A Mother Speaks Out
What happens when schools fail to take action against harassment of gay and lesbian youth?
The following is excerpted from remarks at a news conference in September by the National Education Association and the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educators Network (GLSEN). At the news conference, GLSEN released its second annual report card on school district’s policies toward gay and lesbian students and staff. More than half the nation’s 42 largest districts received a failing grade, which meant they do not have a single policy or program to help protect the rights of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered students.
I am a nurse, a Catholic, and the mother of a gay son, Robbie Kirkland.
When my family and I realized that Robbie was gay we let him know immediately that we loved, supported, and accepted him. After all, we had raised him to believe that God loves and accepts everyone despite their differences in race, color, creed, and sexual identity. But our efforts could not protect him from the rejection and harassment he experienced.
As early as first grade, Robbie was teased and harassed because he was noticeably different from the other boys. Robbie was soft-spoken, gentle, creative, and hated sports. Despite his many efforts to fit in with the other boys, such as participating in sports and pretending to have crushes on girls, Robbie was still perceived as different and eventually as gay.
When he did tell us about the early years of harassment, coming home with scratches and torn pants, of being hit by another boy in the locker room, having rocks thrown at him, and of being pushed down in the snow and called “faggot” by a schoolmate, we took him to a counselor and eventually changed his school.
Unfortunately, the teasing and harassment that so humiliated Robbie, proceeded to escalate as he got older. Most of the teasing and physical attacks Robbie experienced in school occurred out of the teacher’s view in hallways, playgrounds, bathrooms, locker rooms, buses, and unsupervised classrooms.
In a classroom filled with students, but no teacher, a classmate came after him with a sharpened pencil, pointed it in his face and yelled “faggot” repeatedly. Many other acts of aggression were subtle, but persistent. Over time name-calling, pushing, shoving, and general exclusion left him feeling ashamed, insecure, and alone.
It was in 8th grade that Robbie made his first suicide attempt. His suicide note began with, “Whatever you find, I’m not gay,” and ended with, “Robbie Kirkland, the boy who told himself to put on a smile, shut up, and pretend you’re happy. It didn’t work.” After that attempt, his therapist confirmed our suspicions that he was gay. Our family rallied around him. My unconditional love and acceptance blinded me from seeing how unhappy he was.
We hoped that high school would be different. Because his new high school was large, he had high hopes that he would not be picked on or singled out. But Robbie’s hopes were just that, hope. Although we were not aware, the harassment continued.
Robbie shot himself in the head on Jan. 2, 1997, four months into his ninth grade year. It was the end of Christmas break. He was 14, and was found by my 19-year-old daughter Danielle. I believe his timing to be intentional so that he could avoid the pain of returning to school. Robbie wrote, “I hope I can find the peace in death that I could not find in life.” He asked for us to pray for him and to remember him.
Our family has been devastated by this tragedy. Our lives are forever changed for having lost such a loving gentle sensitive young man. Since his death, I have told Robbie’s story to whomever will listen, in the hope of bringing some good from this tragedy.
Robbie’s death has already had an influence on the Catholic school which he attended. After Robbie died, the school’s president addressed the student body and explicitly spelled out that gays – and indeed all people – have dignity, and that this is never to be violated. The speech will be given to all incoming freshman.
My purpose now is to help other gay youth. I sincerely hope that GLSEN’s Back To School Campaign can bring about the needed change to make every school environment a safe place for gay youth.