The spate of gay teen suicides this past September has opened a floodgate of fear, worry, and anger. Parents, teachers, and students all across America are wondering why it happened, whose fault it is, and what we can do to stop it.
Pushed to the brink by anti-gay bullies and aggressive acts of homosexual harassment, teens like Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, 13-year-old Seth Walsh from Tehachapi, California, and 19-year-old Zach Harrington from Norman, Oklahoma, ended their own lives rather than suffer hatred and humiliation at the hands of peers, classmates and school administrators who seemed to do nothing at all to protect them.
Gay teen suicide has since become a spotlight issue in the media, sparking increased awareness of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender issues, and spawning a celebrity-studded, anti-bullying campaign in which such gay and straight-allies as Ellen DeGeneres, Sarah Silverman and Tim Gunn assure GLBT youth that “it gets better.”
And it does. And it will. But the tragic fallout of gay teen bullying is also a jarring wake-up call to the overarching problems that have long plagued teenage boys—gay and straight—and made them particularly vulnerable to a collective sense of loneliness, isolation and despair.
Primarily, I want to speak of loneliness because it’s a recurring theme that cuts throughout teenage boyhood culture in America. When I was writing my book, “The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw, Emotional World of Male Teens,” I met countless boys from all walks of life that felt as though they were all alone. For them, loneliness was a pox upon male adolescence.
Nobody understood them they lamented, but nobody was interested in what they had to say. Their parents tried, but they too often compared themselves to when they were kids, even though the lives they were living were drastically different. The parents weren’t open to admitting that they don’t know what it’s like to be young -- not now anyway -- where cyber bullying and sexting provide a maelstrom of overwhelming social distractions.
In the outside world, in books and in movies, male teen stereotyping had sullied these boys’ reputations. Their silence was misinterpreted. They were blasted for being insensitive, cold, and cruel when in reality they were emotional sieves, romantic even.
When it came to broken relationships, the boys that I met did not suffer rejection or heartbreak lightly. They wanted love, just like everybody else. They felt frustrated, sad and confused. They felt alienated in their despair. “There aren’t any guys out there who get me,” was a common refrain. “I’m different. I don’t know any boys that are like me.”
I spoke at length with an 18-year-old struggling with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. For the longest time he couldn’t talk to anybody about it, lest they think he was “crazy.” He’d walk across bridges, peer down at the concrete below, and thought often of killing himself to escape his pain and embarrassment (according to statistics, boys between the ages of fifteen and nineteen are four times as likely to die by suicide than girls).
I interviewed a boy diagnosed with severe psychiatric behavioral problems that was erroneously pegged a drug addict by school administrators because of the way he acted. As a result, he lost trust in teachers, became deeply depressed and had given up on trying to make friends. I met a gay teen that went through a period where he slept with guys he didn’t like. “I only did it with them because I was lonely,” he explained.
All the boys, without exception, at one time or another, felt like they were living in their own private world. Their schools encouraged cliques (often unwittingly), they told me. Even if they were in the popular crowd, they still felt like outcasts.
When I informed the boys that I’d met that there others who were a lot like them in so many different ways, some were so surprised they went slack with disbelief. One brightly suggested that I throw a party where they could hang out and get a chance to know one another without the conflicts and constructs of school. Perhaps they could break down barriers.
We might never know exactly why Tyler Clementi, Zach Harrison and Seth Walsh killed themselves—shame, guilt, sadness? But what we do know, and what I discovered while writing my book, is that during such dark episodes, friendships have the potential to keep boys afloat.
When boys found a close confidant, an ally in which to confide, their moods and spirits improved drastically. They felt safer, less isolated, and their self-esteem increased ten-fold. Their loneliness melted away, they summoned strength to live. The boy with OCD who contemplated suicide spoke frankly of how much his best friend meant to him: “He literally saved my life.”
Malina Saval is a pop cultural journalist and the author of " The Secret Lives of Boys: Inside the Raw, Emotional World of Male Teens" (Basic Books). She can be reached at Malina@MalinaSaval.com.