There’s a terrible uneasiness in our current moment: At a time when we want to believe that we’re on the brink of toppling some of our country’s remaining anti-LGBTQ barriers, lingering hate not only exists – it also blots out queer stories before they’re even told.
Consider how news outlets have been struggling to describe the sexuality of Channing Smith, the 16-year-old who died by suicide last week after classmates outed him on social media.
Some have said that he was gay; others that he was bisexual. Members of his family have described him as “gay or bisexual,” while Smith’s girlfriend has said that “people called him bisexual, but he never classified specifically as that.”
Beyond the obvious cruelty of the situation, what’s so heartrending about what happened to Smith is that he’s now been denied the opportunity to be any of these things.
According to reports, Smith, who hadn’t openly discussed his sexuality, had been exchanging private, explicit messages with another boy on Facebook. Classmates who allegedly wanted to embarrass him posted the messages on Instagram and Snapchat. The teenager later killed himself, after discovering the social-media outing.
“Being in a small, rural town in the middle of Tennessee, you can imagine being the laughingstock and having to go to school Monday morning,” Smith’s older brother told WZTV. “He couldn’t face the humiliation that was waiting on him when he got to school on Monday.”
And yet, the awfulness of the situation isn’t that Smith was, maybe, gay or bisexual or something else. Rather, it’s the fact that attempting to categorize him now – even if well intentioned – seems to participate in a refusal of his right to a life on his own terms.
Indeed, there’s a wrenching irony here.
On the one hand, thanks significantly to the efforts of activists over the decades, LGBTQ Americans today have an unprecedented degree of specificity in their linguistic self-determination – in how they choose to present themselves to, and represent themselves in, the world. On the other hand, we, as a society, don’t have a script to describe a boy who was still poking and prodding at his identity.
There’s a similar tension in the broader political environment around Smith’s death.
The majority of Americans support same-sex marriage – one of the biggest civil rights achievements in recent memory – and, in a first, a gay candidate (from Mike Pence country) is mounting a major campaign for the presidency. At the same time, anti-LGBTQ harassment is on the rise, and there are no federal laws protecting LGBTQ Americans against discrimination.
In some ways, Smith’s death mirrors that of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who, in 2010, after his roommate secretly filmed and posted online about his intimate encounters with another man, killed himself.
While Clementi was apparently open about his sexuality to an extent that Smith wasn’t, both suicides still point to the ongoing importance of being the author of your own story – something that’s especially true when it comes to the singularly queer act of coming out – and the excruciating consequences of losing control of that authorship.
“He was trying to find himself,” Smith’s girlfriend told BuzzFeed News. “He was becoming himself,” his brother recalled in the same story.
The tragedy of Smith’s death is that, now, he’ll always be remembered as trying to find, but never finding; trying to become, but never becoming.
How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.