Last month, a 9-year-old boy in Denver, Colorado, took his own life after coming out as gay and being bullied. He had expressed concern about coming out, but he made the decision that he wanted his friends to know.
I can imagine this—can’t you? There’s something really important a 9-year-old wants to tell their friends. They’ve tested it with their family and found support. Even though they’re nervous, they decide they are proud of who they are and want to share the news with more folks. And even though there’s apprehension, there’s also an innocence at this age. I mean, everything will end up all right, right?
So wrong. Just four days after fourth grade began, Jamel Myles hung himself and died, after having told his sister that kids at school told him to kill himself.
A reminder here, folks. This child was 9. Saying you’re gay as a 9-year-old boy means something akin to “I’ve noticed my crushes are on boys.” And while a straight kid who mentions a crush might get an “Eww-gross!” from a friend or two, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be told to take their own life because of it.
Another reminder: suicide attempts by children and youth who identify as LGBTQ are alarmingly high, as much as four to six times the rate of attempted suicide by straight and cisgender youth.
But if Denver and national statistics seem far away from Federal Way, consider that many of us have supported local youth who were concerned about their safety if they came out. Many of us have walked with Federal Way area parents through mixed feelings about a child coming out, and many of us right here in Federal Way have been bullied, threatened and called names because of who we are and what we believe.
School should not be a place where lives are threatened, whether by gun violence, or by ignorant and vitriolic bullying that contributes to suicide.
School should be a place for education, to learn about academics, to learn how to share space and make friends with people who live in different neighborhoods, come from different racial or ethnic backgrounds, live within a different socio-economic status, wear different clothes, and identify differently than you do.
Our continued silence in schools (and families and churches) on topics related to sexuality speaks volumes. When adults do not openly teach children about differences in bodies and families; when adults do not openly teach children about different identities; when adults do not openly address consent, communication, ways people touch each other, what to do with conflicting feelings— then we are, by default, teaching our children that it’s not OK or safe to talk about these things.
This silence perpetuates a culture of stigma, shame and discrimination. And because so many adults are so conflicted and don’t know what to say, we pass on this unspoken knowing that sexuality is shameful, that certain feelings, behaviors and identities are stigmatized, and that not everyone deserves dignity and respect. We pass all this and more on without even trying.
Resources exist. Adults can learn. We don’t even all have to agree to do better by our children. We just need to learn how to have better conversations, be better listeners and take action when people are being hurt.
We’ve got a lot of work to do in order to do a better job of teaching our children how to exist together on this planet—and our kids are literally dying to learn.
Amy Johnson, MSW, is a trainer and educator in the Pacific Northwest. She is co-author of three books and facilitates classes and workshops in the Puget Sound area. Amy specializes in sexuality education and in promoting safe and healthy sexuality culture in faith communities. All opinions are her own. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.