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Saturday, October 16, 2010

AJ MCLEAN: Mentioned On Cultural Powers Unite To Help Stop Teen Suicides, Gay Bullying

Word of yet another teen suicide has been popping up on Facebook with numbing regularity: Justin Aaberg in Minnesota. Billy Lucas in Indiana. Asher Brown in Texas. Seth Walsh in California. Raymond Chase in Rhode Island. Zach Harrington in Oklahoma.

But it was the death of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, that brought the horrifying trend of suicides by bullied gay teens to national attention.

Clementi posted a goodbye note on Facebook and jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate secretly filmed him with another man in his dorm room, and posted it live on the Internet.

This rash of suicides, and pop culture's massive response to them, has made it both painfully and plentifully clear that the Internet is a tool that can be used to both stop and save lives.

For just as bullies have used the Web as a weapon every bit as deadly as a bullet, a galvanized entertainment industry has respond by using the Internet as a powerful means for spreading tolerance, with the goal of saving lives.

A positive response from the largely gay-friendly pop-culture industry wasn't unexpected, but the size, innovation and urgency of that response, made essential by the rapidity of teen suicides, has been.

Modern conveniences like texting, instant messaging, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have allowed bullies to turn taunting into a 24/7 opportunity. So there's no small irony that enraged and emboldened supporters of gay and lesbian youths are using those very same methods to spread their simple, lifesaving message: "It gets better."

Lucas' suicide prompted sex columnist Dan Savage to start the "It Gets Better" campaign, which has resulted in more than 1,000 video messages of support posted on YouTube, from average citizens to a Fort Worth city councilman.

"I wish I could have talked to that kid for five minutes and been able to tell him that it gets better," Savage, who is gay, told NPR of Lucas.

High-profile blogger Perez Hilton took to Twitter and challenged celebrities gay and straight to join the "It Gets Better" campaign, which encourages teens to seek help if they're having suicidal thoughts. Those who have responded include Jewel, Ke$ha, Neil Patrick Harris, Anne Hathaway, Michael Chiklis, Ellen DeGeneres, Jenny McCarthy, Ciara, LaLa Vazquez, Jason Derulo, A.J. McLean and cast members of the Broadway musical "Wicked." Their mantra: "Just get through high school."

Elsewhere, more than 100,000 have committed online to wearing purple this Wednesday to remember those who have committed suicide. Their message to those youths who live on, but in agony: "You will meet people who will love and respect you for who you are, no matter your sexuality."

Religious leaders who believe homosexuality to be a sin are using the Internet to spread their own point of view. Boyd K. Packer, the second-ranking leader in the Mormon Church, responded with a video statement that same-sex attraction is impure and unnatural. That sparked an Internet petition condemning the Mormon hierarchy "for risking the further alienation of vulnerable youth with potentially devastating consequences."

TV has long been a safe place for the gay community, with shows like "Brothers and Sisters" and "Modern Family" featuring positive and popular gay characters, and "How I Met Your Mother" starring a gay actor (Neil Patrick Harris). Movies are plentiful, including recent releases like "The Kids are All Right" and "Easy A."

But perhaps no pop-culture phenomenon has been more proactive in preaching tolerance than the TV series "Glee" — and that began long before the spike in teen suicides. The show in many ways depicts an idealized fantasy world every bit as idyllic as Disney's "High School Musical." Kids break into song walking down hallways of their fictional Ohio high school, and not one but both of the football team's star quarterbacks are also members of the glee club. It features perhaps the most progressive blue-collar father of a gay teen in TV history.

It's an idealized picture of the way the world might be.

But against that, it also shows homophobia in all its varying degrees, from hallway attacks to casually tossed "f-bombs" (of the three-letter variety) to unexpected friendly fire from supposedly enlightened straight allies.

The show, seen by a series-record 13.2 million viewers last week, always has used its influence to promote social causes ranging from literacy to recycling. But in the wake of the suicides, it's ramping up its message about acceptance.

The second season is focused on the homophobic struggles of the school's only openly gay student, Kurt. The show is teaming with the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention network started by the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Its home page ( leads with a video message from actor Chris Colfer, who plays Kurt, responding to the suicides.............