Gay teens -- gay males, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people -- are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers. For all youths, those aged 16-24, suicide is the third leading cause of death.
Gay teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens. Young gay people in grades 7-12 are twice as likely as straight young people to plan suicide and four times more likely to make a suicide attempt that requires medical care.
Growing up gay is very, very difficult for most people. As Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America reports, gay teenagers are at high risk of developing mental illness because of the "hatred and prejudice that surround them, not because of their inherently gay or lesbian identity orientation." That is the crisis referred to in the book's title.
Gay youth usually suffer daily harassment at school. In fact, 45 percent of gay males and 20 percent of lesbians report being the victims of verbal and physical assaults in high school specifically stemming from their sexual orientation. Of gay students, 28 percent drop out of school; that figure is three times the national average for heterosexual students.
Gay teens face prejudice of the most damaging psychological kind from religious authorities who preach that being gay makes you a "sinful" person, an "abomination" and a pariah.
Gay people confront oppression because of what they are, not what they do. And being gay, as Crisis firmly asserts, is not a lifestyle but an inborn characteristic, like eye or skin color, that isn't changeable. Homosexuality is a variant of normal, just as bisexuality and heterosexuality are.
Crisis demonstrates the "personal, social and religious pain and trauma of growing up gay in America," as the book's subtitle suggests. Crisis details this subject by presenting brief stories about growing up gay by 40 gays, some of them famous, such as tennis champion Martina Navratilova, Episcopal bishop Gene Robinson and actor Richard Chamberlain (but a dearth of women and people of color). All of them experienced the same depression, anxiety, loneliness, fear, hopelessness and thoughts of suicide -- elements of severe mental illness -- as they were growing up, before they were able to come out.
Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America. Edited by Mitchell Gold with Mindy Drucker. Austin: Greenleaf Book Group Press, 2008
Only the current college students who tell their stories reveal the strides that the gay community has made over the years: they became proud of who they were at an early age and fight oppression through activism in gay rights organizations.
What all 40 writers have in common is that they successfully overcame their miserable childhoods to become happy, well-adjusted adults who welcome their gayness and have been able to come out to everyone in their lives.
Crisis addresses the people who can make or break a gay youth -- educators, employers, politicians and the media -- but especially parents. Of the 40 writers, those who had the least trouble developing healthy attitudes toward being gay are those whose parents were accepting and supportive when their children first grappled with their sexual orientation, a period that can occur any time from elementary to high school and beyond.
The teenagers who suffer the most growing up are those whose parents are hostile to their sexual orientation and disown them, throw them out of the house or insist that that they undergo therapy to "cure" them of their "affliction." Many of these young people turn to drugs, alcohol and cigarettes, the use of which is more common among gay than straight youth and starts at a younger age, according to the National Mental Health Association's Web site. Of homeless young people living in the streets, a large percentage are gay, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Crisis also addresses youth. The young people who write in the book speak out, organize and thus stand as important role models for teen readers.
Crisis includes resources, a list of organizations to call and another list of organizations to avoid calling. Many organizations with encouraging names (such as the American Family Association, Family Research Council, Free to Be Me and Love in Action) take the position that homosexuality is a disease that can be cured, and they usually offer some type of "reparative therapy," which applies unscientific, harmful, futile techniques that are supposed to transform a gay person into a straight one.
Everyone, gay or straight, Crisis affirms, is responsible for the treatment of gays in our society. Only through education and legislation (on hate crimes and discrimination in the workplace, for instance) can we hope to end the nightmare of growing up gay and put an end to gay teens having to live a lie before those they care about most; "to fear the bullies at school who will find out [their] deepest, darkest secret"; and to spend their adolescence -- always a challenge to negotiate even for heterosexuals -- interacting with adults who maintain they're "sinful or sick or wicked."
Crisis is as much for heterosexual adults as it is for gay teens and the others. As with all other oppressed groups and their oppressers, gays won't achieve liberation without alliances between them and progressive members of the oppresser class. In other words, without the support and fellowship of sympathetic heterosexuals, progress in gays' lives will face impossible impediments.
Linda Greene can be reached at .