On Monday night, more than 200 college students, faculty, staff and community members gathered around the fountain on the UVM green for a candlelight vigil in memory of the gay youth who have committed suicide in recent weeks. The event was an appropriately somber affair, with candles flickering as young person after young person took the podium and poured out their hearts.
In the past month, five gay teens — Billy Lucas, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown, Tyler Clementi and Raymond Chase — killed themselves after being bullied and harassed over their sexuality. One more, Justin Aaberg, took his own life in July. In the wake of these most recent deaths, Aaberg's mother has spoken up about the reason for her son's suicide — bullying related to his sexual orientation.
The vigil, organized by the LGBTQA Center at UVM, was meant to be a show of solidarity, saying in effect that one LGBT youth taking his or her own life is one too many. Dot Brauer, who runs the center, invoked one of the first candlelight vigils — one held in the aftermath of the assassination of Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist and openly gay politician, in 1978.
"This is about lighting up the darkness," Brauer told the crowd. "This is about refusing to stay silent. And affirming our strength and unity. And being aware that we're not alone."
After Brauer spoke, more than a dozen students from UVM and Champlain College spoke about their experience coming out or dealing with hate. They were refreshingly eloquent and enviably resilient.
"I'm a strong, happy person," said Dan Merrill, president of Champlain's LGBTQA group called INCLUDE. "But I didn't use to be. I lived with the crushing weight of fear of people finding out I was gay. I thought it would be the end of my life if other people knew. But it was just the beginning."
One student talked about a teacher who denounced gay people. Another spoke about his family ridiculing gays and lesbians around the Thanksgiving table. Still another shared a story about listening to her father preach that gay people should be shot.
One young woman named Rose stood at the podium and told those assembled that she once tried to drown herself in high school, she was so ashamed to be queer. "I looked in the mirror and all I saw was an ugly homo who loved a girl," she said.
Some took the mic to offer support. "I'm here for my wife," said one woman. "And I'm here for each and every one of you whose parents didn't accept you."
Kofi Mensah, the openly gay president of the UVM Student Government Association, addressed the crowd, which swelled as the vigil wore on.
"Your courage is the way other people know they can make it," Mensah said.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in a night full of heartbreaking speeches and moving rallying cries came from a parent of a gender-variant child who "lives in the middle spaces." This parent explained that the child is harassed and threatened every day at school for not fitting into gender norms. The child is constantly asked, "Are you a boy or a girl?" and the answer, the parent said, is always wrong.
"I hear you on the other side," the parent said of the students who spoke of successfully coming out and becoming accepted. "But when you're right here in the middle ground, it's hard to see that far."
After the vigil, a group from UVM planted five mums in the garden surrounding the fountain in honor of the five young men who committed suicide. People lingered at the fountain, hugging each other and gazing at the twinkling candles. Slowly, they dissipated into the night.
Obviously, I didn't get up to speak — I was working. But if I had, here's what I would have said:
Thank you. Thank you to all of the young people who are so unfailingly brave. Thank you for having the strength to admit who you are, not only to yourself, but to your family and your community. Thank you for risking everything. Thank you for enduring. You have made the journey infinitely easier for those who follow.
This reconciliation with oneself was something I wasn't able to do until I was much older. I didn't come out until I was 25 years old. I had inklings before that, certainly. I endured innumerable sleepless, panicked nights where I lay awake obsessing over the possibility that I was gay. During the bad days, I couldn't eat. At times, I could barely breathe. But I hid my anxiety well. I dove into schoolwork and sports. But after a certain point, you can't pretend anymore. The more you pretend, the less of life you are living.
The reason I was able to be my authentic self is in large part due to the courage of those who had come out before. Kids who came out in high school made it OK to be out in college. Folks who came out in college made it OK to come out in grad school, and so on. All of you who told yourselves that hiding in a closet of shame, fear and self-loathing was no way to live provided me and others like me — perhaps people not so strong — a soft landing when we finally did come out. And for that I can only say thank you. A million times over, thank you.
If you haven't seen columnist Dan Savage's It Gets Better Project, a YouTube initiative aimed at letting LGBTQ kids know that "it gets better," you should. Because it does.
Resources for the LGBTQA community:
Free 2 Be — UVM student LGBTQA organization
Champlain College INCLUDE — Champlain College student LGBTQA organization
Outright Vermont — queer youth organization
R.U.1.2? Community Center — queer community center
GLSEN — Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network
The Trevor Project — 24-hour LGBT suicide prevention hotline