A Call for Rights Amid Young Lives Lost

Thomas Krever.Rhea Mahbubani Thomas Krever, executive director of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, says recent suicides by gay teenagers reflect a troubling “sense of isolation and hopelessness.”

Growing up, Jairo Alcantara thought it was normal to be treated badly. It seemed ordinary to walk down the hallways of his Queens high school hearing homophobic slurs. “I can’t help the fact that I’m gay,” Mr. Alcantara said in a recent interview. “It’s a horrible feeling when you think God made you the wrong way. It’s an even more horrible feeling when other people tell you so.”

After years of pretending to be someone else, Mr. Alcantara, although still fearful for his safety, grew tired of being weighed down by a single lie. Today, Mr. Alcantara, who’s 18 and a recent graduate of the Harvey Milk High School in the East Village, is candid about his sexuality after having come out twice – first as bisexual and then as gay. “I had to come out,” said Mr. Alcantara, who transferred to Harvey Milk after two years at another school. “I was tired of living in this bubble that I couldn’t breathe in.”

Advocates point to the recent spate of teenage suicides by those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or questioning as evidence of the pervasiveness of bullying and victimization. It is against that backdrop that the gay community today observes National Coming Out Day – an annual call for equal rights that is framed this year by the loss of young lives.

For Thomas Krever, executive director of the East Village-based Hetrick-Martin Institute, one of the country’s oldest and largest organization’s dedicated to serving gay youngsters and the lead partner of the Harvey Milk High School, today is a reminder of the work that needs to be done to tackle what he calls an ongoing “national pandemic of discrimination.”

“Regardless of what people think about LGBT rights, children are killing themselves, hanging themselves with phone wire and belts,” he said. “I’d rather focus on the systemic issue where a young person would rather take his own life than deal with the aftermath of even being perceived as gay.”

Mr. Krever said that rejection and “the sense of isolation and hopelessness” are among the most troubling issues facing teenagers in the gay, lesbian and bisexual community.

According to the 2009 National School Climate Survey published by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, 72.4 percent of students experienced homophobic slurs and 61.1 percent reported feeling insecure in school because of their sexual orientation. The Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey of 2007 found that gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers are also at four times greater risk of suicide than their heterosexual counterparts.

“Quite frankly, I’m worried to encourage people to come out right now,” Mr. Krever said. “I don’t know what they would come out to.”

Despite that grim reality, Mr. Krever hopes that today will encourage even those who identify as heterosexual to educate themselves and walk alongside gay, lesbian and bisexual youth and adults as much-needed “straight allies.”

For Mr. Alcantara, such encouragement was crucial. He said that the act of coming out provided him with a sense of relief as much as anything else.

“I just had to put down the bricks that I had been carrying on my shoulders,” he said.