queer youth suicide

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Queer youth suicide, culture and identity : unliveable lives? I by Rob Cover. ...... on mental illness (Smalley, Scourfield and Greenland 2005: 139-140). In the.



Blending bed"t4ii, !!y errorit iese"rch wilh rr"@b, ses of", ediq representa!10/7s, Rob

Cove, . shows us that queer yoz, th do nor seek deo!h, bur on end to Ihe pressure of [email protected]!'"g Ihei, . serverI identities cohe, ^Mt. alongside shame, v!,/"erabi/try hornqphobio a"d !he aria, rd! poli, ics of coming o"i. We Innsi frove o gen"me interdiscjplinmy dihlogwe of we Qre eve, ' to coinpi. ehendqt, eer' 14n? OS yes^^ien, .

Katrina Jaworski, University of South Australia, Australia

Informed by POS/-sir"dorolis"I, queer. theory and a trailsdisc;pnridiy ethos, this

highly accessible fart demonstrates the relevance of cum, 18 SIMdies to a topic do, "mated by psychological grid SOCio!ogicd! uriab, ses. Introducing debuies on sarafanty, and sineida! risk while 4/1es!ioning the expldna!o13.1 I;'@meworks and preye"!ion sirotegies rhot might be qpp!ied to issues of v, 41"erobi/ity, rind 921eer J, o141h sineide this book is on impol. tont marker ill Ihe emeiging. /teld ofq, ,eeryo, ,Ih suicide.

Katherine Johnson, University of Brigliton, ER


Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity Unliveable Lives?


University of Western At!sir'alto, Allstrd/to


@ Rob Cover 2012

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any fomi or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior pennission of the publisher.


Rob Cover has asserted his Tight under the Copyright, Designs and PatentsAct, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.

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Acknowledgements Prc:face

Introduction: Queer Youth Suicide, Vulnerability and Unliveable Lives

VT 05401-4405

I Queer Suicide Representations in Popular Media


2 Histories and Genealogies of Suicide Research and Sexuality



3 It Gets Better? Online Representations of Hope, Vulnerability and

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data


Cover, Rob.

Queer youth suicide, CUILure and identity : unliveable lives?.

I. Gay youth--Suicidal behaviour. 2. Gay youth--Psychology. 3. Suicide in mass media.

I. Title 3622'8'086642. dc23

Cover, Rob

Queer youth suicide, culture and identity : unliveable lives? I by Rob Cover. p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references and index. IsBN 978-I-4094-4447.3 (libk. : alk. payer) -IsBN 978-140944448-0 (ebook)

I. Gay youth. 2. Gay youth--Suicidal behavior. 3. Youthin mass media. 4. Suicide in

mass media. I. Title.



IsBN 9781409444473 (hbk) IsBN 9781409444480 (ebk)



FSc' cot 8575

of Sexuality

Printed and bound in Great Britain by the MPG Books Group, UK.


77 97

6 Community: Homononnativity, Exclusion and Relative Misery


Conclusion: Towards Liveable Lives


Bibliogrqphy Filmogrqphy



HQ76.27. Y68C682011


4 Reconstitutions: Identity, Subjectivity and the Dominant Discourses 5 Tensions: Suicide, Sexual Identity and Shame

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Paper from r'sponslble sources


101 Cherry Street

unvwashgate. coin



167 169

Acknowledgements I would like to thank many people across several cities and eras for their

contributions, bothsocialandintellectual, towardsthe development of ideas around

youth, sexuality, suicide and subjectivity that inform this book: in Melbourne Elizabetti Dean, Tessa Keegel, Stephen Prttchard and Daniel Marshall; in Adolaide - Katrina Jaworski, Rosslyn Prosser, Veronika Petrolf, Mandy Treagus, Barbara

Baird and Keren Yi; in Sydney - James Duncan; in New Zealand - Shona Hill; and in Perlh-Elena Jet;tieys and most importantly JetTWilliams. Tlianks are also

due to Shona Hill and Satah Moody, both of wliom undertook research assistant

work for various parts of this project. At the University of Addaide, the ray Gale Centre for Research on Gender provided funding that supported the writing of one chapter; a research grant from Victoria University of Welling ton Ilelped with the

writing of another. This book is for those I know and those I have never known

who are lost, who 1131t their lives were unliveable and for whom we must grieve. I IIOPe that in some unforeseeable way this small contribution can help to make the lives of allyoung people liveable.


Queer Youth Suicide, Vulnerability and Unliveable Lives

Figures, Statistics and Risk: Queer Youth Suicide Research

For over twenty years, publications in policy, psychology, sociology, paediatrics and other fields have often stated that non-heterosexual younger persons are at greater risk of suicidal behaviour, ideation, tliouglits and acts than youth identifying as heterosexual(Gibson 1989, King at a1.2008, negiia and Wichstrom 2007). Indeed, the link between nori-heterosexuality and youth suicide is wellrepresented in contemporary news media, popular culture, policy and research

(Cover 2005b, Igarlua at a1.2009). While there have been some improvements in the social situations and environments for younger non-heterosextial persons that

had previously been thought to contribute to suicidality, particularly in the areas of media representation (Padva 2004), legal protections against discrimination (Aimeida at a1. 2009: 1002), protections against hornophobic violence and

bullying (ESPer age and Swearer 2008: 15n, the prevalence of suicide among non-heterosexual youth remains high (Amieida at a1.2009: 1001, Ryan at a1.2009: 346, Zhao at a1.2010: 104), and there is a demonstrated and ongoing need to continue qualitative research and theon sation of the relationship between sexuality and suicidality (MCAndrew and Warne 2010: 93). That is, while public attitudes continue a liberal shift towards new forms of tolerance for non-heterosexual

behaviours, representations and personages across a range of institutions, the continuing higher frequency of suicide attempts among current queer youth across a range of countries is a matter of ongoing concern (Hegiia and Wichstroni 2007:

22)* requiring further research* new the on sanon and innovative approaches. As

institutional hornophobia, media representation, queer invisibility and stigma have changed (and in some ways diminished) in recent years, continuing suicides indicate that some of the older ideas, reasons and causes no longer explain why young queer persons would kill themselves. But what does the research to date tell us about wily queer youth are at greater risk of suicidal bellaviours? Whatisit that makes queer youth more mumerable than straight youth (to be very narrowly categorical), and what makes some queer you 111 at ureater risk of suicide than other queer youth? Much of the framework through which queer youthsuicideisunderstoodinresearchoccurs through anskdiscourse,

which often is derived from assumptions which drive quantitative research and statistics that have formed such a significant part of the methodological work of suicidologists. Queer youth suicide statistics have been widely disseminated


911eer hull, Suicide, Cull"re and/deniity,

huladi, ciio, I

in public sphere discussions, news reports and policy submissions, not always

of that research. Rather, it is to question the ways in which the circulation of those commonly-cited statistics present an impression that o11 queer youth are vulnerable, and that of this vulnerable population a percentage are likely to attempt suicide. The 'vinnerabilisation' of queer youth is not uncommon in research on queer sexuality. Although they indicate heterosexisni as a significant factor in making non-heterosexual persons at-risk of reduced Ilealth, wellbeing and resilience, Fenaughty and Harr6 (2003 : 18), for example, argued that queer youth sexuality itselfwas uniformly a risk factor with all queer youth at risk of suicide due to growing up within a heterosexist society. Queer youth are thus perceived


unproblematically. In almost all cases throughout the 1990s and 2000s, research

and public discourse have cited Paul Gibson's (1989: 1100 chapter on lesbian and gay suicide in the United States Administration's Report offhe Sec, truly^ Task

Force on fowlh SIItcide and the statements that 'gay youth are 2 to 3 times more

likely to attempt suicide than other young people' and that they 'may comprise up to 30 per cent of completed suicides annually. ' Subsequently, these statistics

have at times been updated through a variety of datagathering and reporting methods, producing some variances althouglithe queermeterOSexual comparative rate remains higli, In one piece of research, queer youth were estimated to have a

in this framework to be universally at risk of suicidal behaviours, and it is not

suicide ideation rate ranging from fifty per cent to severity per cent, and an attempt

just some but, as they put it, o11 - or at least all who nave not yet been Ilelped to develop special resinencies necessitated by being categorised a sexual minority. In this framework, the risk of suicide for queer youthis perceived as internal to the non-normative subject, whereas resilience is external and to be fostered socially There are two issues for ongoing researcli into queer youth suicide that emerge from this particular formation which POSits non-heterosexuality itself as a suicide risk factor. Firstly, there is the assumption that vulnerability to suicidal behaviours for queer youth is the result singularly of sexuality, rather than looking to the fact that sexuality is one facet of identity - albeit an important and sometimes fraught one for adolescents in general - located within a complex of other elements of a

rate lioni tliirty, to forty-two per cent, being three times that for heterosexual youth

(Ruler and Soucar 2002: 2900. Heg, Ia a"d Wichstrom (2007: 22) reported ^ rate for queer youth as being 'at three to four times greater risk of attemptino suicide than heterosexual young people. ' More recently, Zhao and colleagues (2010: 104) reported that queer adolescents have a suicide atternpt rate of between twenty and forty per cent, which is two to six times greater than that of non-queer adolescents. These high rates have been questioned in a number of ways, with claims of under reporting (that is, queer youtli who may have attempted or tliought about suicide but not discussed their sexuality openly) and over-reporting (samples drawn from queer support groups compared with more general sanTples of heterosexualidentifying youth not accessing support of any kind). This is in addition to the

multiply-constituted subject. In other words, there is a tendency to view minority

sexuality as the only significant part of queer youth's subjectivity (Fuss 1989: 116), thereby missing the opportunity to think through the conditions of queer youtli as one ill which there is interaction between different facets of identity, or other cultural, contextual and environmental factors. POSiting a sub-population as

difficulties in obtaining data on sexuality tiffougli psychological autopsies and

coronial reports eroderl, liralovec and Fartscek 2010: 14/2). In tenns of contemporary knowledge frameworks, WITat the circulation of

statistics giving rates for queer youth suicide attempts or completions does is

vulnerable because they are in a minority has the tendency to remove any sense of

present a 'suicidal script', linking nori-normative sexualines with prevalence for

agency froin that group as a whole (Meyer 1996: 102), leaving the subjects at-nand as knowable only though that vulnerability, While there are some shortcomings, there 11as been a notable SIIift in the ways in whicli the field contextualises minority

suicide in a relatively simplistic and rigid manner (Russell2003: 1251-1252). Thereis, of course, a statistical link between non-nounative sexualitIes and higher risk of suicidal behaviours, but the factors which make the link tenable tend to

be debatable, particularly in ternis of understanding the complexity of reasons why sexual non-nonnativity is implicated in increased susceptibility to selfhann (Dorais 2004: 14). Where the link between queer sexuality and suicide is presumed to be causal - that is, youth are at risk if tliey are nori-heterosexual per re - the field of research on queer youth suicide relies on assumptions that limit the possibilities for exploring how notions of mumerability are fashioned in contemporary culture. In producing an exclusive link between nori"normative sexuality and suicidal behaviours, the reliance on queer suicide statistics frequently foils to contextualise the environmental, social, cultural and institutional setting in which suicide becomes tnnikable, particularly in 'snapshot'public communication


identity, with greater emphasis on the role of social reception factors such as heterosexism as a risk factor for suicide, moving away from the problematic

conception that minority identity is the risk itself (White 2009: 3