Gay Suicide – the Untold story?

Research reveals high suicide rates among young gay and bisexual males. Poppy reviews the research, and asks whether bisexual men are in a distinct risk category that has not hitherto been identified.

‘Foul play’ was ruled out in the death of Bobbie Bazaldua according to a report that reached BCN last month. Bobbie was found hanged at his home in Texas (see front page BCN29). He was 19 and described as gay in the Laredo Morning Times from which the report was apparently extracted.

BCN revisits the issue because Bobbie’s is another tragedy in a surging stream of death that is belatedly coming into focus. Recent studies – mostly in North America – repeatedly find higher rates of suicide among young gay or bisexual men than in society as a whole. For ethnic minority or disabled gay or bisexual young men the rates are higher still. (Women do not appear in such surveys with any clarity and are outside the scope of this article.)

Bagley’s report last year found that five out of eight suicide attempters in that Canadian study were homosexual or bisexual males, and that gay and bi youths were three times more likely to attempt suicide than straight young people. A PACE report, out this year, states “there is a growing body of work which suggests that the same may be true of Britain”.

Mental and emotional ill-health are recognised risk factors in suicide. A 1993 review found that “almost all adolescent suicide victims have suffered from psychiatric illness”. Suicide and self-harm are often studied together. Bagley found that ‘homosexually oriented’ youths accounted for about 25% of males reporting self harm.

The causes are traced in part to stigmatisation of homosexuality. PACE (an organisation offering mental health and counselling services free of homophobia) found that: “over 60% of the service users taking part in this study identified attitudes and behaviour arising from homophobia, biphobia and heterosexism as having had some impact on their mental health.”

“I told my mum at 18,” says Mark, a gay man, in the PACE study. “She banned me for a whole year… So I left home at 19 and got this place from the council and that’s how it all started… Because at the time in the hostel I thought I was lonely and I was gay, I wanted to try and commit suicide because I was gay.”

The PACE report emphasises ‘internalised homophobia’ and isolation as a cause of mental illness among gay and bisexual youth. It cites Jaymee a young gay mental health user: “I didn’t trust anyone basically. I think that fact that I was trying to store so much up in my mind, without being able to let it out. It was like a kettle boiling, everything building up, steaming up in your head and nothing can get out. unless you take the lid off.”

The internal homophobia is a reflection of the world at large, which manifests early – at school. In 1995 Rivers looked at the long term effects of bullying at school. It found that young lesbians and gay men are more likely to be bullied, and that this can often have an impact on their mental health. Stonewall views this as a serious problem. In its 1996 report “Queer Bashing” it found that 24% of all respondents aged under 18 had experienced violence from other pupils, 44% were ‘harassed’, and fully 79% had been ‘called names’ in the playground.

“Young lesbians and gay men grow up in a world which is hostile, unsupportive, and uninformed. They are often desperate to confide in their families and teachers, to understand their emerging sexuality; but remain lonely and isolated,” states the Stonewall report.

But confiding can be a bad idea. “I told my parents that I am gay, which they refused to believe. I have been told that if I have a relationship I will lose their financial support and will not be able to carry on at university. I also find that my parents check up on me … I am feeling under great pressure… ” said one gay man to Stonewall.

When they finally turn to counsellors and the mental health services, young gay people may often find homophobic attitudes there too. PACE found that participants in their study experienced violence and voyeurism as well as having their orientation pathologised, denied, discouraged, devalued, and ignored. “The therapist totally challenged the fact that I was gay and would say things like, ‘You’re not gay… what you need to do is go out with a woman,” they quote one gay participant. “I can remember actually going out on a date with a woman because this is what the therapist was saying to me…” Meanwhile, attitudes to mental health in the gay scene are hardly better. Jaymee recounted how “[I] stated I was a sufferer myself. And the reaction from a lot of the people in that pub was ‘I don’t want to know’… that was very very hurtful… “.

Attitudes to bisexuality on the gay scene can be equally negative (for instance in a hate letter in a recent issue of The Pink). The possibility of a hostile reaction from gay circles to one of their own attracted to a woman is very high. In fact Bobbie, whose suicide started this article, is reported to have “told a friend that he was suffering some emotional conflict about his relationship with a woman”.

None of the studies consulted for this article treated bisexuality as a separate risk. Bisexuality was subsumed in all the studies into the acronym ‘GB’.

‘Jack’, a bi mental illness sufferer interviewed for this article, confessed that while he was still living as a gay man: “The time that I self-harmed worst was for the reason that I felt I was being pushed into an either/or situation, and I realised that it didn’t work.”

“That fact [no separate bi studies] suggests a problem,” said ‘Jack’. “There’s a problem and no one’s paying attention.” It is perhaps time for the researchers and the service providers to consider the predicament that bi youngsters suffer from in the sexually bipolar society we inhabit.