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Bullying, depression, and suicide: “No-Man’s-Land” DADT?

November 6, 2010

An excellent site I ran across: The North American Aboriginal Two Spirit Information Pages & Other GLBT Resources — Focus: TS / GLBTQ Suicide. The subject index might be helpful.

It’s very, very rich in information and scary statistics.

I can’t say I’m surprised at this snippet from the index page:

The Paul et al (2002) results – random sampling of 2,882 American homosexually oriented males in 5 cities – indicates that Aboriginal GB males are about 3-times more at risk for having attempted suicide than white GB males (30% vs. 11%). They therefore may be up to 12 times (could be 10-times) more at risk for having attempted suicide compared to white heterosexual males.

For a good collection of studies and stats, see Bisexual, Gay, Queer Male Suicidality. Most of the focus there is on male-bodied people, in part because they really do seem to get harsher treatment in response to gender/sexuality variation and are more likely to be suicidal–and in part because that’s who has been studied the most.

Not too surprisingly, in the introduction there, we also learn that:

[R]ecent studies have suggested that self-identified bisexual males may be most at risk for experiencing a number of problems, including suicidality, compared to self-identified homosexual (moderate risk, relatively) or heterosexual (lowest risk) males. A part of this “Higher Risk” status may be associated with the recently socially constructed binary (heterosexual/homosexual) perception of sexual orientation (Tremblay & Ramsay, 2000) that positions bisexuality in “No-Man’s-Land.” (See 2003 PowerPoint Presentation)
This “No-Man’s-Land” status has also been used to describe biracial / multiracial people in ‘race’-obsessed America. Research presently being carried out is indicating that biracial / multiracial adolescent males are at greater risk for suicidality than mono-racial adolescents males of color who, in turn, are generally at greater risk for suicidality than white adolescent males. (See 2003 PowerPoint Presentation)

I didn’t reproduce the citation links. Yes, from the scarce data available, that also applies to girls. That PowerPoint presentation includes one interesting, explicit connection: ‘“No Man’s Land” Binary Situations, The “You Should NOT Exist” Factor & Suicidality’ (Throw in the extra Native ‘“You Should NOT Exist” Factor’, non-binary gender, etc…) Overall, shades of If the binary don’t fit, you’ve got to quit (confusing it with reality). Glad it’s not just me being crazy. And yeah, I’ll come back to that.

A tidbit from the suicidality page:

Commentary: Schools as social institutions are places where the word “gay” and synonymous words such as “fag,” “faggot,” and “poof” / “poofter” commonly used in Britain and Australia, are not concepts / words invented by children or adolescents. These words are given / taught to them by their society and young males in western countries have also used these words in highly predictable ways (Plummer, 1999, 2001), almost like all these boys had gone to the same school of homophobic abuse.

Yeah. I had to get a dark giggle at that one, just picturing something like the classic comedic DMV employee training school. Also see one I linked to in my last post, Nerdy Apple Bottom’s My son is gay, in which parents were bullying a 5-year-old kid and his mother over a Halloween costume. Wonder where they could be learning this stuff? The same school is teaching the “proper” usage of “dyke”, “dyke whore”, “butch bitch”, etc. Again, the situation is not great if you’re a female-bodied perceived-as-queer person, but the levels of abuse really are not the same. (This perception is also based on my own observations in a hostile environment; I caught a lot of shit, but not nearly as much nor as physically violent as what the guys were getting.) Any homophobic/gender-enforcing abuse is both miserable and dangerous, however.

From one excellent 2001 article linked from somewhere on that site: Shanta Rohse’s One in a million: What the statistics don’t say about depression among glbt youth (emphasis mine):

The preliminary report by the GLBT Wellness Project, the study that looks at the strengths and needs of glbt people in Ottawa, agrees. Depression is an issue for 62 per cent and feeling suicidal is an issue for 36 per cent of the teens. “I’m surprised it’s not higher,” says Stephanie Leclair. “And transgenders are represented all out of proportion in that figure,” adds Melanie Pfsztor. These figures are consistent with numerous other studies of gay and bisexual male youth, and the very occasional inclusion of lesbian and bisexual females, conducted since the 1970s that have consistently reported high attempted suicide rates ranging from twenty to fifty percent. This rate is three times more than their straight counterparts. The net result is that gay and lesbian youth account for one-third of all teen suicides.

Read the figures again. They are staggering. And they are met with equally staggering indifference by most mainstream professionals working with youth. Ask a teacher, a school counselor, a mental health professional or a pediatrician, “What are the risk factors associated with depression and suicide?” Their answer? Gender (but not as in transgender). Age. Marital status. Race. Religion. Social Class. Not a word about…Sexual Orientation.

I’d strongly recommend reading the whole article. (The second in that series: Knocking on the door: Fear and denial leaves some youth out in the cold. Third and final: Teachable moments: Giving students messages of support (“Shanta looks at being a gay or lesbian student and at [sic] diffusing homophobia in our schools.”–good luck!).)

The recent upswing in discussion of LGBTQ youth suicide, particularly after Tyler Clementi’s death, has had an unexpected effect on me. I guess I’m finally ready to deal with some of the PTSD directly connected to the gender and sexuality-excused bullying I experienced as a kid. (And “kid” is a particularly appropriate term, because it started in school by the time I was 7 or 8.) I honestly think I had avoided looking too closely at how much that particular flavor of bullying affected me. Partly because I was strongly encouraged not to look at that.

I had a problem with severe depression and suicidal urges, starting just about when I hit puberty and the sexualized bullying and abuse heated up (now that I think about it). I’m sure I did come across as weird in a lot of ways, especially since I am on the autistic spectrum. But most of the overt abuse followed two major themes: my ethnicity (mostly seen as “hillbilly trash”), and my gender performance/appearance. (Sometimes in combination–e.g., “Fat Hillbilly Dyke”.) And both were tolerated and even encouraged by adults in the screwed-up school system I was in. I regularly vomited in the mornings from anxiety at what I was going to face that day, from elementary school on. Later on, I kept having to run out of classrooms to throw up, and got into some trouble over it.

My best friend from third grade through college was a similarly gender- and sexuality-variant autistic person, which helped in terms of not feeling totally alone, but was used as an excuse for lots more homophobic bullying. I think her mother, who went into truly frightening fits of liberal homophobia when E. later came out as lesbian, also suspected we were lovers for a while. (Which also corresponded to the time she was keeping E. away from me outside school.)

From the Rohse article:

“Youth don’t have the experiences and inner strength to resist the hate,” explains Paul Hesse. “At twelve or thirteen you don’t have the words to fight back. You are set up to hate yourself,” adds Brian. This kind of situation factors into depression and even suicide in a way that being straight it never would.

A lot of people who ought to know better don’t understand or won’t admit this.

Eventually, when I was 13 or so, I started having serious meltdowns, and ended up in the psych system; I’ve written some about this before. I ended up diagnosed with depression (this kept getting added onto later), and was forced to go to counseling sessions for years and years, under threat of hospitalization.

They came up with all kinds of reasons I must be depressed with PTSD symptoms, which bore very little resemblance to the reasons I was really depressed with PTSD symptoms. They kept focusing on the distant past and possible abuse by my absent father, when I was dealing with abuse then and there. Admittedly, I had been immersed in a screwed-up environment for long enough that I was like a fish in water; I honestly couldn’t see any immediate reason that I should be depressed. I was ashamed to admit that I was “bad” and “wrong” enough that I attracted and incited all that bullying–and when I finally did say something about it, I got put in a teen social skills group. (That did not last long, at least.)

The only thing that did help with the bullying (gender/sexuality and ethnicity-excused) was transferring into a neighboring school district as soon as I was old enough to drive there–which one mental health professional insisted was “running away from my problems”. I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, over my two remaining years in school, but it never did. I got to know openly queer kids, but I was still afraid to admit that I might be one too.

When the bullshit counseling did not help, I got put on progressively heavier medications, with more and more diagnoses added on–basically to explain my being an autistic person from a different cultural background, with serious PTSD from ongoing harassment and bullying. Professionals kept getting frustrated that I wasn’t responding as expected, based on what they decided was Wrong With Me. It was all very personalized; it was all my own personal craziness. (See also Bruce Levine’s Liberation Psychology for the U.S.) I didn’t get out of this medicalized approach until I was almost 30, and finally recognized the clear environmental reasons for an episode of depression.

Living with more biphobia at home*, I was extra-afraid to seek out support I really could have used, not wanting to explain where I was going and what I was doing. (I also tried to get the mail in before anyone else could, whenever LGBT publications I subscribed to anyway were due.) I did not come out to my mother until 2006; I have only indirectly come out to other family members, still, not needing the aggro. (They have net access, and I’m not going to hide.) These things are not unconnected, at all.

It’s also not an unusual problem. The second Rohse article, Knocking on the door: Fear and denial leaves some youth out in the cold, makes some good points about why it can be hard to try to get support:

For those who have made the arduous trip to PTY’s front door, knocking on that door has to be one of the most difficult things they’ve ever had to do. At this point they know that faggot or dyke is the worst thing they can be; they have heard the taunts from their friends and read about themselves on the bathroom wall. And they have reacted by internalizing self-hatred or denying their sexuality.

Bingo. Thank goodness for the availability of information and support online. I never managed to go to any in-person events until I was in college and (briefly) not living at home, but there aren’t as many obstacles to finding validation and help online–anonymously, if need be.

What I’ve been leading up to: in the almost 15 years I was getting “treated”, never was a single word said about sexuality or gender. Never.** Nobody asked me about it, ever. (Hell, nobody asked about the content of the harassment and abuse, they were too busy victim blaming the “crazy” girl for provoking it.) I mean, it was like the elephant in the living room. Other people seemed to have no trouble at all picking up on my not doing gender the way they expected/demanded, even when I was trying desperately to do so–so that other people would leave me alone.

Yeah, that Shanta Rohse article hit me like several tons of bricks. It had somehow never occurred to me that this was even relevant; I guess I’ve still got too much influence from the medicalized crap. This stuff started over 20 years ago, but it will stay with you. Especially when a lot of people have a strange investment in ignoring certain problems, to the point that they’ll resort to gaslighting rather than admit that the problem exists.

If somebody had asked when I was 15, I’m not sure I would have been able to admit that, yeah, I’m not only attracted to men (even more fun with biphobia and bi erasure!)–much less that I don’t feel like either of the readily available gender choices. But nobody ever asked. They kept asking me about other things that fit their ideas of what legitimately makes Real People depressed, to the point of badgering and accusing me of lying when I honestly couldn’t answer.

It’s probably just as well, with the gender thing, or I might have gotten Gender Identity Disorder added on to the list, binary-dependent as the criteria are. More “necessary treatment”? No thanks! Still, and not too surprisingly, it was repeatedly commented on as a sign of my improving mental state when I did varying degrees of femininity drag for appointments–and a sign of depression/low self-esteem/other badness when I didn’t. We’re not talking poor hygiene or anything, we’re talking lipstick and nail polish. I saw one therapist who honest-to-goodness thought that losing weight (that I’d put on from meds!), “improving” my wardrobe, and generally taking more “care” with my appearance were important steps to improving my mental health.

But, for all this, I was lucky. I never actually attempted suicide. (And had more than one mental health professional assume I was lying about that and lack of substance abuse both, given the diagnoses I picked up along the way.) I knew that if I did try to kill myself, I needed to be sure that this was what I really wanted to do, because I really meant it and did rather a lot of research on how to ensure success. I am still pretty sure that, had I gone ahead and tried, I would be dead–and not talking about this stuff now. I’m lucky that I managed to ride things out and claw back some sense of worth and dignity, as an adult.

What about the kids who aren’t similarly “lucky”? How many kids are getting hurt, sometimes fatally, by adults determined to ignore that huge honking elephant, when they should know better? Especially mental health professionals who refuse to even think about abuse for being queer as a possible reason the kid in front of them might be depressed? What if these adults compound the problems with gaslighting? If you ignore the problem and apply another DADT policy, the “Problem” on two legs sometimes does go away. For good.

Feeling like an old fart again; I had really hoped that things would have improved more since 1990. If anything, the gender presentation/performance policing has gotten stronger and more rigid.

And sorry this got a bit long-winded. I haven’t talked about some of this stuff before.


* When I was 18 or 19, she looked at some personal papers she shouldn’t have been anywhere near, indicating that I might be bi. She went totally ballistic, and ambushed me as soon as I got home. Her conclusion? I must be badly psychologically warped by earlier abuse (which never happened in the first place). She would honestly have rather believed that I was batshit crazy in a way that scared her, than that I was bisexual. (Note that she was the one up in my face, yelling and screeching to the point I was afraid she was going to have a stroke.) She also made such horrible remarks about other people–including my friends–who were openly bi and their crazy confusion leading to promiscuity with precious little insight (bingo time!), that I actively hid after that. In 2006, I finally got fed up enough at one of her ignorant, hateful remarks about someone else that I told her I’m also attracted to some women. The response? “Did you really think I was so narrow-minded?!” Hmm…

The thing is, hideous as these personal examples are, this set of attitudes is far from unusual. Even among people who prefer to think of themselves as tolerant and enlightened. And yes, this kind of attitude is an excellent example of one place the idea of an inborn sexuality binary can lead. The only choice possible there is the choice to be “confused”, where the other person is projecting their own confusion (and frequently hostility) onto you.

Classic gaffe aside, my mom really did have openly gay and lesbian friends. I often wondered how they might react if they knew she considered them basically defective in a “they can’t help being born like that” kind of way. 😐

** Well, when I was doing a series of educational tests for learning disability assessment, one of the items my mother got in an interview was “Does your child behave like the opposite sex?” She asked them for clarification multiple times, and they couldn’t or wouldn’t explain what that was supposed to mean. She tried phrasing her question in multiple ways (including, “Do you mean, does she monopolize the remote control and frequently scratch her crotch?”–the humor fell totally flat), and the interview team just acted like she was crazy and probably being purposely obtuse. Note: nobody ever asked me anything like that directly. (I doubt I’d have known how to answer something phrased like that honestly, either!) AFAIK, that is the only time anything of the sort was mentioned.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 21, 2010 6:41 pm

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