In my role at Human Rights Campaign (HRC) I read and hear stories about LGBT experiences from all corners of the country, every day, and can sometimes only skim them for the high level details. Recently, however, two stories emerging from North Carolina got my full attention.
First is the story of a Michael Morones, an 11-year-old boy in Raleigh, N.C., who was relentlessly teased and bullied for watching “My Little Pony,” a television show about empathy, respect and friendship. Michael is part of a growing number of male fans of “My Little Pony,” dubbed “Bronies.” His parents and close friends supported his passion for “My Little Pony,” but many of his classmates felt differently. His parents shared publicly that Michael often came home from school upset about being called “gay” by his classmates, and asked when it would stop. They describe Michael as “not the type to complain about the bullying,” but it clearly got the better of him. Michael tried to hang himself on his bunk bed. His mother found him just in time, but he is unconscious, clinging to life, and expected to have significant brain damage—he is an 11-year-old child.
The other story is about 17-year-old Blake Brockington, a senior in Charlotte, N.C., who is breaking down barriers at East Mecklenburg High School. Blake is transgender and just won his school’s vote for homecoming king. Blake is hoping to set a positive example and pave the way for other students who struggle with their identity. Blake did not have an easy road—when he first came out as transgender, he faced harassment from fellow students (mostly male), and was treated poorly by school counselors. And even worse, he was rejected by his father and forced to move out of his home and into foster care. Today, Blake is receiving tremendous support from his peers and is mentoring younger transgender students. He credits one particular teacher, his social worker, foster parents, and doctors and therapists who have helped him overcome the myriad challenges he faced in adolescence. Next fall, he’ll attend the University of North Carolina-Charlotte where he intends to study mathematics with a minor in music and education.
These two stories with remarkably different outcomes—one tragic, one uplifting, force us to consider what went wrong, what went right, and how we as youth-serving professionals should be engaged in conversations and practices to ensure more of the best possible outcomes for all youth.
Michael had love and support from his immediate family—a key ingredient for thriving, but he was not protected at school. We know that suicidality is complex, and typically a response to multiple life stressors. It was likely not anti-gay bullying alone that led Michael to take this desperate step, but it certainly put him over the edge and is more than any 11-year-old—any child, anywhere, should have to endure. Research suggests that boys 11 to 17 who experience anti-gay bullying are at a higher risk for suicide than those bullied based on other biases. Why, in our culture, is being gay or perceived as being gay, or “not masculine enough” cause for taking your own life? Where did his classmates hear the words “gay” being used as a put-down, and how many teachers, counselors or parents overheard these slurs and chose to stand by?
We didn’t need another wake-up call, so let’s make this the last and be sure that we are paying attention to the words our children use, to how they speak to one another, and not turn a deaf ear to anti-gay (or any other bias-based) teasing and bullying. The next time you hear the word gay tossed out as a slur, act as if the person being targeted is as vulnerable as Michael was on his last conscious day.
Blake points to a few key adults, including helping professionals, who supported him and shielded him from negative attention. He recently felt the immense support of peers who cheered him on as he achieved his dream of being homecoming king. Blake easily could have had the same fate as the young boy in Raleigh, and we may never know what specific person, or experience made the difference for Blake. We know that LGBTQ youth face extraordinary vulnerabilities and challenges, and every opportunity we have to show support, kindness, empathy and advocacy can be a life-saver.
Later this week, HRC’s Foundation is launching Time to Thrive, our inaugural annual conference promoting safety, inclusion and well-being for LGBTQ youth. More than 500 educators and youth-serving professionals will attend this event in Las Vegas, spending three days immersed in learning new skills and competencies for enhancing emotional well-being, family connection, academic achievement, social skills and optimism among LGBTQ youth. As we approach Time to Thrive I feel that these two stories are a call to action for all of us who interface daily with children and youth — social workers, counselors, coaches, mentors, educators, parents — to push ourselves one step further to speak up and stand up, to tell young people it is not OK to cut someone down because of their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, and to support and encourage young people who are brave enough to come out as LGBTQ.
Ellen Kahn, M.S.S., is the director of the Family Project at the Human Rights Campaign, America’s largest civil rights organization working to achieve lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.