Whether we like it or not, gender roles are inescapable realities of a social schema. Society forms a definition of what it is to be male and female, and in many instances this definition is unrealistically rigid. Concepts of gender in American society revolve around "maleness" as a mythical yet perpetuated norm. When someone functioning in this framework fails to meet the male heterosexual classification, they are labeled as the "other," and must then deal with a cavalcade of implications reinforced by society's expectation and demands. How does a population branded as the "other" function and cope in society? This paper will examine specifically if social constructs of homosexualityparticularly in homosexual youthhave higher risk factors for suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.
Recent statistics state that more than 5,000 American adolescents and young adults take their lives every year, and disturbingly enough, gay and lesbian adolescents and young adults were found to be two to three times more likely than their heterosexual counterparts to attempt suicide, suggesting that 30% of completed suicides each year are gay or lesbian youth (Chauvin et. al, 2000:2). Suicide is the leading cause of death for the young homosexual population, and five out of six gay men who attempted suicide had done so by the age of 20 (Chauvin et al., 2000:2). A number of variables must be taken into consideration which have shown to affect rates of suicide in homosexual youth (youth being defined as ages 20 and under) (Chauvin, Kulkin, & Percle, 2000:2). "Coming out," at an early age, society at large, self-esteem, religion, substance abuse, and attempting suicide all affect suicide ideation in homosexual youth. In addition, it is important to take into account homophobia and empowerment in society. Coming out at an early age
"Coming out" at an early age has a number of consequences for any individual who identifies as GLBT. The development of the homosexual identity has a proposed three-stage sequence consisting of homosexual feelings in early adolescence, budding homosexuality in a "dissociation" stage of coping, and personal acceptance and disclosure, or "coming out" (Lebson, 2002:110). "The stages are fluctuating and undulating rather than uniform," and "the likelihood of depression and suicide increase when the effort to complete each stage becomes overwhelming" (Lebson, 2002:111). "Coming out" is, disturbingly enough, generally expected to lead to a family crisis, and it "has been recognized as one of the most difficult and at the same time most important tasks gay men and lesbians might face" (Ben-Ari, 1995:90-1). It is associated with fear, anxiety, and stress, and thus it is no wonder that the process can have detrimental effects on the emotional stability of an individual. Sixty-six percent of gay men and lesbians in the study reported by Ben-Ari expressed fears about "coming out" to at least one of their parents, and fifty-two percent had fears about being rejected (Ben-Ari, 1995: 95-6). While the anticipation of "coming out" is in itself a psychologically troubling time, the ramifications of doing so at an early age are made more injurious by the newly made physical consequences. The adolescent must not only deal with the inner turmoil and instability of emotions, but also their "peers' inability to deal effectively with this information triggered by prejudicial attitudes which have been internalized due to our heterosexist and homophobic society" (Chauvin et al., 2000:9). Adolescence is a difficult time of confusion and identity formation for all young people, but homosexual youth must also contend with their sexuality and the stigma attached to it; the trauma during this critical period of development intensifies feelings of abandonment and isolation for the gay or lesbian young person (Chauvin et al., 2000:9). Society
Society at large is the foremost culprit for the negative views homosexuals must deal with. As Stan Ziegler says: If it weren't for denial, emotionally well-integrated gay people would be enraged at what society tells us about ourselves. Psychologist Vivian Cass asserts that a stage of anger at society is necessary to form a healthy gay identity. Of course it is. Look at what society teaches us about ourselves. Is it any wonder that as gay people we grow up hating ourselves for becoming what our society says is the worst thing we might become? Children call each other "faggot" when they want to be most cruel, and this is before they really know what the word means. Messages like this are everywhere. I've had many adult gay patients ask me how they could so clearly have learned being gay is wrong when they're sure gayness was never discussed in their homes or schools until 25 years ago. Before there was any talk of gayness, there were clear messages about how boys should behave and how girls should behave. These messages may be changing somewhat (probably more so for girls than for boys) but not enough to keep me from overhearing a mother at the San Diego Zoo say to her cranky young son that he had to stop crying now since "boys don't cry" (Ziegler, 1991: 114). Clearly the implication of the rigid roles society enforces is that it makes outsiders out of individuals with differences from what is constructed to be acceptable.
Young people are particularly impressionable to the attitudes, ideologies, and norms of society, thus homosexual youth are affected by "negative attitudes and hostile reactions of our society to homosexuality" (Chauvin et al,. 2000:9). Furthermore, society offers little in ways to seek refuge from homophobia and the attitudes it places upon the oppressed youth, and many areas require minors to have permission from their parents before engaging in therapy or attending gay/lesbian programs at outreach centers. "The outcome of societal barriers along with negative responses to a homosexual orientation may facilitate a young gay or lesbian person to exhibit a low self-esteem, depression, and a generalized fear, consequently, resulting in a deteriorated and fragile identity on the part of a young homosexual person" (Chauvin et al., 2000:9-10). Self-Esteem
Self-esteem plays a pivotal role in the ideation of suicide among many young people; this appears to be particularly true of homosexual youth (Gibson, 1989). With all of the negative imagery and reinforcement apparent in various aspects of society's ideological matrix, heterosexual and homosexual youth alike can't help but internalize the message that homosexuality is perverse and something to be condemned. In both instances, this proves to be destructivefostering homophobia in heterosexuals and self-loathing and thus low self-esteem in the vulnerable minds of young homosexuals, who are thus more likely to exhibit suicidal ideation (Berndt et al,. 2001; Chauvin et al,. 2000:11). Religion
The omnipresent shadow of religion permeates society and thus it inevitably has an impact on suicidal ideation in gay and lesbian youth. In many religions, homosexuality is branded with disdain as "sinful, dirty, and deviant" (Chauvin et al., 2000:10). One of the primary concerns of surveyed homosexuals in regards to "coming out" to their parents was the fear that they would be rejected as sinful (Ben-Ari, 1995:98).
Because many families incorporate religious doctrines into the ethos of the family itself, homophobia can easily be fostered through religion's often negative view. This is terribly problematic in that it alienates young gays and lesbians from their family even before they "come out," which further detracts from their sense of self-worth and belonging. They become "others" not only to society, but to their closest loved ones. Further, a "principal reason parents extricate their gay son or lesbian daughter from the house, is due in part to their religious beliefs" (Chauvin et al., 2000:10). The ultimate effect is that these young people become more vulnerable to suicidal ideation. School
The social institution of education poses a number of threats to the emotional well being of gay/lesbian youth (Allen, 2001:47). In a culture in which sex is a taboo subject in schools, barely touched with a ten foot pole, of course the education system has nothing to offer in the ways of positive information about homosexuality. Rather, heterosexism is further perpetuated, and homosexual and questioning youth are left in the dark with questions and confusion (Chauvin et al., 200:11).
School is also a major social structure for youth, where roles are constantly being perpetuated and realized. Students learn where they stand in the social system from how their peers treat them, and in a society that steadily condemns homosexuality, gay and lesbian students learn early on to stifle their identities or face persecution at school (Lebson, 2002). Homosexual students are often gripped with fear of physical and/or verbal assault, the effects of which are traumatizing to the psyche and contribute to the path to suicidal ideation (Burk, 1997).
The structure of most schools is woefully under-equipped to help gay/lesbian students. Schools rarely provide counselors willing or knowledgeable enough to discuss gay/lesbian issues and development, and policies that would protect students from discrimination based on sexual orientation is almost non-existent (Chauvin et al,. 2000). In fact, most teachers are put in a position such as to compromise their job safety should they extend themselves to the aid of a potentially in-need student. "Therefore, gay and lesbian adolescents and young adults are not being afforded the same opportunities for positive role models and accurate information as are many other minority students" (Chauvin, et al. 2000:11). While many schools have staffed teachers from diverse cultural and ethnic backgrounds to serve as positive role models for various minorities and oppressed populations, GLBT teachers must still remain "in the closet" if they wish to have a sense of job security (Lebson, 2002).
Since the educational environment seems veritably crawling with obstacles for homosexual youth yet is mandatory to attend, it is easy for them to feel trapped, and "a young gay or lesbian individual may experience a generalized feeling of powerlessness due to their inability to alter the situation, and these feelings seem to correlate to the capacity of cognizing suicidal contemplation" (Gibson, 1989; Chauvin et al., 2000:11). Substance Abuse
Literature shows that substance abuse often begins in early adolescence, and of course this is equally true for homosexual adolescents (Gibson, 1989). It is during this tumultuous time that the young homosexual population is faced with both inner and societal conflict based on a homosexual identity. While substance use may initially serve merely to as a means to cope with anxiety, depression, and inner struggles, or even to reduce "internal suppression of homosexual behavior and feelings" (Chauvin et al., 200:11), as time progresses, drugs or alcohol may develop a grip on the individual, throwing them into the depths of addiction, in which the substance use becomes abusive and can exacerbate depression and poor self-esteem, thus contributing to suicidal ideation. Attempting of Suicide
Research has shown that a history of suicidal tendencies is a fairly accurate predictor of future suicidal ideation (Chauvin et al., 2000:12). Put short and simply, those individuals who have already attempted suicide are very likely to attempt it again; furthermore, they are more likely to attempt more violent means of ideation due to a dulling of the threshold of accepted self-inflicted violence from their previous experience (Lebson, 2002). Overall Homophobia and Empowerment Issues
The underlying mechanism present in all of these factors is homophobia . Homophobia is the omnipresent ideology run rampant in society which stigmatizes homosexuals as less than human; the "others" of a society whose standard of normality is maleness and all of the gendered traits that go with it (masculinity, heterosexuality, etc.) (Allen 2001; Berndt et al., 2001; Chauvin et al., 2000). Homophobia contributes "greatly to social isolation, a sense of normlessness, and poor self-esteem" (Chauvin et al., 2000:13), all of which advance suicidal ideation in homosexual youth (Lebson, 2002).
Empowerment issues relate to those who fall into multiple categories of oppression. The adolescent population realizes they're in a position of disempowerment. Thus, while a gay white male faces "double jeopardy," in his feeling of powerlessness, a young white lesbian would face "triple jeopardy." Additional minority statuses further dis-empower individuals. Not only do such people have to cope with transition periods from adolescence to adulthood, but they also have to somehow forge a positive self-identity as a homosexual person in a society which delineates homosexuality as perverse (Chauvin et al., 2000:3).
More and more, evidence is mounting to suggest that the stressors inflicted upon the young GLBT community is driving them to commit suicide at alarming rates, exceeding those of heterosexual adolescents.
It's clear that society must reflect and undergo some changes in its staunch and conservative definition of what is deemed acceptable. By posing exclusive and elitist male-heterosexual paradigms of acceptability, staggering amounts of "others" consisting of homosexual adolescents are turning to suicide as an escape from the trauma and difficulty they can't find the energy to cope with in their daily lives.
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