Unlike Robin's friend, we made no immediate connection between Robin being gay and his suicide
I am Stephanie
Reed and at my side is my husband Tim. We reside in the Petaluma School District and both of our children began their public education at Penngrove Elementary School.
Tonight we are here to talk about our son Robin. Many of you recall the disturbing news late last January of our son's suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. At the time, he was a sophomore at Petaluma High School, and we shared a close and loving relationship with him at home. At the time of his death we were rejoicing in his recovery from a very difficult freshman year at Petaluma High School. His despair and suicidal fantasies were hidden from his family, friends, teachers and peers, who all felt utter shock at the news of his death.
On the first Sunday after Robin's disappearance and death, and the night before Petaluma High School was to make its school-wide announcement about Robin's suicide, we shared what information we had about his suicide with parents of families who knew Robin, so that they could prepare their children for what lay ahead. Within minutes of ending that meeting, a close friend of Robin's, having just learned, called and asked to see us immediately. We agreed. He arrived with tear-stained cheeks and almost before sitting down said, "Did you know Robin was gay?" He went on to say Robin had come out to three or four school friends in mid-November. We listened, said we had been thinking lately that Robin might be gay, expressed our attitude of acceptance, consoled Robin's friend, and said goodnight. We closed the door with a great sense of relief that we had not just been told Robin's suicide was our fault. Unlike Robin's friend, we made no immediate connection between Robin being gay and his suicide.
Three days later a dear friend of ours who is a local middle school principal, asked us, "Did you know that gay and lesbian teens are at a high risk for suicide?" Our answer was "no" but after she said that, the visit from Robin's friend began to come into focus. Since that time, I have increasingly immersed myself in understanding what it means to grow up gay, and what Robin's world was like. I've read, I've listened, I've reflected and I've learned. I've learned why a loving home and a distinguished school can fall short of meeting the needs of gay and lesbian children. This is our story.
Because he was different, Robin was sexually harassed by mean-spirited peers
sense to us that Robin was gay. About two months before he died Tim and I began to ask each other if we thought he was, and to ask ourselves how we felt about the possibility. We wondered because last fall Robin had gone out a couple of times with a fellow who was not part of his regular crowd. These seemed like real dates, as opposed to the usual gathering of friends at a coffee shop or someone's house. A few weeks later over Saturday morning coffee, Robin told me that since attending the October Homecoming Dance he realized boy-girl dating was difficult for him. He said, "Mom, I'm a really normal and healthy 15-year-old because my hormones are raging right now. But I hate being sexual. My life is going so well and I'm really happy except for my hormones. I hate them. It's so confusing. I don't even know if I'm straight or not." We felt accepting about the possibility of Robin being gay. We believed we had more time . . . more time to talk, more time to grow in each other's presence, more time to love. We let Robin set the pace and he shouldered the burden of growing up gay in our home.
Looking back further in Robin's life there were other signs that he would grow up to be gay. He was different: affectionate and artistic, with an interest in dramatic arts that began at the age of seven. Robin's story parallels that of many gay adults who remember being different from an early age. Because he was different, Robin was sexually harassed by mean-spirited peers who called him a fag, sissy, queer, gay blower and other sexually derogatory terms. We were notified when Robin was in second grade of such an incident. From these encounters with his peers he learned that he was bad in their eyes, and so were gays. To his friends and family Robin was good, and that nurtured him. But he faulty message that gays are bad was not sufficiently countered at home, at school, or in the media over the course of his short life. That message became a time bomb that would explode when he alone realized, through his own sexual awakening, that he was gay.
Shortly before his death, Robin described how he had been sexually harassed continually since grade school, and how alone and unsupported he felt. When his last report card arrived a year ago and revealed a failing grade, he told us of the sexual harassment from the jocks in that class, and of a teacher who did not control these gay bashers. His fears of discovery were brought close to the surface in that room. If these jocks treated him harshly for being suspect, most likely they would be far more abusive if they ever knew his secret. I expect Robin felt that by fiercely guarding his secret, he could in some small measure control their hostility that was fast becoming more than he could bear. His secret went deeper into hiding and he also said last fall, "If I am withdrawn, ask me if I've been teased."
Many gay adults can look back at failed suicide attempts and connect them to the feelings of alienation surrounding the awareness of being gay in a hostile world. Robin's decision to die was an immense one. Although it surprised us all, the fact is that by the time one resorts to suicide, the notion of self-destruction is well-rehearsed, and life's defeats seriously outweigh the victories. Robin did not commit suicide because he was gay. He committed suicide because he was in pain. The anti-gay messages struck at his core.
We did not understand the significance of growing up gay. Our safety net had a hole in it
tried with all our hearts to help our son be himself throughout his life, especially in the last year. During Robin's sophomore year we were aided by the strong involvement of family, friends, teachers, counselors, community members, and a therapist. As we all urged and encouraged Robin forward we did not take stock of the possibility he might well be gay, for we did not understand the significance of growing up gay. Our safety net had a hole in it. We know now that Robin needed a gay framework that included role models and a peer support group to deal with the pain of being gay. Robin needed people involved in his care with a deep understanding of growing up gay.
Robin's problems associated with growing up gay were invisible to the untrained eye, but gay youths need not be invisible in the Petaluma School District anymore. Parents and schools can build bridges to our gay and lesbian youths by providing training for teachers and counselors. We can provide peer support for parents and our gay and lesbian youths. We can lessen the trauma of growing up gay by controlling the sexual harassment; working harder at conflict resolution; providing safe teachers, safe parents, safe places for our gay youths to go to. Tim and I recommend that the Petaluma School District work with Project 10 to implement these protections and supports. I've read Project 10's program and it is comprehensive. Project 10, in conjunction with Positive Images and Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, also known at PFLAG, provides teacher training, peer support and counseling to the gay students, and peer support for parents. I've met with the heads of all three organizations and know that they offer expertise and dedication in the pursuit of helping our gay and lesbian youths. Lastly, I'd like to offer myself as a resource to Petaluma High School under the auspices of Project 10.
In honor of all gay and lesbian youth, thank you for your time and consideration.
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