Silence is where the hate grows
by Iain Clacher

Silence = Death.

It started life as a slogan. Like many slogans it became a cliché. But like many clichés, it harbors an inescapable truth. For many young gays, the silence of their peers, their parents, their protectors, pastors, politicians and even other poofs will kill them.

Or as Gabi Clayton says: "silence is where the hate grows that killed my son".

On May 8 1995, Gabi's husband Alec found the couple's bright and impish seventeen year old son unconscious and near death on the kitchen floor of their Olympia, Washington home.

Despite a frantic dash to the hospital, Bill, the bright kid with tastes so diverse he loved the Beatles, Enya, Nirvana AND Mozart, the kid who wrote stories and loved anything to do with Star Trek, died from the massive overdose of over-the-counter and prescription drugs he had deliberately swallowed.

Although Bill left behind no suicide note, doctors told Gabi they had no doubt Bill had taken the drugs with lethal intent. Gabi has no doubts either. She says the same son who had bravely told her he was bisexual when he was just fourteen had more recently told her he was tired of coping.

"It was the constant knowledge that at any time he could be attacked simply because of who he was, that at any time his friends could be attacked for the same reason, that despite the love of his family and friends all he could see ahead was a lifetime of facing a world filled with hate and violence, going from one assault to another.

"He was 17 years old - an age when kids are supposed to be excited about moving out into the world as adults. The only place he felt safe was at home. He saw no hope, so he chose to end his life," Gabi says.

Just over a month earlier, four teenage boys had surrounded Bill in his high school grounds. Screaming an internationally familiar litany of homophobic abuse, these four boys, all of them under 18, kicked and bashed Bill and his straight best buddy Sam into unconsciousness.

Although it is Gabi who is left with the pain of a dead child, she sees Bill's attackers as victims too -- victims of an education system and a political system terrified of and unwilling to talk to young people about homosexuality and homophobia.

"I have a dead son. So many lives are ruined or ended because of this kind of hate. The kids who attacked him? I see great harm that was done to them. Look what they did. They did it, and they must be held responsible, but they were the pawns of someone else who made them think their actions were right, or of a culture that has done that. If they ever really see it -- really understand the consequences of the assaults to Bill and Sam -- then I wonder how they will live with themselves?

"My father was a German Jewish refugee, and the hate he faced as a child in Germany is the same hate that my son and these kids faced on that street by that school. And hate doesn't grow in a vacuum. It can't grow unless we allow it to. It grows on fear and it grows on silence," Gabi says.

The silence surrounding the subject in schools is not unfamiliar to gay people. Countless books on coming out feature testimony after testimony documenting the solitary pain gay teenagers experience as they struggle against the silence to forge meaningful identities and positive lives.

For many, even in the 1990s, education on homosexuality remains limited to the torrent of torment and abuse hurled at those whom school-yard Caesers regard as queer and to secret sojourns to school libraries to look up THAT word in musty dictionaries.

Even in the age of the infobahn, NetNanny does its darndest to make sure junior never gets to see anything positive about who they might be.

Casey, now 32, believes education could have saved him thirteen years of sexual abuse, a stint stuck with "sick tickets" as a Sydney street kid and eight suicide attempts. He says parents and other authorities who deny their children such information so as not to "encourage them" are grossly misguided.

With no education at all about sex, Casey became sexually active at the age of seven. He began by experimenting with a nineteen year old "friend of a friend" he met by the river behind his parents' Casino NSW home.

"Sex is out there. Kids are doing it. If the kids aren't experimenting with peers or willingly doing it, they are being forced into doing it. It's okay for a kid to get education on TV about guns, violence and bashings, but sex is still taboo. If kids are strong enough to deal with guns and violence they are strong enough to deal with information about sex," Casey says.

Although Casey reckons he "always knew" he was gay, he became one of the kids who was "forced into doing it". After moving to Sydney, Casey was drawn into a string of abusive "relationships". Because of his low self-esteem borne of the silence, Casey says he was easy pickings for deeply-closeted homosexual "sick tickets" who found more pleasure in hearing screams for mercy as they held knives to the throats of other parents' sons than in real and open love.

Starved of real love and left with little hope, Casey, like many young gays, turned to chemical "friends" to fill the void. His only human friends became the other youngsters traded by the "sick tickets".

"Of the thirteen of us, I'm one of only three that's still alive today," Casey says. "Most of my friends blew their heads off, some of them OD'd and some of them have died from AIDS. They were all bright kids with talents and promising futures."

When asked how he feels about politicians, counsellors and others refusing to consider inclusive sex education in schools, Casey's response is immediate and unflinching: "They should resign. They should get out of those jobs if they can't face reality.

"The best and only way to help the younger ones from suiciding is education at school. The only way to help the straight kids and the gay kids is education from a very early age.

"There's just no mention of homosexuality or abuse in schools, and by the time kids are 10 or 11, they're that screwed up because there's no information and nowhere to go. I know it would have made the world of difference to me," Casey says.

Stephen, 18, agrees and says he would never have tried gassing himself just a year ago had his teachers at least shown him where to go for help.

"If they gave me at least some information about being gay I would have known where to go or at least known something at all. But I knew absolutely jack-shit. We didn't get any education at school on being gay whatsoever.

"Meanwhile, the level of homophobia in my old school was very high. Everyone was trying to be heaps macho to prove they weren't gay and being branded as gay was the highest insult you could ever have hurled at you," Stephen says.

While both the Catholic and state schools he attended provided "heaps" of information about physical diseases like HIV/AIDS, Stephen says they completely ignored the mental illnesses like depression which plague young gays in such an unsupportive and often hostile environment.

This firewall between young gay people and information which could save their lives is as hot as ever. Teachers and guidance counsellors in most Australian states are fearful of the consequences should they speak positively of homosexuality. Even in New South Wales where the gay community enjoys limited political clout, the recent Christopher Tsakalos case revealed government sponsored anti-homophobia kits distributed in schools remain largely ignored and unused.

It is easy for those of us who live and work in the gay community to recognise a very real and obvious link between social homophobia and youth suicide, but in the world of many suicidologists and politicians such a link remains "inconclusive".

Pierre Baume, director of the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention explains suicidology is fraught with methodological difficulty. Baume says it is impossible to accurately study the sexual orientation of individuals who have completed suicide because their sexual orientation is often unknown because it has been deliberately concealed.

Similarly, Baume says issues of silence and concealment often hamper studies focusing on attempted suicides.

"There are methodology problems with any research, but in this kind of study there is always a problem in getting the individual to admit to their own sexual preferences for fear their homosexual behaviour will be reported to someone else.

"For example, there are people in rural or isolated areas where admitting to being gay or lesbian might bring about retribution in the workplace or in the school environment and hence the individual may be unwilling to disclose the information," Baume says, pointing out that most research into attempts begins in hospital emergency wards, which are frightening environments unlikely to encourage honest disclosure.

Other studies have drawn their data from the testimony of survivors who now identify as gay or lesbian and interact with the gay community. However, such studies are easily branded as "tainted" because they rely on the retrospective testimony of people who may have become "politicised" as part of the coming out process.

However, while Baume maintains there exists little comprehensive research on the subject, he is adamant there is a problem.

"I don't even doubt for a minute there is a problem, I know there is a problem," Baume says.

"We need with great urgency to carry out scientific research to determine not only the incidence of suicides among homosexual groups, but also the effect the death of the individual has on those left behind.

"We also need to study whether suicidal behaviour among those who are gay or lesbian has a negative effect on the gay and lesbian population in general, and whether those individuals remain oppressed longer and prevent them from coming out.

"There are heaps of issues which need to be addressed and they need to be addressed urgently because if gay and lesbian young people are killing themselves at a higher rate because they are oppressed by social pressure, then society is itself somewhat to blame for increasing suicide rates and the associated pain for other individuals," Baume says.

In the meantime, he says, people must speak out about their own experiences to prompt such research.

The lack of good research and methodological difficulties continues to frustrate those who are convinced there is a problem. Gay Canadian researcher Pierre Tremblay has gone as far as to accuse mainstream suicidolgists of a far-reaching conspiracy.

"The 'homosexuality factor' has generally been ignored by mainstream researchers of youth suicidality problems, and by most suicidologists who developed youth suicide intervention and prevention programs," Tremblay says.

While Casey doesn't believe in Tremblay's conspiracy theory, he is deeply critical of the programs he tried to access during his nine year suicidal stage, arguing many of the "service providers" were either ignorant or hostile.

"We learned pretty early that it was easier to get help if you said 'streetkid' instead of 'gay'. Similarly, once they find out you're on drugs they just want to put you in detox, but detox just won't work unless you unravel the problems behind the drug use in the first place. They just see drugs as the problem, not the symptom," Casey says.

This lack of understanding at the coal-face of the problem also distresses Tremblay.

When asked how much of the resources allocated to male adolescent and youth suicidality problems should be used to address specifically gay suicidality problems, Tremblay claims: "At least 60%, or more if they are to compensate for the incredible lethal neglect of this problem".

"This may not happen, however, because the not so hidden agenda of mainstream suicidologists may be generally rendered by: 'Let's do everything possible to avoid homosexuality issues in our research and in our youth suicide intervention and prevention work."

Estimating gays account for seven out of every ten completed male youth suicides, he says, "It is almost ALWAYS homosexually-oriented male adolescents and youths who have been committing suicide".

Baume argues Tremblay's conspiracy theory is too simplistic and offers a large number of reasons for the worldwide paucity of good research. The field, Baume says, is hampered by a convergence of three major social taboos: homosexuality, mental illnesses such as depression and suicide.

"Generally, societal issues which are difficult for people to cope with, like homosexuality are problematic. In the research world, people are much older and they carry with them a set of values which can date to 30 or 40 years ago and their writing reflects those values.

"Similarly, people may not have the courage to apply for a grant in that particular area because of a fear of persecution or because people would assume they are gay," Baume says.

Meanwhile, as the world waits for good research and Australia's youth suicide rate continues to skyrocket, gay organisations and welfare workers press on with their own programs trying to break the deadly silence.

In Western Australia, a small study conducted as part of the Here for Life Youth Sexuality Project found it was not good enough to expect young people in conflict over sexuality to actively seek help. The project's health promotions manager Graham Brown told Campaign such young people may not actively seek help and information because they hold little faith in confidentiality and believe they have too much to lose by raising the questions themselves.

"A young person may not want to hear the words come out of his or her own mouth. They just want to see some positive things that let them know it is OK, they are not the only one, and they CAN be happy," Brown says, re-iterating the need for gay role models.

"Similarly, agencies and organisations working with young people must allow young people access to accurate information about the diversity of gay, lesbian and bisexual people.

"A major need is the professional development and training of people who work with young people in the issues of assisting and providing inclusive services to young people with same sex attractions.

"Young people do not always want to have to access services specifically for gay, lesbian or bisexual people. Many young people would prefer to access information, support and so on through the agencies or services that are near them or they know, such as teachers, school counsellors and youth outreach agencies," Brown says.

However, such access remains hindered by those who harbor real and persistent fears the "gay agenda" in this matter involves "recruiting" young people. While most rational people regard such recruitment theory as invalid and impossible, it remains a persistent myth because it supported by very powerful interests in society, such as religious groups and conservative politicians.

To counter this, Brown says we need to remind and be reminded that depression, hopelessness and suicide are not exclusive issues for any one group in the community.

"We need to remind people that we are talking about real young people from real families, with parents, friends, brothers and sisters. These young people are learning from their community, their family and their peers to hate themselves.

"The impact of misinformation, vilification and homophobia impacts on everyone regardless of sexuality. We are denying these young people the opportunity to feel good about themselves.

"The best weapon against such misinformation is to speak out," Brown says, echoing every other voice in these pages.

As the middle ground of Australian politics edges slowly to the right and views once thought "peripheral" become passed off as "the views of ordinary Australians", how long will it be before we import campaigns which seek to forbid any positive discussion on homosexuality in our schools?

The issue is a painful one for Gabi Clayton. In part, she blames those who whipped up anti-gay hysteria on the issue at her son's school for encouraging the attitude of the boys who viciously assaulted him. Later the issue went statewide when Washington politicians drafted a bill to outlaw positive discussion of homosexuality.

But the bill was defeated after Gabi and others spoke out and shattered the silence with her real life testimony at a state Senate hearing. She told the Senators:

"I do not want to believe that this bill was written by people who would condone or promote what happened to my son. But if you mandate silence in the schools by passing this, then you are giving ammunition to those who would harass and take violent action.

"At the same time you will be taking away the best defense - that of being able to say that many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons lead positive, healthy, and productive lives that benefit not only themselves, but our society as a whole.

"You will be doing a great disservice to us all.

"This bill which we are here about today talks about the importance of maintaining a society that is virtuous and ethical. I do not understand what is virtuous and ethical about silencing the positive about gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people.

"I don't believe that we, as a society can afford that - because silence is where the hate grows that killed my son."

BIO: Iain Clacher is a Brisbane-based writer. He is the news editor for Queensland Pride newspaper.

Copyright 1997 Spank Media.
No commercial reproduction without permission.
This article first published by Campaign Australia September 1997

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