Combatting Anti-Gay Bullying Through Young Adult Fiction

A recent survey of 10,000 self-described LGBT youth aged 13-17, conducted by researchers working with the Human Rights Campaign, confirmed what we already knew:  Nearly half of those questioned said that they did not feel accepted by their communities. In fact, more than 60 percent told interviewers that they anticipated having to leave their hometowns in order to lead full and fulfilling lives.

What’s more, the report concludes that, “While non-LGBT youth worry about grades, college, financial concerns and their dating lives, LGBT youth struggle with bullying, fear of being ‘out,’ and their families not accepting them for who they are.” 

And, while havens of support exist—many schools, both public and private, promote Gay-Straight Alliances, hundreds or cities and towns sponsor Pride marches, and a spate of adults have recorded It Gets Better messages—the truth is nonetheless stark: Queer kids are three-to-four times more likely to attempt to kill themselves than their heterosexual peers. Worse, 33 percent of all successful teen suicides involve homosexuals.   

James Lecesne knows these realities well. In an Afterword to his young adult novel Trevor, he confides that his own fear of coming out was so intense that he fled from his family. “I felt that they couldn’t know me, not really, because if they knew who I was, they would most certainly reject me. I couldn’t live with that—not even as a possibility, so I kept myself a secret from them, moving farther and farther away and began to explore life and love without them.”

Thankfully, Lecesne found solace in writing, first creating an award-winning one man show called Word of Mouth—based on his experience as a closeted teen—and subsequently penning the screenplay for an 18-minute film about his youthful trials and tribulations. The movie, called Trevor, went on to win an Oscar for Best Live Action Short. Several years later, in 1997, the film was sold to HBO. But the cable network wanted to do more than simply air the movie. They thought it would be a good idea to flash the number of a national, 24-hour crisis line on screen to help viewers who needed counseling or advice. The problem? What they envisioned didn’t exist. This revelation led Lecesne and colleagues to create The Trevor Project []; on their first night an astounding 1500 calls were logged in.  Since then, approximately 30, 000 requests a year have come into the helpline.

Impressive? Absolutely, but as important as the Project has been—over the past 15 years it has not only maintained a suicide prevention hotline [866.488.7386]; it has also developed a secure online chat room []; and a Q&A message board that is utilized by tens of thousands of young people across the country—homophobia persists and queer kids still kill themselves with horrifying frequency. In addition, coming out continues to remain fraught and the well-publicized message of groups like the Westboro Baptist Church—that “God hates fags”—continues to resonate.

From this arose Lecesne's conception of a novella called Trevor. The slim volume is meant for young people, primarily those in the 13-24 demographic, and tells the compelling, heartfelt, and deeply moving story of a 13-year-old middle schooler whose life is up-ended when his peers notice that his affect and interests are at odds with the presumed norm of his classmates. Verbal taunts, physical threats, isolation to the point of shunning--Trevor experiences the whole nine. His parents, meanwhile, seem clueless, at some points oblivious and at other times simply inept, with no idea how to talk to their son about sex, sexuality, or relationships. Indeed, some family moments are cringe inducing, which is why Trevor-–not just the novella but also the substantial Resource Guide at the end of the text--is such an important resource for anyone who interacts with young people.   

Trevor’s pain, frustration, confusion, and angst are realistically portrayed and while the book has a relatively happy ending, it serves as an important supplement to more theoretical works about anomie and coming out. By zooming in on one kid and the conundrums he faces, readers get an intensely personal look at an all-too-common scenario. From there, it’s a short leap from micro to macro, personal to political.

Trevor illustrates the impact of sticks, stones, and yes, words, on the thousands of adolescents who are targeted for harassment and exclusion. The challenge is to get the novel—along with films like Bully--into every sixth grade classroom. That said, skilled facilitators—whether regular teachers or outsiders—are essential in helping kids openly discuss the themes Trevor addresses, among them heterosexism, hate speech, depression, and despair.  

At the end of the day, social and emotional learning are as important as reading, writing, and ‘rithmatic. Books like Trevor emphasize that these themes should be aspects of  every school curriculum. Indeed, they should be considered as important as the stuff that gets counted on tests.


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