Does NOM share blame for gay teen suicides?

NOTE FROM JOHN: Please welcome Gabriel Arana, a new contributor to AMERICAblog and AMERICAblog Gay. Gabriel is the assistant web editor at The American Prospect and writes about gay-rights issues, immigration, education, and media culture. His pieces have appeared in The NationSlate, The Advocate, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native of Nogales, Arizona.
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On the heels of yet another gay suicide, NOM President Maggie Gallagher has an op-ed in the New York Post absolving herself of responsibility.

Evan Wolfson, one of the leading architects of the gay marriage movement, calls me out personally: “National Organization for Marriage Chairman Maggie Gallagher is among those who, with reckless disregard, attacks LGBT youth.”

Former Clinton adviser Richard Socarides told the AP these suicides demonstrate why gays should be allowed to marry: “When you speak out for full equality now, as opposed to partial equality, or incremental equality, you send a message to everybody, including the bullies, that everyone is equal.”

Apparently, either we all agree that gay marriage is good or gay children will die.

Gallagher’s formulation of the argument makes it sound ridiculous. Of course she and her ilk are not directly responsible for the spate of gay suicides, but most gay-rights folk aren’t arguing that — it’s a straw man. The real charge is that anti-gay rhetoric in politics has a trickle-down effect that reinforces the type of anti-gay attitudes that make life tough for gay teens. The connection between the work of the National Organization for Marriage and the culture of homophobia that prevails in schools is much less direct, but it exists.

Opponents of marriage equality — or of gays serving in the military, for that matter — like to pretend that their “principled” opposition to gay rights is not borne of the sort of prejudice that makes bullies beat up on gay kids. To that point, they’ll condemn discrimination against gays and lesbians, and indeed if you’ve ever heard Gallagher speak, she seems like a pretty reasonable person, even nice. But this is what makes anti-gay activists like her so pernicious: They lend prejudice an air of respectability.

First, it is difficult to deny that the people voting for gay-marriage bans, or who oppose gays in the military, aren’t motivated by prejudice. Just look at the comments section of any news piece about a gay-rights issue; armed with anonymity, people are more than willing to say that they don’t want gay marriage because gays are gross, etc. And the leaders of the anti-marriage crowd rely on this sort of bigotry as a platform. As a federal judge in California found this summer, over and over the proponents of Prop. 8 appealed to people’s fear of, and disgust with, gay people, warning that children weren’t safe and that the states would fall into the hands of Satan were Adam and Steve to get married. On TV, gay-rights opponents like Gallagher offer more reasoned arguments against gay marriage — e.g., we don’t know what the consequences will be, so we should proceed with caution – but when it comes to the heat of a campaign, you see what the anti-marriage movement is really about.

But I’d go a step further. Gallagher and her ilk aren’t just using bigotry to their advantage; they are motivated by it as well. This is of course harder to prove, but social psychology shows that people form attitudes before they come up with rationalizations for them; in other words, you dislike gay people before you come up with a reason for opposing gay marriage. Actually, it’s pretty easy to test yourself. Psychologists use a standard, timed word-association test called the Implicit Association Test (IAT) to measure unconscious attitudes toward various minority groups. Harvard has put up a demonstration site where you can test yourself here. I’d bet anything that if they didn’t coach themselves, the IAT would show that all the top people at NOM have strong negative feelings about gay people.

The broader point is that opposition to marriage equality is deeply rooted in prejudice. This prejudice manifests itself in various ways — in bullying, hateful online comments, and yes, in political opposition to gay rights. While Gallagher is not barging into schools bullying gay kids, she is reinforcing the type of prejudice that leads others to do so.

But the most bizarre part of her op-ed is where she seems to deny that there is any connection between bullying and teen suicide at all:

These kinds of negative outcomes are consistent with the idea that anti-gay bullying is mainly responsible for the higher suicide rate among gay teens. But as I kept reading, I kept finding pieces of the puzzle that don’t seem to fit the “it’s homophobia pulling the trigger” narrative.

Gay students are also more than twice as likely to report having had sexual intercourse before age 13 — that is, to be sexually abused as children. They are three times as likely to report being the victims of dating violence, and nearly four times as likely to report forced sexual contact. A majority of LGBT teens in Massachusetts reported using illegal drugs in the last month. (Perhaps most oddly, gay teens are also three times as likely as non-gay teens to report either becoming pregnant or getting someone else pregnant.)

These, Gallagher says, are the real reasons gay kids are committing suicide. But “having sexual intercourse before age 13” does not necessarily indicate that these children are abused — I’m not sure where Gallagher got this finding, but it could very well be the case that it’s kids playing around with each other (it’s hard to know without the source); it’s also disturbingly reminiscent of the argument that people who are molested turn out to be gay — a psychological finding that has long been discredited. I also bet a majority of straight teens in Massachusetts reported using illegal drugs in the last months, too. But these things are not the point. Even if these other factors contribute to gay teens committing suicide, it simply does not follow that anti-gay bullying isn’t part of the problem — in fact, the prejudice, and the bullying it inspires, could be at the root of many of these problems.

At the end of the op-ed, Gallagher says that “each of these kids is a child of God,” and says they need “real help.” But apparently even children of God don’t deserve to be free of bullying in schools.


Gabriel Arana is a senior editor at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. His pieces have appeared in The Nation, Slate, The Advocate, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native of Nogales, Arizona.

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