Who is to blame for the suicides of teenage boys “struggling with sexual identity” that have been so highly publicized in the last two months? If we are to believe many media sources, primary blame rests on bullying peers. But I wonder: Is the homosexual community — and the Catholic Church — ignoring the darker, disturbing possibility that early sexualization and labeling of same-sex attracted adolescents drives these children into a secret despair?
Suicide among teenagers appears to be on the rise. In 2004, suicide was the third highest cause of death for persons aged 10 to 24 years in the United States, amounting to 4,599 deaths. This came as a surprise, since the suicide rate in this age group had previously been on a steady decline. No consensus seems to explain the sudden increase noted in 2004, though the current media coverage focuses on bullying and, specifically, peer bullying of boys “because they were gay or because people thought they were gay.”
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This subject is close to me. I have two teenage sons, both of whom engage in the kind of juvenile teasing (out of earshot of adults) common at their age. Both are viscerally uncomfortable with displays of sexual affection between males of any age. Both have noticed boys among their peers who seem “different” — who, for example, are disinclined to play sports while strongly inclined to the company of girls. While both have commented on other boys who seemed set apart by these preferences, they still interact comfortably with them. But these days, my sons are seen as prime suspects for the kind of bullying that could drive a child to suicide, being judged and blamed without uttering a word.
Even before the tragic suicides of teens Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh — all reportedly struggling with their sexual identity — Catholic educational efforts seemed to target teenage boys, assuming their cruelty toward peers considered “gay” even at the young ages of 13 and 14. When one of my sons entered Catholic high school, Ironman was a required summer read, a novel about a young student who discovers his teacher is gay. After Clementi jumped from a New Jersey bridge in utter despair, the boys were again lectured about tolerance toward gay students. When I broached the subject with a group of high school boys and asked them, “Do you think it was the roommate’s fault that Tyler killed himself?” they refused to respond without first consulting notes they’d taken during a lecture that day at school.
From the pulpit, we’ve heard similar scolding against bullying lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, and transgendered persons — even if no such bullying was present in the community. The actual factors leading young male teens to the desperately lonely act of suicide seem less important than driving home a strict guideline of acceptable behavior for young men toward peers already labeled “gay.” The next suicide, we can anticipate, will be their burden to bear — even if, like Billy Lucas, bullying is not even mentioned as a source of his despair.
What actually drove these boys into an untreated depression where death seemed a relief? Was it vicious, verbal harassment by their male peers? Maybe. But I am not convinced. Living as I do amid the gay culture in San Francisco, and affiliated as I am with the Roman Catholic Church, this profiling of young teenagers as suspected bullies seems misguided.
Now, of course no harassment or bullying among peers should be tolerated. It is critical to teach and form our children in Christian love, which guides us all to see Christ in each other. In fact, Catholic education has not gone far enough in promoting kindness and respect among all our children. Nevertheless, it is right and healthy for my sons to be cautious — not unkind, but cautious. Our culture is hyper-sexualized; more specifically, the gay culture in our San Francisco hometown can be overt and astoundingly sexual, even in the most innocent public environments — including public displays of male nudity and sexual acts, parades devoted to celebrating same-sex acts, and sexualizing of childhood images. The presence of children does nothing to restrain these behaviors.
It is noteworthy that the gay movement’s response to this rash of suicides has not been focused on providing safety and proper sexual development for teens but rather on the idea that “It Gets Better.” But I wonder, what “gets better”? All moral and religious issues aside, where is the outrage at the early and public sexualizing of male children thought to be same-sex attracted? How does further intertwining their identity with nascent sexual desires make anything better? According to the Centers for Disease Control, you cannot prevent suicide without first identifying the problem and understanding its causes. We should be asking: What role has the early labeling of male children as “gay” played in prematurely sexualizing and isolating male teenagers?
What’s more, how does early sexual behavior contribute to these feelings of depression and isolation? Roman Catholics, of all people, should know from painful experience the scarring effects of same-sex abuse on young male teens, especially abuse by a person in a trust relationship with his victim: Eighty-one percent of the victims of abusive priests were young males between 11 and 17. This massive-scale abuse against teenage boys occurred secretly over decades. How do we know that today’s suicide victims, and other young males, have not suffered the sort of abuse that so brutally tarnished the lives of the victims of gay clergy?
We need to stop trying to build bullies out of boys who themselves are overwhelmed with the overt sexualization of adolescence and, while maintaining programming to prevent bullying, renew a focus on Catholic teachings regarding abstinence, human dignity, and the theology of the body. Call it “Theology of the Boy” — and invite every male teen to consider his holiness and sanctity without regard to his sexual desires.