Although none of the spate of teenaged students who tragically ended their lives in suicide in recent weeks as a consequence of anti-gay bullying and harassment called Chicago home. But the chilling stream of headlines revealing the circumstances leading up to the victims' deaths has nonetheless resonated deeply with the city's LGBT community.
And it is a tragedy with which Chicagoland is familiar. Shannon Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance ( ISSA ) , pointed out that in 2009, reports surfaced of at least two known cases of youth as young as 11 years old taking their lives for reasons related to anti-gay bullying in the Chicagoland area. It can be difficult to estimate how many other other incidents of bullying and harassment-related suicides don't make it into the headlines.
"This certainly is a local problem as well as a national one," Sullivan told the Windy City Times. "And that remains so until all our school personnel here in Illinois and elsewhere are trained and given the toolsand administrators make the commitmentto stop this."
Sullivan's group, founded in 2007, works to promote a safe and supportive environment for LGBTQ youth across the state through offering staff professional development, encouraging LGBTQ students to organize gay-straight alliances and advocating for queer-inclusive legislation on youth.
ISSA most notably advocated for two statewide bills specifically addressing anti-bullying and suicide prevention efforts geared toward LGBTQ youth. The bills, signed into law by Gov. Pat Quinn in late June, ramp up requirements for school staff to undergo suicide prevention training and specifically prohibit bullying based on a student's actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity. The legislation also created a 15-member task force overseeing bullying issues in Illinois schools.
While legislation is important, Sullivan said, it is only part of a daunting battle for LGBTQ youth advocates.
"What legislation cannot do is go into every school and work with the administration and personnel to encourage them to make a commitment to this issue," Sullivan adds. "It is incumbent on us to go back into the districts and work on changing the overall climate around bullying and harassment. We need to do a better job of taking care of our kids."
Part of the climate making ISSA and other groups' efforts toward protecting youth more difficult is pronounced opposition from conservative groups like the Tinley Park-based Illinois Family Institute ( IFI ) . When IFI learned of plans for an LGBT-inclusive development program sponsored by ISSA at Beye Elementary School in Oak Park earlier this year, the group initiated an e-mail campaign criticizing both Beye administrators and the ISSA.
Laurie Higgins, director of the IFI's Division of School Advocacy, wrote a scathing criticism, dated Jan. 14, of Sullivan's development program on the group's website.
"Concerned taxpayers, parents, future parents, and especially fathers, need to respond to this insidious attempt to capture the hearts and minds of children," Higgins wrote. "'Safe schools' initiatives are the Trojan horse for getting subversive theories on the nature and morality of homosexuality into our schools."
Dr. Kelly Ducheny, director of behavioral health services for the Howard Brown Health Center, said that kind of message contributes to the troubling environment LGBTQ youth face. While other groups at risk of being targeted by bullies often have families that prepare them for and protect them against stigma, gay and lesbian youth are left, more often than not, clutching to the "islands of support" offered by LGBT-affirming places like Howard Brown, the Broadway Youth Center and others.
"Those systems of support are not in place for most LGBT youth, so they're having to carve out surviving this kind of pervasive discrimination on their own," Ducheny told Windy City Times.
Ducheny hoped the tragedies will be heard as a "call toward action" for LGBT activists.
"We absolutely have to focus in on the environment we live in and change the norms that accept or tolerate discrimination, hate speech and hate action," Ducheny added. "We can't lose generations of our youth. Losing one is already too many, but this is really out of control. We've got to do something."
The recent tragedies also grabbed the attention of U.S. Department of Education and former head of Chicago Public Schools Arne Duncan. In a statement issued Oct. 1, Duncan called "all people of conscience" to "stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms."
"Whether it's students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion ... it is time we as a country said enough. No more. This must stop," Duncan wrote.
In response to the string of suicides, many community members turned out for a six-hour-long group video-making session for Chicago native, sex columnist Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project Oct. 3 at the Center on Halsted. Savage himself was on hand at the center as 25 videos for the project were filmed to be uploaded to the project's YouTube channel.
Activists in Chicago have also planned a vigil honoring the recent suicide victims for Friday, Oct. 8, at the Quad of DePaul University's Lincoln Park campus, located at the corner of Fullerton and Seminary. The vigil, scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., coincides with a nationwide week of action proposed by the Make It Better Project ( www.makeitbetterproject.com ) and ending with National Coming Out Day on Monday, Oct. 11.
The Make It Better Projecta collaboration between GLSEN, The Trevor Project, the Gay-Straight Alliance Network, Savage and a number of other groupsaims to rally support for the passage of the Safe Schools Improvement Act and the Student Non-Discrimination Act, two bills introduced in the House of Representatives to combat anti-gay bullying. Neither bill has, as of yet, advanced to the House floor.
Next week, Windy City Times will include a special section on gay teen suicide that will feature essays written in connection with "It Gets Better," the new YouTube channel launched by activist/columnist Dan Savage.
On Friday, Oct. 8, at 7:30 p.m., there will be a candlelight vigil at DePaul University in honor and memory of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, who committed suicide after being outed by his roommate. The quad is just south of Fullerton, two blocks west of the Fullerton el stop of the Red/Brown lines.
Chicago Vigil in Memory of Tyler Clementi and other suicide victims: Friday, Oct. 8 at 7:30pm at DePaul University Lincoln Park Quad