Atlanta, Georgia – Trapped between anguish over family disapproval of his sexual orientation and nationwide protests over the police killings of black men, a young man climbed a tree in Atlanta’s Piedmont Park and hanged himself. Police discovered the body of 22-year-old London Jermaine, aka Michael George Smith Jr., hanged by the neck near the Charles Allen entrance to the popular urban park early on July 7. Smith, a resident of Midtown and computer science student, had migrated from Hackensack, New Jersey to take up a new life in Atlanta. While there is no evidence of foul play reported by Project Q Atlanta, Smith’s death is a casebook of reasons why the suicides of young gay men may be “murder by suicide,” in which the victims are driven by despair to take their own lives after anti-gay shaming.
Because of his large social media footprint, we are able to trace the pressure that drove him to seek a way to stop the hurt he felt. On June 13, Smith posted a complaint and cry for help: “Being Gay in America is Hard. Being Black in America is Hard. Imagine being both #NoH8.” Family played a large part in browbeating Smith because of their extreme negative attitudes toward gays. On June 17, he posted a screen capture of a text message from a brother, and a sharp reaction to the disapproval of his mother: “God doesn’t born gay people. You make yourself gay.” Smith added this status to the duplicated message: “My mother is teaching my siblings to dispise Gays.. I’m done with Life. I’m Hurt To The Core.” According to posts on his Facebook page, he was also facing health issues.
Just minutes before his drop from the tree in Piedmont Park, Smith left this despairing message on Facebook: “I’ll see y’all in the next Life…Deadass [followed by emoticons] Father forgive me”
Bossip.com reports the storm of criticism Atlanta Police and Mayor Kasim Reed faced following the discovery of Smith’s body. Widespread speculation about a possible “modern lynching” dogged the investigation, and put bulletins to the public on the fast track. With the nation aflame with anger and confusion over the apparently unjustifiable shootings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minnesota, Atlanta officials feared that the public hanging of a young black man could cause an outbreak of violence in their city. The APD reported finding a tall rolling trash receptacle beside the scene of Smith’s death with a footprint on its top corresponding to his shoe. They also found pollen on his clothing indicating he climbed the tree to the limb where the rope that asphyxiated him was tied. There were no signs of struggle, the police reported.
The FBI were called in to carry out an investigation separate from the APD, and spokesperson Special Agent Stephen Emmett issued this statement to Project Q confirming the conclusion that Smith carried out his own death: “A review of the findings of the Fulton County Medical Examiner’s report by both APD and the FBI failed to indicate any signs of foul play or other evidence that would support going forward with a federal hate crime based investigation.”
Young gay men are under severe pressure due to the tension over advances in LGBTQ rights in the U.S., especially young gay men who are African American. Michael George Smith Jr. faced an almost perfect storm of difficulties from family, the culmination of too many deaths of young black men at the hands of unaccountable police officers, and questions about his own health. Too many young men, both those of color and white alike, have succumbed to despair, underlining the epidemic numbers of suicides in the LGBTQ community, compared with the rate of suicide for the dominant ethnic population. The Trevor Project, the nation’s leading anti-suicide hotline, details the grim suicide statistics for lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals. While suicide is the greatest cause of death in the U.S. for young people from 10 to 24, gay youth are three times more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers, and gay youth from highly disapproving families are 8.4 times more likely to attempt to take their own lives than children of families that are accepting.
The degree of hostility towards LGBTQ Americans, especially young gay men of color, is exacting a terrifying cost from the ranks of the nation’s youth. Whether from opposition rooted in conservative religious traditions, ignorance, or backlash against newly minted rights for the LGBTQ community, the loss of young lives like Michael George Smith Jr.’s is not simply tragic. It is a national health emergency.
Bill Clayton wanted to be a sculptor, a teacher, an architect, a counselor…but his life was cut short by irrational hatred on May 8, 1995. He was barely 17. Bill had come out to his parents as a bisexual three years before, when he was 14. Molested by a sexual predator that same year, he went into intensive therapy and regained his old confidence. It took years, but by April 1995 he and his counselor agreed that he was no longer in need of counseling for the PTSD that had plagued him for the past three years.
Bill was out at school, and a vocal, active proponent of the rights of sexual minorities. When an anti-LGBT storm broke over a Women’s History Month speaking invitation to Colonel Margarethe Cammermeyer (who defied Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell in the U.S. Military) at Olympia (Washington) High School, where Bill was a student, he openly supported her presence on campus. She was allowed to speak on March 21, 1995. Strong, homophobic feelings hung thick in the air after that.
On April 6, 1995, ironically one day after his therapist released him, Bill and his friends Sam and Jenny were attacked by a gang of students in broad daylight. The two boys were beaten and kicked unconscious after being verbally assaulted for being queer. The police arrested several boys under 18 who had acted on the community’s homophobia by targeting Bill and his friends. The assault was treated as a hate crime from the beginning. In time, the boys who attacked Bill and Sam were sentenced to 20-30 days in juvenile detention, followed up by probation and community service and four hours of diversity training concentrated on sexual orientation.
Olympia rose to the challenge, and began to face its homophobia at a rally in a city park on April 14. Bill spoke out, saying, “As an openly bisexual person in Olympia, I’m probably–or may be–the victim of this sort of thing again. Hate crimes–especially those against homosexuals and bisexuals and transgendered people are on the rise in this area. And that is why now–more than ever–we, the gay community need to come out and band together and fight for our civil rights and our right to be safe in our homes and on the streets.” It was a brave thing for him to do.
As a result of the attack, Bill fell into a deep depression, becoming suicidal. His family hospitalized him for his own protection and healing. Ten days later he came back home. He told his mother that all he could see ahead was a lifetime of dealing with one assault after another, and he was tired of coping with it all. She wrote about his fear and depression, “He was 17 years old–an age when kids are supposed to be excited about moving out into the world as adults. The only place he felt safe was at home.” She continued, “He saw no hope, so he chose to end his life.” As a living memorial to Bill, his mother, father, and brother have become advocates for LGBTQ youth, and strong voices for the prevention of teen gay suicide. They have not forgotten Bill, and we cannot let ourselves forget him, either.
Now, with anti-bullying legislation on the books in several states, and pending in several others (NC, for one), Bill’s passion for life has a new dawning of hope. Federal legislation has been introduced in Congress to address school bullying and violence. Bill’s story takes on new power as the cause of security and hope for LGBT youth moves to center stage in American consciousness. Every time a life is saved, every time a young boy or girl is helped not to take their lives, Bill Clayton is honored. To save the lives of young queer folk is to vindicate the passion of our young brother, Bill, and all the thousands like him for whom the dawn did not break in time.
To that end, here is the link to the Trevor Helpline, http://www.thetrevorproject.org/ the oldest and largest 24/7 suicide prevention helpline for LGBTQ youth in existence. If you or a friend are feeling lost and alone, call the Trevor Helpline, 866-4-U-Trevor, [866-488-7386]. There is hope, there is help. Bill has not been forgotten. The morning is breaking.