September 10, 2018
After nine-year-old Jamel Myles of Denver came out as gay, his mother reports that he confided in his sister that his classmates allegedly told him to kill himself. On August 24th, he did.
According to his mother, Jamel was a happy kid who just wanted to make others happy too. When he came out to her this past summer, she says she reassured him that she still loved him. He said he wanted to come out at school, too, because he was proud of who he was.
In the aftermath of Jamel’s suicide, there has been an online outpouring of love and support for young LGBTQ students. But there’s also been a surge of criticism—not of Jamel’s bullies, but of Jamel’s coming out.
One Twitter user wrote, “9 years old and already claiming to be gay? What? I hate to break it to society but every 9 year old boy thinks girls are icky. A horrible tragedy that could have been prevented.”
Another user called Jamel “brainwashed,” adding, “No kid that just turn 9 is thinking about sexuality and or if he was gay or straight.”
These comments reveal a misunderstanding about sexual orientation, especially in young people. Being LGB isn’t an “adult” topic; many children experience same-sex attraction, which is not necessarily sexual attraction. It’s normal and healthy for kids of all sexual orientations to have “crushes.” It’s also normal and healthy for kids not to have “crushes.”
The important issue around Jamel’s suicide is not whether children can really know their sexual orientation. What we need to talk more about is creating safer school environments for LGB youth who face bullying. Eighty-five percent of LGBTQ students faced verbal harassment at school and over 57 percent of LGB students said they felt unsafe at school because of their sexual orientation, according to a 2015 survey from GLSEN. Being bullied is associated with an increase in the likelihood of suicidal feelings or behavior, according to a study conducted by Yale University, and LGB young people are five times as likely to attempt suicide as heterosexual teens, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.
We can reduce suicide in LGBTQ youth by addressing homo-and transphobic bullying in schools. No child, regardless of their actual or perceived sexual orientation or gender identity, should be made to feel lesser because of it. These conversations need to be happening in schools. Not addressing homo- and transphobic bullying isolates some of the most vulnerable young people. But honest, open and proactive conversations surrounding sexual orientation fosters a culture of acceptance, so that kids like Jamel never have to feel alone again.
If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, please call The National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 for confidential support, or get help from a parent, teacher or friend. You are not alone.