Over the last several days, candlelight vigils throughout the world have protested and memorialized the death of Leelah Alcorn, the 17-year-old transgender girl whose suicide on December 28, 2014 galvanized the LGBT community to object to the conditions that lead to such tragedies.
They ought to be looking in the mirror.
Because Leelah’s death (she was struck by a semi-trailer after stepping onto a highway) grew directly out of the LGBT community’s longstanding rhetorical “suicide strategy,” which goes something like this:
We need same-sex marriage because gay teens will kill themselves if they don’t feel equal.
Society must overturn long-established views on homosexuality informed by religion, because saving lives is the highest virtue. Throw traditional morality out the window, there are lives at stake.
Since the elevated rate of gay teen suicide is a direct result of having been bullied by peers, we need so-called “anti-bullying” policies and laws that intimidate and silence people who don’t celebrate homosexuality.
One problem: There never has been a scientific study demonstrating that gay teens kill themselves at higher rates than straight teens.
Yes, much research has shown higher rates of suicidal ideations among LGBT teenagers – but that’s to be expected when their community leadership constantly evokes suicide as a normal teen reaction to same-sex feelings.
Beyond the evidence of increased suicidal ideations among gay teens, there is certainly research showing that LGBT teens attempt (not complete) suicide more frequently than other teenagers do. But many suicide attempts are cries for help, not evidence of an intention to actually stop living. Surely some gay teenagers who swallow pills or cut their wrists are primarily trying to communicate their anguish to friends and loved ones.
It’s logical that we don’t actually know whether LGBT teens kill themselves at a higher rate than other teens – how would we measure? Most teenagers have not announced a sexual identity yet. Nonetheless, the gay community and its allies treat the phantom statistical difference in suicide rates as self-evident. For example, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) referred to “the high suicide rate for LGBT youth” in introducing a 2011 bullying bill. And after Leelah’s death, sex columnist Dan Savage (known for bullying his adversaries in the name of fighting bullying) tweeted, “’We know that parental hostility & rejection doubles a queer kid’s already quadrupled risk of suicide.”
No, Dan, we don’t know that.
Those who spread these kinds of falsehoods often boldly claim that the LGBT teen suicide rate is “3-4 times higher” – and then refer to the 2010 “Safe at School” report of the National Education Policy Center. And yes, that report does claim a triple or quadruple suicide rate for LGBT teens – but its footnote refers to two studies about thoughts and attempts, not actual suicides.
Laughably, Wikipedia’s claim that LGBTQ suicide rates are three times higher than average provides just one link: to an article in the student-run newspaper at Western Michigan University (!), which – you guessed it – refers to attempts, not suicides. Yet gay advocates continue to claim that “research” shows something it simply does not.
Even solid evidence that gay teens kill themselves more often than straight teens would not necessarily mean that homophobia was the cause and that major social and political changes would save children’s lives. If prejudice causes suicide, why are white men 20 times as likely to kill themselves as black women? Should we change social policies that disfavor white men in the name of saving their lives?
Advocacy of LGBT rights through the suicide strategy isn’t just dishonest; it’s dangerous, too. Scientists have shown that “suicide contagion” kills vulnerable people, especially teens.
After the well-publicized suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, attributed to his being exposed as gay without his consent, many experts warned against focusing on his death and others like it. For example, Anara Guard, a senior adviser at the Boston-based Suicide Prevention Resource Center, told the Associated Press that other bullied teens may see Clementi’s suicide as “a somewhat glamorous ending – that the youth got lots of attention, lots of sympathy, lots of national concern that [he] never got in life.”
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention counted at least six other gay teen suicides after Clementi’s, which some experts have attributed to the publicity regarding the Clementi case.
Of course, every suicide is a tragedy. But using anecdotes about teen suicides to advance a political agenda is unfair, underhanded, and – in the case of Leelah Alcorn – deadly.
Leelah knew that the gay community habitually points to teen suicide as an impetus for social and political change. Sadly, she found meaning in trying to pitch in, hoping her death would further advance LGBT rights. From her suicide note:
The only way I will rest in peace is if one day transgender people aren’t treated the way I was, they’re treated like humans, with valid feelings and human rights. Gender needs to be taught about in schools, the earlier the better. My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say, “That’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.
I admit that pointing to LGBT politics as the single cause of her suicide would be as unfair as pointing only to transphobia or religious attitudes toward homosexuality. Virtually all suicides have many factors. A given teen’s suicide may have any of these elements: clinical depression, drug use, hormonal changes, knowing someone who committed suicide, the death of a close family member, financial trouble, and an impulsive or aggressive personality.
In fact, some of the reasons Leelah shared for her self-destruction sound like the anxieties of any teenage girl: “I’m never going to have enough friends to satisfy me. I’m never going to have enough love to satisfy me. I’m never going to find a man who loves me.”
Yet prominent members of the gay community have seemed almost gleeful that Leelah’s death provides one more opportunity to gather sympathy for their social and political goals, such as belittling traditional religion, creating pro-gay clubs in schools, and passing a “Leelah’s Law” banning the (admittedly reckless) practice of reorientation therapy.
Leelah’s death doesn’t call for a retread of pro-gay advocacy. Instead, it should be a sober opportunity for the LGBT community to re-examine its suicide strategy, lest they continue to encourage more Leelahs. And nobody wants that.
Follow David Benkof on Facebook or Twitter (@DavidBenkof) or E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.