Bullied to death

April 24, 2009

Jake Kornegay reports on the homophobia and bullying that drove an 11-year-old to commit suicide this month.

ON APRIL 6, Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, distraught from being called "fag," "girlie," "gay" and similar names on a daily basis in school, took his own life. He hung himself with an extension cord in his family's Springfield, Mass., home, where he was discovered by his mother, Sirdeaner Walker.

Carl was 11 years old. He was a football and basketball player in school, a Boy Scout and was active in his church and in putting together a Black history program.

But despite his mother's weekly pleas to the school Carl attended, New Leadership Charter School, administrators did nothing to stop the taunting. Sirdeaner found Carl dead just minutes before she was going to confront school authorities again.

Unfortunately, Carl's case isn't unique. William and Janis Mohat's 17-year-old son Eric was bullied to death at Mentor High School in Mentor, Ohio. On March 29, 2007, Mohat shot himself after relentless harassment and intimidation, which included being pushed, shoved and hit--not to mention being humiliated by being called a "fag," a "queer" and a "homo." Like Carl, Eric had never shown any interest in homosexuality at all.

Carl Joseph Walker Hoover
Carl Joseph Walker Hoover

In the lawsuit Eric's parents filed in federal court in March, they said that "a young man told Eric, 'Why don't you go home and shoot yourself? No one would miss you.' And that's what he did."

"When you lose a child like this, it destroys you in ways you can't even describe," William Mohat told ABC News. Bully-induced suicides are on the rise, and that trend coincides with an increase over the last five years in the level of viciousness in taunting--among boys and girls, Summit County Domestic Relations Court community outreach director Sue Tucker told Fox News.

In a 2005 survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and Harris Interactive, "From Teasing to Torment: School Climate in America," students said that most of their peers were bullied because of actual or perceived sexual orientation and gender expression, which is the second most common reason for bulling behind appearance.

Students said that teachers rarely interfered in cases of gay-related bullying, because they were embarrassed or don't know what to do, the report showed. "The truly unfortunate thing is because of the societal atmosphere surrounding gay and lesbian life in the U.S., administrators are reluctant to act or fail to act," said GLSEN Executive Director Eliza Byard, who attended Carl's memorial service.

Gay students report that they are often scared to go to school because of the homophobic culture. According to the 2005 National School Climate Survey by the GLSEN, nearly one-fifth of LGBT students reported being physically assaulted at school the previous school year because of their sexual orientation, and over one-tenth because of their gender expression.

Suicide is the third leading causes of death among teenagers in general, behind accidents and homicide for ages 15-24, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Even more disturbing, suicide is the fourth leading cause of death for children between the ages of 10 and 14.

Gay teen suicide is shockingly common. According to a 1999 CDC/Massachusetts Department of Education Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 33 percent of gay youth will attempt suicide.

Many of these kids' sexuality is unknown, including Carl's, but no matter. The pervasiveness of homophobic taunts, the fear that kids--gay or not--face in school every day and bullying are inseparable. And, as they say, it's easier to kick down than up.

WHEN KIDS bully others because of their sexuality, they are repeating a message that pervades society at large. What kind of signal, for example, does it send to kids when the government says it's wrong for two women or two men to get married, or when there is little or no protection for LGBT people in the workplace, in housing and in adoption?

Some groups such as GLSEN promote LGBT issues by asking school kids not to speak for a day, or as their public service messages say, "Think Before You Speak" to reduce use of the slur "That's so gay," which kids understand as derogatory. Efforts like these may help, but what we really need is more speech against bigotry, more discussion of LGBT issues and more education on why it's okay to be who you are.

Conrad Honicker of Knoxville, Tenn., who came out as gay just before his freshman year in high school, told ABC News, "Naturally, I got a lot of teasing, mostly verbal, but it got threatening at one point. Someone threw a large rock at me. They missed, but it landed in front of me." He survived the verbal abuse that he described as "very graphic" and "like you would treat a woman in a bad, sexualized gratuitous way." Bullies also physically attacked him, "squeezing me and kissing my neck."

Honicker' responded by forming West High School's first gay-straight alliance, as well as eight other groups around the school district. He believes that if these groups are a visible presence in schools, they can thwart the bullying and encourage teachers to act.

Gay-straight alliances are widespread and growing, and see themselves as an army of youth combating anti-gay bigotry. For example, over 300 high school students are attending LGBT Equality and Justice Day in New York State. The goal of this day of action is to pressure politicians to give us not only marriage equality, but other demands like transgendered rights bills.

It will also take more action on the national level--like the passage of Employment Non-Discrimination Act, an end to the military's policy of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and federal gay marriage equality--before the message sinks in that bigotry divides and must be stopped.

"I am determined for the rest of my life to advocate on behalf of students who are voiceless and silent," Sirdeaner told ABC News. She has been homeless and a victim of domestic abuse, and is a breast cancer survivor, but, she said, "The one thing we couldn't get through was public school."

It's hard to imagine what kind of thoughts go through an 11-year-old child's head seconds before hanging himself to death. We can't bring Carl back, but we can honor him and others like him by joining his mom in fighting for the "voiceless and silent"--by helping those voices come together, grow stronger, loud and proud.

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