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What If It Doesn’t Get Better? Queer and Aboriginal Youth Suicide
My mother says that when I was born she was given more tiny dresses than I could ever wear because they didn't have flowers at her father's funereal and, "people wanted to do something." My grandfather was a suicide. Sometime in the months between my conception and birth he walked then swam straight out into the salt water at Willows beach and never came back. They identified the body by the tattoos on his arms.
Right now in North America there seems to be an epidemic of suicide, not grandfathers but teenage boys who are gay or whose peers think they are. It makes me sick, my people, my younger brothers are dying by their own hand. As an out dyke with access to middle-class resources like a laptop and the internet, my e-mail and Facebook page are deluged with links to stories of queer kids who have killed themselves and to public responses. Responses like sex columnist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, a YouTube channel where LGBT adults are invited to post videos telling of their own experience and survival to encourage youth who are bullied and harassed or pop singer Cyndi Lauper's "Give a Damn" campaign where celebrities speak out against violence and discrimination experienced by Queers, especially youth.
The messages in my inbox come from mostly by white, progressive friends and are often accompanied by some declaration like, "LGBT youth have the highest suicide rate of any group." This statement that makes me profoundly uneasy, I want to say, "but that's not true." In Canada, where suicide is the second leading cause of death for everyone aged 10 to 24, the Aboriginal youth suicide rate is somewhere between 4 to 6 times that of their peers-it is highest for young men--for LGBT youth the suicide seems to happen at 3 to 4 times the rate of their peers. Figures for the US show roughly the same proportions with a slightly lower suicide rate overall. But I am afraid that pointing this out will be heard as an insult on Queer communities' grief or a white woman talking bad about Aboriginal people.
Statistics are incredibly difficult to find and to compare for a host of reasons. The suicide rate is likely underestimated both for Aboriginal and LGBT youth. Many suicides (overdoses, shootings, automobile deaths) are recorded as accidental. Non- status Aboriginal people and those living off reserve are not counted in some studies. Prisoner suicide rates are higher than the rest of the population and Aboriginal people are disproportionately incarcerated in the US and in Canada. Aboriginal people make up a smaller proportion of the population than queers and of course there are Aboriginal kids who are Two Spirited, gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual and gender queer. And after all, how do you know if a dead kid was gay or if he just walked swishy?
I have no interest in some mathematical pissing contest over who is dying fastest, but the fact remains that Aboriginal kids are dying by suicide at a rate equal to or exceeding that of queers and nobody is flooding my inbox with pictures of their beautiful dead faces.
Aren’t we, me and my friends, the nice white liberal homos who care deeply that kids are dying, kids that could have been any one of us. Aren’t we participating in some kind of a whitewash when we remain ignorant or silent about the death of aboriginal youth?
Obviously being born Queer or Native or both doesn’t make you weak or flawed or predisposed to suicide. And even when substance use and family mental-health are factors, and God knows they were in my family, internal factors are not all that contribute to suicide. For Queer and for Native youth, external and systemic factors--living in a situation of pervasive violence, hatred, slander, abuse, indifference, and danger with no hope of escape--lead some to take their lives.
Some of the e-mail messages I get about gay kids dying are about sharing information among the like-minded. Some decry the lack of accountability for bullies and schools and education systems that allow children to be terrorized. Others, like the "It Gets Better" project, call on adults to reach out to kids with the message that if they can find support and endure, they will emerge into a wider world where they will find love, safety, and acceptance. When children are dying all of these seem inadequate.
Sharing information is not a substitution for action.
It is true that the tyranny of highschool doesn't last forever, nor does the trauma and drama that everyone experiences in adolescence-but it seems fundamentally flawed that what we are calling queer kids to do is hold on until the privileges of adulthood to kick in, and for some, the greater privileges of race, class, mobility, and education. Love, safety and acceptance should not be privileges.
And what if it doesn't get better? For Aboriginal youth, the external and structural factors that contribute to youth suicide don't go away after high-school. Aboriginal people have some of the highest poverty, lowest literacy, and highest unemployment rates, the most new cases of HIV, staggering numbers of children apprehended from their families, greatest chance of living near environmental toxins, highest rates of sexual violence. On nearly every reckoning of social good, Aboriginal people come last or near last, but in white queer circles I hear precious few voices crying out for accountability for the structural bullies and racist systems that make this so.
This is not a carefully crafted argument, or a complete analysis of all the issues but it seemed more important to speak now than to get it exactly right. And my prayer, because I do pray, is that the grief and outrage of people like me (educated queers, white "progressives", facebook time-wasters) lead us to action for change, not perpetuating harm. Like my grandfather's friends and neighbours who started this dyke's life with a closet full of tiny frilly dresses, "people want to do something." My desperate hope is that this powerful outpouring of feeling, for what we have suffered and what so many children are suffering, can lead us to acknowledge, to honour, and to follow the leadership of Indigenous people, people for whom an epidemic of youth suicide is only one of the assaults against which living is an act of daily resistance.
Ours are not the only children dying.