicide.
More than 15 studies have consistently shown that gay and lesbian youth attempt suicide at higher rates than their heterosexual peers (see: Kitts, R. L. (2005, Fall). Gay adolescents and suicide: Understanding the association. Adolescence, 40(159), 621-629.) Clearly LGBT youth suicide is widespread, even if “epidemic” is not the appropriate word to describe it.
To further explore this struggle, I took a closer look at Savin-Williams earlier research, in which he hypothesizes that LGB youth who participate in studies through their connection to programs at LGBT community centers or who are willing to identify as LGB on a government survey may be at higher risk for suicide than the population of LGB youth as a whole.
Additionally, he points out that many of the surveys used to asses suicide risk do not ask questions that differentiate between reported and more serious suicide attempts, such as those that are life-threatening and require medical attention.
In support of his assertions, in 2001 Savin-Williams published the results of a study of 226 youth ages 17 to 25 recruited at introductory human development and sexuality college courses, which though small may have provided a more representative sample than participants recruited at LGBT community centers and youth programs.
While he did find that the LGB men and women in his study were more likely to report past suicide attempts, the magnitude of difference decreased when only “true” and “life-threatening” attempts were considered. For example, lesbian, bisexual and heterosexual women reported the same incidence of life threatening attempts (3 percent).
However, gay or bisexual men were still significantly more likely to report a life-threatening attempt (6 percent) than heterosexual men (0 percent).
In 2005, a study of 528 LGB youth in the New York City metro area incorporated some of the critiques of Savin-Williams and other researchers concerned about the impact of research design. While nearly 33 percent of the LGB youth in that study reported a past suicide attempt, less than half (15 percent) reported “serious” attempts, about half of which required medical attention. (See D’Augelli, A. R., et. al. .(2005, December). Predicting suicide attempts of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 35(6), 646-661).
The researchers compared these findings to comparable epidemiological data from New York City, which showed that approximately 11 percent of high school students reported planning suicide. They concluded that, when making a reasonable assumption that many of the attempts reported in these epidemiological data were not serious, LGB youth still attempt suicide at higher rates than heterosexual youth, even if only attempts that are serious and life-threatening are considered.
What should we conclude based on this analysis and should our approach to the needs of LGBT youth change based on Savin-Williams’ critique?
First, there is an overwhelming preponderance of evidence that LGB (and T, though there is a need for more quantitative research) youth attempt suicide at higher rates than their heterosexual peers. Yes, the magnitude of that difference may decrease when more representative samples are studied and when only attempts that are “serious” or “life-threatening” are considered. However, we should continue to focus attention and resources on creating socio-political pressure and demanding appropriate policy change that addresses this threat to the health and well-being of America’s youth.
Second, the goal of reducing the incidence of LGBT youth suicide would be even better served by researchers and activists focusing as well on the resilience factors that enable the majority of LGBT youth to be healthy and well-adjusted despite the anti-gay climate perpetrated by conservative religious political leaders and organizations. Caitlin Ryan’s research on family rejection is an excellent example of how we can identify critical factors that affect the health and well-being of LGBT youth and direct public policy and public education efforts accordingly.
Finally, in addition to focusing resources on creating long-term and large-scale social change, we need to concurrently support the growing number of programs and interventions that make it better for LGBT youth today. From Gay-Straight Alliances and other programs at schools that create community for LGBT youth to innovative efforts like the It Gets Better Project that connect youth to the millions of adults, gay and straight, who support them and have survived despite their own struggles, there are considerable opportunities to provide hope to youth who are struggling and continued support to those who are thriving.
We must never forget the youth whose lives were taken far too soon – their stories inspire us to work even harder. Concurrently, a more holistic approach to understanding the lives of LGBT youth will only enhance our efforts to support and protect them.
It Gets Better: President Barack Obama
October 21st, 2010
Whatever complaints and irritations the gay community has right now, this video matters. People do still listen to the President in a way in which they don’t listen to us bloggers and activists. Yes, people will make potshots at the speech. We’re pretty angry over DADT, DOMA and all the other areas of active discrimination that are written into our laws.
And as Alvin McEwen’s facebook friend said, “Heck, we can’t even thank someone without getting into an argument. ”
Well, I’ll go ahead and say it anyway: thank you Mr. President.
More Videos Like This One, Please
October 20th, 2010
From a straight (albeit sometimes questioning) Christian young man:
Warren Throckmorton responds:
This video is a direct challenge to far right observers who believe the distress felt by many young people is due to their sexual orientation. This young man identifies as straight and yet reports repeated harassment due to perceptions that he was gay.
I believe that observation is in rebuttal to people like Tony Perkins, who blamed the recent rash of suicides on the kids’ sexual orientation in a Washington Post op-ed. By the way, the controversey over that op-ed continues to reverberate.
A Fierce Advocate from Ft. Worth
October 14th, 2010
What do you say we elect Ft. Worth City Councilman Joel Burns our next President?
Perez Hilton Swears Off Bullying and Outing
October 14th, 2010
The September Suicides have heightened everyone’s awareness of the role that bullying and harassment has played in these tragedies. Some, like Focus On the Family and the Family “Research Council” have continued to oppose efforts to end anti-gay bullying and even shifted the blame for the suicides on the victims themselves.
But others are taking a more honorable route by looking at their own behavior to see if there’s anything they’re doing that is detrimental to the overall climate for gay people or anyone else who is different. Perez Hilton, who has been widely seen as something of a bully himself. He appeared on Ellen Degeneres’ program to say that the suicides has been “big wake-up call” call for him to turn over a new leaf.
Dan Savage Has A Bone To Pick With the White House
October 11th, 2010
Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” video project, launched in response to what is now being called the “September Suicides,” has been so successful that it has maxed out its YouTube channel at 650 videos. So now there is a dedicated web site where the project can continue to grow and flourish.
The phrase “It Gets Better” has become something of a catch phrase, and all kinds of people, famous and obscure, are helping to spread the message. It’s really great to see everyone rallying around the kids who really need to hear it. It’s become such a popular cause that even the White House has jumped on the bandwagon. To which Dan Savage responds in his typically demure way.
Seth Walsh’s “Daily Gauntlet”
October 7th, 2010
The mother of Seth Walsh, the Bakersfield-area teen who committed suicide in response to a daily dose of bullying in school, quietly mourns the loss of her son. She is refusing to speak to the public, as are Seth’s friends. But Seth’s grandparents have opened up, and the world gets to see just a bit of the incredible kid that we lost:
Judy and Jim still laugh over his tastes. He colored his hair blond on occasion and wore it with a long swoop that partly covered his eyes. Judy took him shopping once, and he went to the girl’s department to find pants with tapered legs. He added a vest, and a few months later she noticed the style everywhere.
…He was a gentle child, they say, who preferred to “relocate bugs” rather than kill them, who made sure his younger brother got his share of Easter eggs and who once apologized to a bed of flowers when he picked one and placed it on the grave of the family dog.
But the Walshes realize that Seth’s gentleness made him a target, and they recall listening to Wendy (Seth’s mother) as she shared her worries about Seth and what he had to endure.
The teasing and bullying began in fourth grade. At first it was because he was different — more comfortable with girls, not interested in sports, neither aggressive nor assertive — and then it was because he thought he was gay. Once classmates found out and the news spread, the abuse became more focused and cruel.
When Judy learned from her daughter that Seth was gay, she became concerned for the challenges that lay ahead of her grandson.
“Life is hard enough,” she says, “but this makes it harder.”
“Especially in a small town,” Jim says.
The Los Angeles Times’ profile is a must-read.
It Gets Better: From a BTB Reader
October 4th, 2010
Ben Mathis, who comments regularly on BTB, contributed this video to Dan Savage’s It Gets Better project:
I love BTB readers! You can contribute your message of encouragement and support here.
It Gets Better: From a Divinity Professor
October 3rd, 2010
Rev. Stephen Sprinkle is the director of field education and supervised ministry, and associate professor of practical theology at Brite Divinity School, which is an independent school affiliate with Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. He is also a gay man, and he has a message for you: It gets better.
Rev. Sprinke attended the memorial service for Asher Brown over the weekend and wrote about it for the Dallas Voice.
(By the way, my first contact with Rev. Sprinkle came when he emailed me to express his complements for one of my earlier endeavors, Testing The Premise: Are Gays A Threat To Our Children? That was back in 2005 or 2006, when I still wasn’t sure exactly where this web site was going — I was still working under the delusion that it would not be a blog. I was and remain grateful for Rev. Sprinkle’s words of encouragement and support.)
You can contribute your message of encouragement and support here.