Unfinished Lives

Remembering LGBT Hate Crime Victims

Gay Student Condemned By Church Dies By Suicide

Ben Wood, 21, bullied by Church Youth Leader, takes his own life.

Ben Wood, 21, bullied by Church Youth Leader, takes his own life.

Asheville, North Carolina – William “Ben” Wood was 21 when he died on the floor of his dorm at UNC-Asheville.  Friends who found him said that he was drawn up in a fetal position on May 8, 2013, having slashed open his veins.  The loss of this sensitive, justice-seeking young gay man is a tragedy by most accounts–his friends and school mates say he was a fine student, but in recent months his grades and school performance had plunged.  The university junior couldn’t deal with the prospect of going back to his neighborhood in Asheville without being a student any longer, according to his mother’s account in the Reconciling Ministries Network Blog.  As a teen, he had been irreparably wounded by a Youth Leader at his home church as he prepared to go on a Mission trip with his friends from the United Methodist Youth Fellowship.

His mom, Julie Wood, recounts how the misguided Youth Leader singled out her son for being gay in front of his peers.  The leader said, You all know, we all know, that Ben is gay.  Who here is comfortable being around him?”  Demanding a response from each youth in the group, the Leader then said, “Do you understand that Ben is going to hell?”  Once again, the Youth Leader pressed each youth for an answer about Ben.  Crushed, exposed, and broken by the experience, Ben came home while his UMYF friends left on the bus for the Mission Trip.  His mother, who stalwartly contends that their home church is a loving and supportive place, says that this was the trigger experience she believes led to the suicide of her son a few agonizing years later.  Mrs. Wood writes:

“Ben was told that he was not worthy of going on the mission trip.  He had been shamed, humiliated, and betrayed.  He was told that he did not deserve to be a part of the group.  He was no representative of God. 

Out of our front window, I saw the goldish colored Caviler abruptly whip into our driveway.   Ben ran up the porch steps and stood in the doorway.  One look, and I knew, something horrible had happened.  The flushed sides of his cheeks quivered as did his lip.  His breathing was rapid and his eyes just about to spill over. 

The church bus was loaded with Ben’s friends to go on that mission trip while my betrayed and broken son, walked alone around Salem Lake.   He must have felt so very abandoned and isolated. 

While he never lost his compassion for others, I think that this was the day that he gave up on people and God.” 

Skeptics may argue that there is no clear correspondence between the suicide of a young gay man years after the shaming incident that took place in a church youth group in his teens.  Others will say that the church is basically a loving and supportive place, but is put in a hard situation by teachings like those of the United Methodist Church that send an ambiguous, essentially rejecting message about lesbians and gay people.  On the one hand, the social teachings of the church say that every person, including “homosexuals,” is of “sacred worth.”  On the other, the United Methodist Church stubbornly rejects homosexuality as “incompatible” with Christian teaching–denying ordination and marriage to LGBT people, and defrocking their clergy who carry out same-sex marriage ceremonies, or who live openly as lesbian or gay people.

So, who stands guilty of Ben Wood’s death?  The Youth Minister who was applying what he believed the teachings of his church on homosexuality to be?  Ben’s so-called “friends” who one-by-one (under pressure from an adult leader, of course) abandoned Ben to shame and broken heartedness?  The theologians and clergy of the church, who cannot seem to reconcile the love of God on the one hand, and social heterosexism and homophobia on the other?  And what of Ben’s own responsibility to transcend the suffering of his youth–though this latter argument is little more than blaming a victim for his own demise?

Bens’ obituary says he was a genuine, complex, and worthwhile human being.  The Winston-Salem Journal and Sentinel  records that Ben “was a member of Sedge Garden United Methodist Church and was a Junior at UNC-Asheville. Ben had a kind and loving soul, with a great sense of humor. He was particularly compassionate to the needs and struggles of others more than himself and was a great journalist. To his younger sisters, Ben was a great big brother who shared lots of walks in the creeks and scavenger hunts with their stuffed animals.”  The obituary goes on to say that three clergy spoke at his funeral, and that his own maternal grandfather was a clergyman.  But Ben found so little hospitality and comfort from the churches around him and the clergy who served them that he could not and did not reach out to them in his darkest hours.  So, a sensitive, socially conscious young man, who happened to be gay and Christian, took his own life.

Dr. Stephen V. Sprinkle, Professor of Practical Theology at Brite Divinity School, and a native North Carolinian himself, issues this opinion and prayer for other young LGBT persons: “The churches and their leadership have much to answer for in the deaths of young people like Ben Wood.  While we may not be able to point to a smoking gun linking the suicide of young persons condemned by church teachings to the culpability of the churches, there is no doubt that Christian heterosexism and homophobia contribute to the climate that denigrates LGBTQ people and creates undue suffering in their lives.  Indeed, there are progressive and welcoming churches and clergy, and for them we give thanks.  But they are too few, and the silence of church people about the prejudice condemning LGBTQ folk is a major contributing factor in the horror of spiritual violence against them.”

Dr. Sprinkle concludes:  “Let us be crystal clear about this: the heterosexism and homophobia Ben Wood experienced in his life is a Christian heresy–one the churches and clergy of every stripe must find the courage to repent of and repudiate.  And we must do everything we can to make amends to youth like Ben, and to their families.”

February 7, 2014 Posted by | Anglo Americans, Anti-LGBT hate crime, Brite Divinity School, Bullycide, gay men, gay teens, GLSEN, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Homosexuality and the Bible, LGBT teen suicide prevention, LGBTQ, LGBTQ suicide, North Carolina, religious hate speech, religious intolerance, United Methodist Church | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Gay Teen’s Heartbreaking Suicide Note: Bullying Led to El Paso Youth’s Untimely Death

Brandon Joseph Elizares, 16: artist, poet, Shakespeare lover, gay boy. Bullying led to his suicide June 2.

El Paso, Texas – Brandon Elizares came out to his mother when he was 14. “I’m still me. I’m Brandon. Nothing has changed, except I like boys,” his mother, Zachalyn Elizares remembers. Bullied relentlessly for being gay, he Andress High School sophomore barely made it to 16. News of his plaintive farewell note hit the media Thursday, compounding the impact of his June 2 death from an overdose of pills. “My name is Brandon Joseph Elizares,” he wrote, “and I couldn’t make it. I love you guys with all my heart.” His younger brother found Brandon’s body in his room, where the note was left along with a careful display of all his school awards and his art work, according to the KVIA-TV News 7, the local ABC affiliate.  His mother commented on the rest of the note’s content: “He wrote that he was sorry, that he felt like he had to hide under his skin from being who he was because it made him feel terrible.” 

His mother and his friends painted a grim picture of Brandon’s last days at Andress High. The precipitating hate message that seemed to tip Brandon over the edge was a text message on Friday from a boy who threatened to fight him for being gay.  The El Paso Times reports that Brandon had attended Andress for only about two months, having transferred from Chapin High School where the anti-gay bullying had become intense. The bullying followed him to his new school.  Taunts and threats plagued him, though Brandon tried to put a brave face on things for his mother.  “I know it’s hard being a teenager, and it’s especially hard being a gay teenager,” Zachalyn Elizares told reporters, “but I didn’t realize how hard it was. Knowing when to step in is always difficult.” When Brandon told her students threatened to shoot him and to set him on fire, she dove in to rouse school officials first at Chapin and then at Andress to the problem. Brandon reported the bullying to school authorities, and they did reprimand some of his tormentors in the school–but they didn’t notify the bullies’ parents, according to Ms. Elizares.  “I don’t know if they didn’t take it seriously unless it turned physical,” she said. “Parents should know what their kids are doing, especially if they’re being taught these things at home.”

His mother doesn’t want anyone to face prosecution for her son’s death by suicide.  She says he made a choice. But it is clear to her, to Brandon’s friends, and to El Paso community leaders that bullying led to Brandon’s suicide.  Instead of retribution, Ms. Elizares hopes the parents of bullies and their victims across the nation will learn from her awful loss. Parents, she says, must become more aware of what their children are doing in school, whether they are bullying others, or are the target of bullying. “You can’t fix anything if you don’t know what the problem is,” she said.

Brandon’s story is going viral around the nation.  Many are learning about him, his challenges, and the courage of his family. Though news outlets usually refrain from reporting on suicides, the special circumstances surrounding Brandon’s death have caused many media organizations to make an exception.  Homophobic bullying has to be exposed in order to effectively confront it.

Meanwhile, Zachalyn Elizares and her surviving son and daughter are doing the best they can.  Brandon was a premie, just three pounds when he was born, she remembers.  He was her first child, born when she was just 16 herself, a very young mother in Hawaii. She said to the El Paso Times, “I literally had to grow up with him.”  As a military family, the Elizares clan moved to El Paso. She intends to take her son’s body back to Hawaii for burial next week. A memorial service is planned on Friday, June 15 at Holy Spirit Episcopal Church, beginning at 7 p.m. El Paso’s PFLAG Chapter is sponsoring the service, and is collecting a fund to help with expenses. The hurt his mother feels breaks through from time-to-time, tears bleeding through the laughter and smiles she tries to show the world. “He worried about everyone else before himself,” she said. “He would say, ‘It’s OK, it doesn’t bother me.’ My son had a right to live how he wanted to live.”

June 15, 2012 Posted by | Bullycide, Bullying in schools, gay teens, GLBTQ, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, Latino and Latina Americans, LGBT teen suicide prevention, LGBTQ, LGBTQ suicide, military, PFLAG El Paso, suicide, Texas | , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

High School Students Suspended for Roles in Rodenmeyer Bully-cide

Jamey Rodenmeyer,14, bullied by high school classmates

Williamsburg School District, New York – An unspecified number of North High School students have been suspended for bullying Jamey Rodenmeyer, who killed himself in September following unrelenting anti-gay harassment.  The Advocate reports that the suspensions resulted from information shared by police after the Rodenmeyer case was closed.  Though Amherst law enforcement authorities declined to bring charges against students in the case, they identified at least five incidents of anti-gay bullying aimed at Rodenmeyer, a 14-year-old freshman. The boy’s parents and school officers were not informed of the bullying incidents in question until it was too late.

School officials would not say the number of students suspended, but indicated that each of them faced a “minimum suspension” of at least five days.  Longer term suspensions may have been invoked, as well, though expulsion from school is not permitted for youths of this age.  These suspensions mark the second round of actions taken by the school system since Rodenmeyer’s death.  A female student who said she was “glad he was dead” was suspended soon after the suicide. Rodenmeyer, whose “It Gets Better” YouTube video gained wide circulation and the attention of Lady Gaga, took his life by hanging on September 18.

December 5, 2011 Posted by | Anglo Americans, Bullycide, Bullying in schools, gay teens, GLBTQ, harassment, Hate Crimes, Heterosexism and homophobia, It Gets Better Project (IGBP), Lady Gaga, Law and Order, LGBTQ, LGBTQ suicide, New York | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on High School Students Suspended for Roles in Rodenmeyer Bully-cide

Heartbroken 14-year-old Gay Youth Tormented to Death

Amherst, New York – Jamey Rodenmeyer wrote Lady Gaga lyrics on his Facebook page the weekend before he took his own life: “Don’t forget me when I come crying to heaven’s door.”  The quotation is from “The Queen,” a song included on Lady Gaga’s hit album, “Born This Way.”  The 14-year-old Williamsville North High student suffered unrelenting taunting and cyberbullying for being gay. Though he was in counseling with a therapist and a social worker, and was supported by his parents and a host of fans around the country due to his YouTube video for the “It Gets Better” project, the cumulative effect of psychic trauma and fear of violence broke down young Rodenmeyer’s defenses. His parents, who found Jamey’s body outside their home on September 19, told WGRZ Buffalo that they are certain he killed himself because of the bullying.  Rodenmeyer’s suicide immediately rekindled nationwide concern and anger over the culture of violence elementary, middle, and secondary school LGBTQ students face in and out of classrooms every day.  Lady Gaga called for a campaign to make bullycide a hate crime by law (no bullying laws exist in New York State).  An outspoken advocate for the gay and lesbian community, Gaga tweeted her fans: “Jamey Rodemeyer, 14 yrs old, took his life because of bullying.  Bullying must become be illegal. It is a hate crime.”  She then committed herself to approach President Obama.  “I am meeting with our President,” she posted.  “I will not stop fighting. This must end. Our generation has the power to end it. Trend it #MakeALawForJamey.”  Dan Savage, the co-originator of the “It Gets Better” project for which Rodemeyer made a video last May, said that he broke down and cried when he heard about the youth’s suicide.  Savage wrote on his blog, “The point of the ‘It Gets Better’ project is to give kids like Jamey Rodemeyer hope for their futures. But sometimes hope isn’t enough. Sometimes the damage done by hate and by haters is simply too great. Sometimes the future seems too remote. And those are the times our hearts break.”

The insults, rumors, and ridicule became too much for Jamey to bear.  On a Formspring site he opened to chat with friends online, he was targeted by irrational hate.  The Washington Post reports two representative instances of hate speech that would have unsettled anyone, no matter how well grounded: “JAMIE IS STUPID, GAY, FAT ANND UGLY. HE MUST DIE!” an anonymous detractor wrote. Another went straight for his heart: “I wouldn’t care if you died. No one would. So just do it 🙂 It would make everyone WAY more happier!”  Even though there were expressions of support among the posts to his site, the loudness of the hate drowned out the love. In hindsight, Jamey’s cries for help are all too obvious.  On September 9, he wrote on Facebook, “I always say how bullied I am, but no one listens. … What do I have to do so people will listen to me? No one in my school cares about preventing suicide, while you’re the ones calling me [gay slur] and tearing me down.”  But the face he let his parents see was calm and relatively upbeat.  Just days before he took his own life, the family went on a camping trip.

Amherst Police are investigating whether charges may be brought against youths who continually dogged Rodenmeyer with taunts and slurs. Buffalo News reports that the Special Victims Unit has been assigned to investigate whether crimes were committed against Jamey.  Cyberbullying, especially if it was centered on Rodenmeyer’s sexual orientation, could carry charges against his tormentors.  Police spokesmen have said that they are focusing their probe on one to three young harassers who targeted Rodenmeyer ever since he was a student at Heim Middle School. “We’re looking into it to see if he was the victim of any crimes, and that’s the bottom line,” Amherst Chief of Police John C. Askey told reporters. “We’re going to be speaking to school officials and students and anyone with direct information about crimes that may have been committed against this individual.”

Nearly 5,000 youths commit suicide each year, according the Centers for Disease Control, making teen suicide, especially teen LGBTQ suicide, a national health issue.  But the statistics cannot adequately count the cost of bullying in American society. Criminal harassment, ridicule, and threats strike real boys and girls one-by-one, like Jamey Rodenmeyer, and rip away their futures. In the last communication of his short life, Jamey tweeted Lady Gaga, “@ladygaga bye mother monster thank you for all you have done, paws up forever.”  In a tribute to Gaga, Jamey’s parents buried him Saturday wearing his “Born This Way” tee shirt.

September 23, 2011 Posted by | Anglo Americans, Anti-LGBT hate crime, anti-LGBT hate crime murder, Bisexual persons, Blame the victim, Bullycide, Bullying in schools, Dan Savage, gay men, gay teens, Gender Variant Youth, GLBTQ, harassment, Hate Crime Statistics, Hate Crimes, hate speech, Heterosexism and homophobia, It Gets Better Project (IGBP), Lady Gaga, Law and Order, Legislation, Lesbian women, LGBT teen suicide prevention, LGBTQ, LGBTQ suicide, New York, Perpetrators of Hate Crime, Slurs and epithets, Social Justice Advocacy, transgender persons, transphobia | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Comments Off on Heartbroken 14-year-old Gay Youth Tormented to Death

   

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