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Making Darkness Visible: Seeing the Relationship of Laws, Homophobia, and Suicide

By fogcityjohn

November 15, 2010

And because no breeze stirs this caldron, because there is no escape from this smothering confinement, it is entirely natural that the victim begins to think ceaselessly of oblivion.

-- William Styron, Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness

I hadn't intended to write about the topic of suicide among lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth. The recent, horrific rash of suicides among young people bullied and harassed because of their actual or perceived sexual orientation has already received abundant attention, all of it well deserved. But as a lawyer, I'm disappointed that there's an aspect of this issue that hasn't been much discussed. To me, an important but unmentioned factor in this is the relationship between homophobic laws and the psychological health of LGBTs. So after a little background, let me see if I can shed some light on what I believe that relationship to be.

The issue of suicide is something I know personally, because many years ago, I myself was one of those bullied young people. Like them, I desperately wanted the torment I endured at the hands of my peers to end. I felt trapped and alone, because I had no one to whom I could turn for help. As the years stretched on, the taunting and physical and emotional harassment continued unabated, and I began to believe that death offered the only way out. I dreamed of ending my own life, thinking that in the grave I would at least find peace. Fortunately, I lacked the courage to actually perform the deed, and eventually I escaped the suffocating atmosphere of elementary and high school to find a better life.

Life got better for me, and I permit myself to believe that it will get better for most of the young LGBTs who are currently the subjects of physical and emotional abuse. To his enormous credit, columnist Dan Savage has tried to bring this message of hope to beleaguered and desperate LGBT youth with his "It Gets Better Project" on YouTube. The project has been so successful that some of our country's most prominent public officials -- President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi -- have recorded videos for it. While I commend all three of them for their efforts, I think that as public officials, they have a responsibility to address the role that legal discrimination plays in creating the homophobic and transphobic attitudes that motivate bullies and bring such despair to gender-variant youth.

Many people don't stop to consider how laws that require discrimination against LGBTs help create and perpetuate a climate of prejudice. I strongly believe, however, that laws like the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy (DADT) and the so-called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) play an important role in fostering bigotry against LGBT Americans. Let me explain why.

Viewed most broadly, laws are the formal expression of society's value judgments. They can be seen as a kind of official statement of position on a particular subject. Criminal laws, for example, define acts that are so unacceptable society will punish their commission. So when a government, be it federal, state, or local, enacts a statute mandating discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, that government declares -- in the most solemn and official manner possible -- that LGBTs are an inferior caste.

That's what DADT does when it declares that "[t]he presence in the armed forces of persons who demonstrate a propensity or intent to engage in homosexual acts would create an unacceptable risk to the high standards of morale, good order and discipline, and unit cohesion that are the essence of military capability." (10 U.S.C. § 654(a)(15).) The same is true of DOMA, which Congress passed "to define and protect the institution of marriage" by declaring that "the word 'marriage' means only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife." With that simple definition, Congress made gay and lesbian relationships strangers to federal law. Thirty-nine states have copied Congress and enacted their own prohibitions on same-sex marriage. Typically, voters have approved these bans by overwhelming margins after campaigns that have demonized gays and lesbians who want to marry as a threat to society.

If you're skeptical of the connection between laws and homophobia, you should know that there's research to back me up. Studies show that statewide campaigns to ban same-sex marriage are harmful to the mental health of lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. According to the American Psychological Association, anti-gay "legislative and initiative actions can also result in psychological distress for lesbians, gay men, and bisexual people. Immediate consequences include fear, sadness, alienation, anger, and an increase in internalized homophobia." And one study has found a correlation between same-sex marriage bans and an increase in rates of HIV infection among gay men.

Homophobic laws send a pair of dangerous and damaging messages to society at large. They tell LGBTs, including LGBT youth, that they are second class and less worthy than their straight peers. At the same time, they give the nod to bullies that it's okay to do violence to a group of people whom the law itself says are inferior. No one should be surprised, then, that violence against LGBT youth is the result, or that LGBT youth sink into despair and thoughts of suicide. When those entrusted with making laws enact statutes requiring discrimination against LBGTs, they help create and sustain an atmosphere of hatred and bigotry.

So while I welcome the encouraging words from President Obama, Secretary Clinton, and Speaker Pelosi, I want them to realize that words are not enough. If they are serious about combating suicide among our community's youth, then they must devote themselves to the task of dismantling this country's appalling system of legal discrimination against LGBTs. And doing that will require them to do much more than make videos.

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