Posted by: MC | October 21, 2010

Gay Teen Suicide: Yes, Listening is a Matter of Life or Death

I’m from Texas.  I haven’t lived there for 22 years, but I am from Texas.  And I love very much about the State.  There are also things – particularly things political, educational and environmental that get me a little crazy about my homeland.

Then this week I found a you tube video that made me so very proud to be from Texas – proud of the elected member of the Fort Worth City Council who was recognized by the mayor of that city to speak publicly of his experience as a survivor of his own serious suicidal impulses as a teen at the hands of bullies.

I don’t know why, but it seems somehow poignant that it was by coincidence Columbus Day (10-12-10) when the Fort Worth, TX City Council held its meeting.  In the opening time for elected members of the Council to make announcements regarding upcoming and recent events and recognition of citizens, the mayor turned to Councilman Joel Burns (

Councilman Burns read from prepared notes.  He had a series of photos prepared and projected with the assistance of a staff person early in his talk.  That is to say, his presentation had all the trappings of a usual public statement on the part of a Councilperson.

In form and relevance, Councilman Burns’ comments were entirely in keeping with the function of that governmental body.  In context and content, however, they were daring.  And then there’s the fact that in time, Joel Burns’ statement was and is of the utmost urgency.

Kids are killing themselves.  Kids who are gay and kids who are taken to be gay – all of whom have been taunted, teased, threatened, beaten up – bullied by other kids and by a popular culture sustained by adults.  The message is as simple as it is ruthless:  That who they are is laughable, despicable and worthless.  Really.  Every day. With little to no consequence to the perpetrators – the bullies.

Joel Burns put his political career on the line to speak for the first time either publicly or privately, of his survival of bullying as a teen in rural Texas.  I’ve put the link to the video here, because there are simply no words to covey the profound sadness, courage and hope contained in the Councilman’s words.  His message – “It gets better.  Live to see that.”

The spate of teen suicides linked with bullying is a horrifying outcome of our collective incapacity to listen to one another – or our national tendency to default to fear and interaction ONLY with people who think and believe the way we do.

Last week, my venture capital friend and I, two people who have worked to stay connected across difference, followed up our trip to the movie Social Network with a chat at Tao of Tea.  So very Portland to transit from cyber-inspired media event to an earthy, and well-water-featured international tea room.   Over steaming cups of Shanti and Kapha Dosha teas, my friend said the portrayal of the Silicon Valley – a place he still flies south to work several days each week – was quite accurate.  “It’s never, never, never about relationship,” he said.  “Always about the bottom line; maybe with a little draw to fame in there, but essentially it’s about the money.”

That wasn’t all that surprising, but the way our conversation took an unfriendly and unexpected jag into the two of us polarizing on the twin topics of education and welfare – well, that was surprising and, in retrospect sad.

The whole EX:Change thing is about speaking across difference – about staying in the conversation.  This guy is a friend of mine.  We saw a movie about Facebook together.  Something about the way the movie affected each of us seems to have thrown us into our more default, just-below-the-surface, categorical (i.e. fear-based) thinking.  We did what so many in our country do.  We both got stuck in our positions and we stopped listening.

We parted uncomfortably.  It’s still not better.  And, for me, it raises the question again – How do we teach ourselves to stay in the listening past whatever fear arises?  And it will arise.  Fear is pretty fundamental and necessary to survival.  Of late, however, it’s also becoming quite dangerous, particularly when we take as fearful everyday matters of disagreement – when we get aggressive, dismissive and isolationist instead of knowing how to stay in the discussion.

This, of course, seems epidemic at the level of politics (oh my, the midterms) and popular media (e.g., the View’s Whoopi Goldberg and Joy Behar walking out on Bill O’Reilly this week –  Of urgent note and in the case of kids and bullies, our failure to listen has become a matter of life and death.

P.S., if you want to know what kids are seeing and therefore learning from adults, just look at their behaviors.

So, this listening challenge that serves as the seedbed for the EX:Change project remains itself a quite serious call for quite serious and apparently difficult change.  For me in my everyday friendships with people who know and interact in the world differently than I do.  For all of us.

My gratitude is enormous for the courage of Joel Burns and for all of us who heed the call of his inspiring action.  Like Councilman Barns, I know we have it in us to listen and to support one another in full lives and vibrant community.  I just know it.

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