Friday, 8 October 2010

Lies, damned lies, statistics & suicide


To the blog reader who searched
for "10 ways to kill yourself 
because you're bisexual" —

1. Please don't….

On Wednesday, 7 April 2010 at 11:03pm, on a blog by and about young women, someone in distress reached out. The bloggers responded quickly, opening a dialogue. Sadly, it appears the young bi reader seeking ways to kill herself (himself?) did not return. In the current moment, when the count of LGBTQ teens (or teens perceived to be queer by others) who have taken their lives seems to ratchet up daily, the empty response box under the bloggers' plea is chilling.

Seven teens have committed suicide in the past several weeks in the United States after suffering homophobic abuse and alienation: Justin Aaberg, 13, Minnesota; Seth Walsh, 13, California; Asher Brown, 13, Texas; Billy Lucas, 15, Indiana; Cody J. Barker, 17, Wisconsin; Tyler Clementi, 18, New Jersey; Raymond Chase, 19, Rhode Island. Two Canadian girls have taken their lives under similar circumstances: Jeanine Blanchette and Chantal Dube. Sadly, these deaths are not isolated incidents or a new phenomenon. This has been going on for far too long. In 2003, after five years of bullying and harassment, transgender teen Tesia Samara was found hanging in the family garage in Rockdale, Texas by her younger brother. Bill Clayton, a seventeen year old bisexual boy from Washington state, took his life in 1995 in circumstances so similar to the recent deaths that his mother Gabi felt she had to speak out this past week: "I’m angry. I’m reeling from the news. Asher, Billy, and Seth — and how many more we don’t know about — chose death rather than to live in the world we made."

The world we made. Over the past few generations, the collective 'we' in nations where these suicides are happening have made a world woven, of course, with decent human beings who know how to live and let live, compassionate neighbours, inclusive education, loving family and understanding friends. But, regrettably, this world also contains the weave of hate-filled bigots, apathetic onlookers, calculatingly litigious bean counters, and those who choose to remain ignorant of diversity because it is easier than opening their minds or hearts to those who don't conform to expectations or norms. And this is where the numbers game comes in. Each side of any of our cultural or political debates seems to be asking itself one core question: are there more of 'them' than there are of 'us'?

The numbers game is inevitable to an extent. It becomes a habit of mind when you are raised in a democracy, for at a base level, in democratic societies — from school elections to campaigns for national office — we thrive on the concept that the person or party with the most votes wins. So if there are more of 'us' than there are of 'them', then 'we' win. But along the way towards perfecting our democracies, we've had to reckon with the rights and needs of the underrepresented. Those who don't win the numbers game outright. A quote that is often erroneously attributed to Benjamin Franklin explains it this way: "Democracy is not freedom. Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to eat for lunch. Freedom comes from the recognition of certain rights which may not be taken away, not even by a 99% vote…. Voters and politicians alike would do well to take a look at the rights we each hold, which must never be chipped away by the whim of the majority." 

In other words, in one way or another, at one time or another, every single one of us at some point in our lives, be it temporarily or congenitally, will find ourselves in a group, category or situation where we are outnumbered. And our rights as human beings are not to be abridged or abused because we lose the numbers game.

This goes to the heart of the bullying epidemic we're seeing today. The bullies believe they reflect majority opinion. They believe the majority of society has got their back and the ones they are targeting get the minority vote. Bullies don't comprehend freedom. They are the wolves voting on the life of the lamb.

This numbers game is fed by statistics. Of course we have to take into account the rights of minorities, the game says, but there are minorities and then there are minorities. You see, education and implementation of initiatives that inform the population and protect the rights of small groups still require time and resources. How do we allocate those resources? We have to be prudent, don't we? If a group is too small, if it is too far outside the mainstream, too different from the majority of us, how do we justify expending limited resources on them? The game then stops calling those minorities 'minorities', stops speaking of their human rights, civil rights or freedoms and starts to call them 'special interests' and begins to speak of not 'caving in' to their cries for 'special treatment'.

Nice twist, that. Neat little inversion. Peppered with code words. All of a sudden a group of people who are statistically outnumbered (blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQ people, for instance) or are traditionally marginalised (women), become the bullies, not the bullied. The outrage of the majority is mobilised against those who are using 'identity politics' to claim 'special privileges' and are trying to force the vast majority of 'us' to bend to 'their' will. But no, the game says, we won't 'cave in' to their intimidation or to their 'agenda'. After all, why should we? Look how few of them there are? 

That was just the response some people gave to a recent report by the UK's Office of National Statistics regarding the number of bisexual, lesbian, gay (and they failed to count transgender) people in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In 2009, the ONS reported that Britain's population was 61.8 million. This past month, the same agency claimed that there are only about 726,000 LGB people in all of Britain, a mere 1.5% of the population (I know. Those of you with calculators are going to say, wait, isn't 1.5% of 61,800,000 actually 927,000? Yeah, but who are we to quibble). Immediately the Daily Mail — a popular paper with right wing leanings, infamous for its 1934 reference to Hitler's "sturdy young Nazis" and the 1993 headline Abortion hope after 'gay genes' finding— jumped on the 'caving in to special interests' bandwagon: Only one in 100 Britons is gay despite long-held myth. "The figure explodes the assumption -- long promoted by social experts and lobbyists -- that the number is up to ten times higher than this at one in ten," the Mail says. And in a brilliant bit of Ye Olde Does-not-follow, they claim these low figures for bisexuals and gays are "further evidence that Britain remains a traditional society, [because] 71% told the same survey that they still regarded themselves as Christian."

'Lies, damned lies and statistics' is a phrase popularised most famously by Mark Twain to describe the persuasive power of numbers to bolster weak arguments. But it also illustrates the tendency of people to either applaud or disparage statistics depending on whether or not those statistics support dearly-held positions and preconceptions. Now this is not solely a Daily Mail or right wing tendency. We're all capable of this error, if we are over-eager about getting an important point across. But that does not excuse sloppy thinking or uncritical review of the numbers, or a biased presentation of the implications of the figures, particularly when so much is at stake. I hardly feel I am going out on a limb when I claim that what is at stake today, when it comes to the statistics about the LGBT population, are people's lives. "The number [of LGB people in Britain] is far lower," the Mail announces, "than the estimate used as a basis for the distribution of millions of pounds in public money to sexual equality causes." They then went on to quote Mike Judge of the Christian Institute who said, "A large amount of public money has been spent on the basis of higher figures, which have turned out to be a lie."

A lie. A deliberate falsification. Not 'previous estimates'. Not 'the results of studies with different methodologies'. Not 'the consequence of a variety of possible factors', such as LGB people not wanting to answer deeply intimate questions about themselves on the doorstep to a complete stranger with a clipboard while parents, partners, neighbours or other family members may be in earshot. Not that household surveys of this type are well-known to under-reach respondents who live alone, as many LGB people in Britain do because of a wide variety of factors (so say previous surveys). But rather, an outright lie.

They have lied to us. We have been hoodwinked. We, good people (i.e., good Christian heterosexual people, since the Mail took pains to continue to compare and contrast 'gay' and 'Christian' statistics throughout the article, as if both groups were mutually exclusive and directly comparable) have been deceived by the gay lobby's slick shell game into believing there were more of them than there are and money has been stolen out of our pockets  — the pockets of the majority of straight Christian Britons who ostensibly have little need of these 'sexual equality causes' that have been foisted on them because of deliberately falsified statistics. Mr Judge's implication is hardly subtle and a great deal can be easily extrapolated: we don't need to spend any more of our limited resources on these special interest anti-bullying programmes targeted at LGBT teens — the general anti-bullying campaigns will be enough. We don't need an expanded sexual orientation awareness module in sex and relationship education classes — just teach them about the regular old heterosexual birds and the bees without pandering to such a tiny minority's fringe interests. We don't need marriage equality, since this tiny minority already has civil partnerships — can you imagine the public funds that will need to be earmarked to change the system to allow just a portion of this handful of people to marry? There's so few of them, anyway, c'mon, they have enough. Enough is enough…. right?

Sentiments such as these are neither far fetched nor singular, nor a product of my imagination. And they are not limited to the UK. In the US, the Texan Republican Party published in their 2010 platform that "We believe that the practice of homosexuality tears at the fabric of society, contributes to the breakdown of the family unit, and leads to the spread of dangerous, communicable diseases. Homosexual behavior is contrary to the fundamental, unchanging truths that have been ordained by God, recognized by our country’s founders, and shared by the majority of Texans. Homosexuality must not be presented as an acceptable 'alternative' lifestyle in our public education and policy, nor should 'family' be redefined to include homosexual 'couples'. We are opposed to any granting of special legal entitlements, refuse to recognize, or grant special privileges including, but not limited to: marriage between persons of the same sex… custody of children by homosexuals, homosexual partner insurance or retirement benefits." (Every time I read such statements, I'm prompted to ask if bisexuals would then be allowed to partially marry or half-maintain custody of their children. But I don't have the GOP's direct phone number, so I couldn't call. And something tells me my point would get lost in translation).

Such statements speak directly to the numbers game. We-the-majority feel we have the right to dictate the very deepest and most intimate aspects of the lives of that-minority.  We-the-majority will decide whose lives are truly valuable and worth living fully. And the effects of such thinking are devastating — in the 'special' case of LGBT youth, the effects are proving deadly.

Journalist Anderson Cooper put it so well during his recent appearance on the Ellen Degeneres show, when he spoke about "the words people use and the things people say" that enter into the consciousness of our children and teens. It "enters into their internal dialogue," he says. "And when you're a kid, it can change the way you see yourself and the way you think about yourself, and the worth that you give to yourself. I think we need to really focus on what language we're using and how we're treating these kids." What impact must the language of the Texan Republican Party have had on the citizens of Texas? the discussions they had over dinner? the sermons they listened to in church? the banter among kids in the school yard when a child that is a bit 'different' walks by? A child that is not in the majority? A child who walks, talks, dresses or, heaven forefend, even speaks words ("I'm gay. I'm lesbian. I'm bisexual. I'm transgender.") that mark them out as one of those 'special interests' who are lying to 'us' and forcing their agenda on 'us'. We'll show 'them'.

And the effects of these words and the deeds, policies and legislation that come in their wake are dreadful. Between 1970 and 2009, there have been over 150 worldwide studies that reported high rates of suicide among bisexual and gay people, particularly adolescents and young adults. As one American study summarised, bisexual and gay youth "are 2 to 3 times more likely to attempt suicide than other young people. They may comprise up to 30% of completed youth suicides annually." Other studies cite their figures in another way: these youth are "four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers." Two independent studies done in the late 90s, one in the US and one in New Zealand, report that "homosexual and bisexual men and women are at greater risk of suicidal ideation and overall mental health problems than their heterosexual counterparts" throughout their lives.

But are these not just lies, damned lies and statistics as well? I think not. And not just because I agree with them and they bolster my argument. I judge statistics as openly as possible, looking into the way researchers collect and report their data, the funding bodies that back the studies, and the ideological bent of the people who do the study (one notorious and widely-published study on the purported 'non-existence' of male bisexuals turns out to have been done by a man with a noted homophobic eugenicist bent). I also judge statistics by their deeds — or rather, the deeds of those who wield them. Truth in the hands of the corrupted does little if any good. Even if a statistical report is unassailable in its methods, if it is used uncritically, hard-heartedly or self-interestedly the actions taken in its name can be injurious and, therefore, must be challenged. Basically, statistics are not there to make the majority 'more right' or 'more deserving' than the minority or marginalised.

What the LGBT teens who are now at risk do not need to hear is that some study says their numbers are so small they don't matter. Those that bully them do not need to hear that their parents, teachers, ministers, police and politicians will somehow and in some way turn a blind eye or, god forbid, support them in perpetrating their abuse because, heck, they outnumber the 'others' anyway.

What they need to hear is that they don't have to prove their worth to people who disparage them. They need to hear that they are good enough. That they are worthy. That they don't have to live either by the cloud or the sunshine shone by whatever evidence, statistics or research is cited at any particular moment in time. They need to hear that they are valued just as they are. That they are owed equal human and civil rights not because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. They are owed them because they are people.


  1. Hello dear,

    Excellent essay, which ought to be picked up by the Huffington Post, or somesuch popular site. And an especially strong final paragraph, which ought to internalized by all who have lingered at the edge, wondering whether or not to jump.

    Keep on with the holy work of satirists, journalists, and all progressives: oppress the comfortable and comfort the oppressed! You're very good at it.



  2. To say the stats are chilling is an understatement. I was once in a standard marriage, two kids, picket fence, church on Sunday. It was emotionally abusive and a lie.

    Now I am in a lesbian relationship, fully pagan when I admit any religon at all, four dogs, and lots of love and laughter. It can be done people, there is a good life out there, don't give up on it.

  3. Thank you Toni & LadyJL!

    I intend to write another piece soon on the hurt that words can cause beyond statements about statistics -- but I need to take some time to digest all the anti-LGBT attacks, vilification and deaths that are being reported daily. My mind is boggling at all that is happening.

    And today is International Coming Out day... hopefully voices like yours, those at the Trevor Project and the It Gets Better campaign are heard above the bigoted voices and the hate-filled politicians.

  4. You write beautifully and with good sense. It is wonderful to know someone with your way with words and passion for your beliefs has found a voice on behalf of so many of us in the same (well, similar!) position. Keep up the good work!

  5. A marvelous post about a very important topic. I hope you will keep this up, because I am sure it is going to be a very important voice for those who have none, or are afraid to speak out. I'll be listening in for more!
    PS: Start tweeting this up

  6. Thank you Anon & Jennifer -- your encouragement is truly appreciated!

    And, yes, I have just signed on to twitter this past week as the_suburban_bi.

    I am twitter virgin, though, and am still figuring it all out. I hope to be able to utlise that tool as well to engage with other human & civil rights activists... again, thanks for the encouragement :)

  7. I just found your blog today, and really rated this piece. I managed to get my own thoughts about the It Gets Better Project published at The Guardian's Comment is free site the day after you published this. It was my only attempt at getting anything published, but I take my hat off to you - you write so much better than I. Thank you, and keep it up. You're now in my Feed Reader!

    Best Regards

    Mike K (aka stardancer69)

  8. Mike, thank you. I just went over the Guardian link and read your wonderful piece. So moving. I applaud your courage in posting to the Guardian, as their commentators are a tough crowd! But what you wrote just had to be said. Again, thanks.

  9. Your passion about such an important cause will definitely benefit others

  10. Thank you, Gay Berkshire... I do hope so, and it is good of you to say. I originally intended to only update this blog once per month, but recent events have changed that schedule somewhat and are dictating topics. I will soon post another article that touches on the suicides that continue to happen, the words that hurt and heal, and what we can do about them. Again, thanks.

  11. Hi,

    Very off-topic but after some studying, I've managed to hack so your blog's words are no longer invisible on the page!