ADDISON COUNTY — Across the United States, nine teens have committed suicide in the past month, a result of anti-gay bullying.
While Vermont has been lucky enough to avoid similar sobering incidents, local school and community organizations are adding their voices to the nationwide campaigns aimed at remembering the teens who died and raising awareness about the issues that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) teens — and others — face.
“We know that LGBTQ youth are marginalized in our community,” said Deirdre Kelly, the education coordinator at the Addison County Parent-Child Center in Middlebury. “This isn’t just a problem that’s far away.”
In a letter to the editor, Kelly explained that LGBTQ youth are four times as likely to commit suicide as their heterosexual peers. And the state statistics for Vermont are similarly grim.
“The Vermont Youth Risk Behavior Survey clearly correlates higher levels of attempted suicide, addiction, experiences of school taunting and hate violence amongst youth who identify an attraction to people of the same gender,” she wrote.
Kelly is one of the main planners of a Wednesday, Oct. 27, vigil that will take place at 5:30 p.m. on the Middlebury town green near the Triangle Park. The public is invited. The Lincoln resident attended a vigil in Burlington several weeks ago. Upon her return, she suggested assembling a similar one in Addison County.
“There was a strong response of people saying, ‘Yes, let’s do this here,’” she said. “It’s a great example of old-fashioned grassroots organizing.”
Among the 15 people who gathered recently at Carol’s Hungry Mind to plan the vigil, Kelly said there were representatives from organizations that see firsthand the effects that bullying and marginalization can have on teens, including Addison County Home Health and Hospice, the Counseling Service of Addison County, Middlebury Union High School, Vergennes Union High School and Mount Abraham Union High School. She added that those people were also there as private citizens.
“It was a deliberate act to say, ‘We’re here wearing our professional hats and as community members,’” Kelly said.
She said that there will be youth and adult speakers at the vigil Wednesday, as well as a moment of silence and singing. This, she said, will accomplish several goals.
“We want to honor the loss of these people’s lives, and not let this go by without a reaction as a community,” said Kelly. “And we want to have strong visibility, to say that people aren’t alone. I think our plans were to start the conversation.”
She hopes that this will be just the beginning of a longer conversation.
TEENS GET INVOLVED
Students involved in the Gay-Straight Alliances (GSAs) in local high schools have united around the cause as well. Last week marked National Ally Week, dedicated to raising awareness in schools across the country. Last Wednesday, GSAs and organizations across the country and on Facebook encouraged allies to wear purple to show solidarity and support.
Susan Arenson is the faculty adviser of the GSA at MUHS. She said that while the group participates in Ally Week annually, this year student organizers in the group upped the number of events they were planning.
“In the wake of a tragedy, there’s a universal desire to do something,” she said.
The theme this week was “Three Wishes,” with a different wish on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.
The first wish, said Arenson, was greater awareness.
“It’s not even necessarily bullying, but some of the words that get thrown around at the school,” she said — words like the expression, “that’s so gay.”
“They say, ‘I’m just joking,’ or, ‘That’s not what I mean,’” said Arenson. “But those kinds of words can have a pretty serious impact.”
After the day of awareness, students spent Tuesday wishing for respect — not just for LGBTQ youth, but for everybody.
“We listed 50 nice things you can do,” said Arenson. “It could be as simple as holding the door for someone, or giving up your place in line.”
On Wednesday the group wished for more allies, asking students who consider themselves allies to observe Wear Purple Day and sign a card pledging their support for efforts to end bullying and harassment.
Anne Friedrichs, who advises the Mount Abe GSA, said that Wednesday’s Wear Purple Day kicked off a weeklong look at the impact of bullying. She said that more than 400 people either wore purple or wore hearts with purple ribbons that the group handed out. The hearts named all of the nine students who committed suicide in the last month.
Friedrichs said there has been great enthusiasm for these events, which will culminate Wednesday’s vigil in Middlebury.
“There is a wonderful spirit of support for those who have endured bullying,” she said in an email.
Saben Littlefield, the education and state field manager for Burlington-based Outright Vermont, said that he has seen Vermont schools gaining momentum recently in their support for GSAs. The organization seeks to build safe, healthy environments for LGBTQ youth, and he has seen more and more schools actively working to promote the same thing in recent weeks.
“Schools are coming on board,” he said. “They are trying to be proactive and reactive at the same time, and to start talking about it.”
Arenson said there’s a great need for this.
“We’re starting to see more and more states moving toward civil unions and gay marriage,” she said. But, she added, these facts should not deceive people into thinking that LGBTQ teens no longer face bullying. Recently, she said, people have started to realize that.
“I think the suicides have galvanized people to say, ‘Yeah, we need to do something.’”
Outright Vermont runs a youth crisis hotline, which can be reached toll-free at 1-866-488-7386. The Trevor Project, a national organization focused on suicide prevention among LGBTQ youth, also runs a toll-free hotline at 1-866-4-U-TREVOR.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected]