PLEASE STOP: Zach Harrington, Gay, Suicide At 19

There’s been a certain trend in our posts of late on the Gay Teen Suicide issue – reports on the suicides and their fallout, of course, but also reports on people like Candi Cushman and Carl Paladino, with the suggestion that these topics are PERHAPS NOT UNRELATED; that the systemic and institutional dismissal of our community might contribute to individual human beings feeling dismissed, unworthy, invisible. There is now a certain amount of awful, heartrending confirmation of that theory.

Zach Harrington, 19, killed himself after sitting in on a City Hall meeting discussing whether or not to make October GLBT History Month in Norman, Oklahoma. He listened to things like one man saying that he’d “moved to Norman because he thought it was the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms,” and then he went home and killed himself about a week later. What else do you have to say? What else is there? (@jezebel)

It’s possible to spend plenty of time breaking your own heart wondering why Zach went to the meeting at all. Our best sad speculation is that the idea of a GLBT History Month mattered to him, and he went to City Hall to lend his one small voice in support of it.

Harrington’s father says he’s not sure why his son attended, but that “he feels his son may have glimpsed a hard reality at the Sept. 28 council meeting, a place where the same sentiments that quietly tormented him in high school were being shouted out and applauded by adults the same age as his own parents.” (@examiner)

Zach’s sister was quoted as saying that “When he was sitting there, I’m sure he was internalizing everything and analyzing everything… that’s the kind of person he was. I’m sure he took it personally.” I want to take issue with that statement.

I understand exactly what she meant – that even overhearing a homophobic comment can feel like a letter written just to you slipped under your door for the ten thousandth time – but I think it’s wrong. I think we need to stop thinking of this as just “taking it personally;” like it’s a mistake on our part, an unfortunate emotional overreaction to the climate we live in. We’re not just “taking it personally;” it IS personal. It’s MEANT personally. The people doing and saying these things, whether they’re politicians or just active citizens, are adults with brains and hearts, and they understand that 1 in 10 people are gay and that there are 700 people in this City Hall meeting. At a certain point – especially the point after, what is it now, eight or ten suicides of people under the age of 25? – you know that you’re hurting people, and you do it anyways.

You hurt people when you say “fag” in a classroom, or when you let someone get away with saying “fag” in a classroom, or when you vote yes on Prop 8 or no on anti-bullying initiatives or when you tell your little cousin that maybe he shouldn’t tell people he wants to be a figure skater when he grows up. That is personal. That hurts people, and sometimes makes them feel like they should hurt themselves. Zach Harrington is dead, and there’s nothing we can do about that. But we can use this as an opportunity to remind people that they’re accountable for what they do and what they say; we’re all accountable to each other, and for taking care of each other. Jesus Christ, people. What are you doing?

Rachel is Autostraddle's Managing Editor and the editor who presides over news & politics coverage. Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

Rachel has written 1099 articles for us.

57 Comments

    • ok, i found words.

      this is one of the few times i’ve ever sympathized with holden claufield.

      “I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff—I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all.”

  1. I can’t deal with this. If anybody out there feels suicidal or depressed or sad or upset or anything really, please talk to a professional. Please. There’s help out there. And if that’s too scary, talk to me. Talk to me because I love you.

  2. 1. This is obviously horrible, and everyone who has been in Zach’s position as he sat at that meeting knows it.

    2. “I understand exactly what she meant – that even overhearing a homophobic comment can feel like a letter written just to you slipped under your door for the ten thousandth time – but I think it’s wrong. I think we need to stop thinking of this as just “taking it personally;” like it’s a mistake on our part, an unfortunate emotional overreaction to the climate we live in. We’re not just “taking it personally;” it IS personal. It’s MEANT personally.”

    You’re completely correct about all this, but there’s an unfortunate reality, which is that a lot of us have had to choose not to take things personally so that we can function. We know what is meant by it, and we know it is personal, but if we take this kind of stuff as a reflection of ourselves as people, our lives would be over with. It drives me nuts when straight people advise not to take it personally, and what makes me so mad is that they are correct about it and will never understand how or why.

    • >>but there’s an unfortunate reality, which is that a lot of us have had to choose not to take things personally so that we can function.>>

      Yes. I have this feeling, too.

  3. I just really cannot understand people anymore. I just dont get how someone can justify such hate speech…I mean what in the fuck could possibly be justification for that….religion, fear, ignorance….none of them are valid when it comes to spreading hate, nothing ever is. Why cant these people take stock of what they are saying, I mean really dissect what they feel like they have a right to say, and also how they feel they have a right to impose their views on everyone else….how can they even look at themselves in the mirror, how! I mean are they idiots or what because that surely cant be normal behaviour. I feel so so sorry for this boy and his family, he’s done something there’s no going back from and now he’ll never get a chance at life and that’s just beyond unfair.

  4. The only, ONLY positive I can see from these heartbreaking stories is that they ARE stories now. I’m sitting in my lounge in Australia and just saw a story on TV about what a tragedy it is. Nothing will ever make it ok that people are still taking their lives, but at least people all over the world are paying attention to it now. We need to make sure we don’t let these kids die in silence… everyone needs to know that this is happening every day and it cannot be acceptable to just let it keep happening.

    • Even though every new story I hear like this makes me die a little bit inside, I agree with this completely. How many suicides of gay youth have happened in the past without news stories covering them? We’ll really never know. But now they’re getting the attention they need to be getting. And while it’s horrifying to watch, it’s a good thing this is being ignored a little less.

      But please, please, please let it stop soon.

  5. There’s this man at the laundromat down the street who likes to tell me how the world is getting worse every day. And for the last month, reading about suicide after suicide and each person who is simply gone now because of the hate directed at them, I could almost believe him.

    I’m done with that now. I refuse to believe that this seething hate is getting bigger and darker and worse. Things will. get. better.

    No matter how much hate there is where you are, where ever you are, there is so much love and acceptance out here waiting for you.

    I have more to say but I am exhausted in so many ways. Just. If you’re hurting, there are people out here who love you and don’t even know you. We’re not going anywhere. Don’t give up.

  6. It’s getting harder for me to not feel heartbroken. It’s also strange to me how it feels like all of these people from our community that we’re losing to suicide are chipping a little away from who I am.
    Is it possible for me to think, sincerely, “don’t hurt yourself, please!!”, to myself and somehow any gay person who is contemplating suicide will hear it and think twice..?
    I want to be able to do more — no, wanting to do more was 3 weeks ago, now I feel like I need to do more.

  7. Its terrible what is happening, but i also feel like this must have been happening before. This cant be new information. Gay people have probably been killing themselves for a long time, and yet we are suddenly reporting it now?

    • You’re right. This has probably been an inherent problem in the US for a LONG time (and in other countries!), but due to a cluster of cases involving young kids it’s hit the national headlines.

      What’s more disturbing than the actual loss of young lives is that this issue is only just hitting the consciousness of the general public.

    • Yup, I think it has to do with _how young_ the first couple of deaths were. Granted, I have no doubt there are kids between 13-15 that take their own lives more frequently than we [the general public] would ever know, but the connection of homosexuality to these young deaths COMBINED with what appears to be a couple parental vendettas seems to be what’s bringing them to a national news level.

      I actually think the parents/families are key here. I’m sure we don’t ever hear about the gay-related suicides of kids who have very anti-gay families… just like deaths that appear to be suicides are often covered up by families who are very religious and can’t fathom that their child would take his/her own life.

      And, of course, with the school-bullying element: education is always a big issue, and has a lot of unattractive threads to it, so if a child/teenager’s suicide is linked to a school bullying issue… it’s going to be all over the media.

      /my two cents

    • Gay activists have known the statistics for LGBT youth and suicides for quite some time. On average, it’s several a week. The Trevor Project says there hasn’t been an uptick in suicides among LGBT youth.

      The difference is having identified lives rather than statistics. People don’t feel an emotional connection to statistics. We can say LGBT youth are 4 times more likely to attempt suicide, but it sounds abstract. They don’t know those people…or that they even are people. It’s a number of a group. Only when they’re shown a picture, a name and a story do they feel for them.

      Another difference is humanization of LGBT people. Historically, we’ve had difficulty getting the public’s attention on problems affecting the LGBT population because of the number of people that dehumanize LGBT people. If we stop the dehumanization process, they public is compelled to care.

    • Again, horrible. And these anti-gay nut jobs don’t see the obvious – that gay people kill themselves because of the hostile environment. Instead they see these suicides as more evidence that gay people are just mentally disturbed. UGH. Some of hwhat as happened to me (us) has been something else. And to not get it, even when the evidence is shoved in your face repeatedly.. Some of these people will never change, because they choose not to. You can’t argue with willful ignorance.

  8. I wish there was something SUPER-EFFECTIVE I could do RIGHT NOW to help stop this. Like build a machine that will zap hateful people and teach them that love and acceptance are the way to go and then nobody will kill themselves when they are denied that because they WON’T be denied that. I wish I could do that. I wish holding someone who’s hurting and telling them that they’re beautiful and perfect just the way they are was enough to make the hurting stop. But I wish the causes for the hurting didn’t exist more.

    • As a kid I wanted to invent a machine that allowed people to feel what others feel directly. A big comeuppance for me a few years later when I realized my machine would be useless, because people know they are hurting others, but choose to continue.

      • “people know they are hurting others, but choose to continue”

        This, I feel, is important to acknowledge. I had started to post this yesterday, but decided against it. It’s not helpful to helplessly say “Why do they do this to us?” There are reasons, and they are not easy to face.

  9. I know this is a horrible thing to say and I’d never wish death upon anyone but why can’t it be the freaking a-hole bigots who are in this position? Why can’t they be the ones who can’t deal because their lifestyle is not accepted by the community-at-large? Why does it have to be the good people who are being harmed? Why does it always seem to go this way? Why world, WHY?

  10. Maybe we really should just make a LGBT country. No straight people..no bigots..no republicans. Gay men will donate sperm to the lesbians to keep the population going..and we will all live under a giant rainbow.

  11. Am I the only one who’s been having a creeping, growing feeling that the shit’s about the hit the fan for GLBT rights on a large-scale level? I can’t even throw a rock without hitting another news story about either a suicide, a protest, or a discrimination lawsuit. It’s looking like 1955-1957 all over again. Same song, same verse, a little bit louder, a little bit worse. (Or better.)

  12. I don’t even have the words to articulate how I feel about all of this. I really don’t. I am sickened beyond belief and saddened beyond belief.
    The only thing that gets me through is the saying “It is darkest before the dawn”. Maybe this the worst, maybe now the world will wake up and realize LGBT people are people to with real feelings and real rights.
    Or, maybe I’m just delusional in that hope.
    So sad.

  13. The parent who loves their gay kid and votes to ban gay marriage is compartmentalizing.

    The 20 year old lesbian that defends saying “that’s so gay.”

    The gay adult that can debate gay rights with someone without just bursting into tears or cursing them out.

    Perez Hilton? Compartmentalizing.

    Everyone is compartmentalizing. Sometimes it’s good because it allows you to function. Sometimes it allows you to justify behavior you know is wrong.

  14. I don’t even know what to say about this anymore because it is so heartbreaking that I can’t even feel anything more other than ache. But thank you for those last two paragraphs, Rachel. They’re perfect.

  15. Everytime I read about another suicide it breaks my heart. After coming out and being out for 7 years I look back and see that what I went through was a war. I hate to see people feeling so alone and afraid! It makes ms want to do more.

  16. This is what a revolution looks like. As gays becomes more and more accepted, haters will become more and more aggravated and vile and intolerant. And while they will win some battles, inevitably because of the laws of progress, we WILL win the war.

    I would like to say to the next person in Oklahoma or Montana or wherever that if you feel like you want to kill yourself just because you are gay and surrounded by intolerance, there are plenty of us willing to pay your bus fare to NYC. Just sayin.

    • “As gays becomes more and more accepted, haters will become more and more aggravated and vile and intolerant. And while they will win some battles, inevitably because of the laws of progress, we WILL win the war.”

      This is what I tell myself every day, but Robin said it better.

  17. Ladies, thank you for your words, your wisdom and your heart. As small a step as it may seem, with the help of PFLAG and some businesses in town, I’ve put together a GLBT History Month Display at the Norman Public Library. I’m sure they will take heat from certain parts of the community. I’m sure they will be flooded with negative calls and e-mails. If you would, in honor of Zach Harrington (who will be memorialized in the display) write a letter, or a group statement of support to the Norman Public Library 225 N. Webster
    Norman, OK 73069. I would personally appreciate it.

    -Mark Campbell

    • Mark,

      I’m posting to this list but it could also be something for the Library display you’ll be doing?
      I wish to be anonymous – as over the years I’ve gotten hate mail and harassment from various factions in Norman. I’ve not let it stop my being “out” or to stop my life -which is largely outside of Okla – but at the same time I don’t want more harassment.

      I grew up in Norman OKLA, I was bullied throughout school, my parents were/are fundamentalist Southern Baptist’s and they tried to “cut the devil” out of me (because I’m a lesbian) and I became a homeless teen at age 15 because of my parents hatred. It took a long time for me to accept myself, to learn to find friends and to create my own “family” that is accepting and supportive of me as I am – but learn I did. I also learned to look outside of Oklahoma for contact with the “real world” that isn’t filled with hate and religious anti-gay bigotry. For example I clung to any mention in newspapers or magazines which were published that showed gay people just living life in a positive way, that showed life from a point of view other than the fundamentalist religious one – and it took some effort to find these publications as I was a kid in the days before the Internet. I did contemplate suicide when I was about 21 or so – but fortunately I had met and made friends with a number of people who hadn’t grown up in Oklahoma and didn’t share the Oklahoma bigoted narrow-minded religious worldview. The people from “elsewhere” gave me hope that Oklahoma wasn’t the entire world, that there were/are other ways of being in the world, that there is love an acceptance for whoever you are available in the world. Its a matter of finding it.

      Since learning that I’ve been able to move on and construct the life I’d only hoped/dreamed was possible, including a long-term loving relationship of 15 plus years. I was told way back when that “the best response to bigotry is living well” and that’s been true for me.

      As best I can I focus on, work with, and give more credibility to, the kind, caring supportive people in my life than I do the hateful mean bigots. Just because someone calls me a “bad” person does NOT mean that I am one – it simply means that the person calling me “bad” is toxic to be around. So, I don’t associate with toxic people – I find some other friends, find some other family, find some connections that are positive – and give them my attention, time, money, love….

      Life as a gay person really does get better – especially if you work to create the “better” for yourself. And we are worth the effort!

  18. I grew up in Norman Oklahoma, the same town as Zach Harrington. I’m now 42 years old and a successful artist. I was bullied throughout school, my parents were/are fundamentalist Southern Baptist’s and they tried to “cut the devil” out of me (because I’m a lesbian) and I became a homeless teen at age 15 because of my parents hatred. It took a long time for me to accept myself, to learn to find friends and to create my own “family” that is accepting and supportive of me as I am – but learn I did. I also learned to look outside of Oklahoma for contact with the “real world” that isn’t filled with hate and religious anti-gay bigotry. For example I clung to any mention in newspapers or magazines which were published that showed gay people just living life in a positive way, that showed life from a point of view other than the fundamentalist religious one – and it took some effort to find these publications as I was a kid in the days before the Internet. I did contemplate suicide when I was about 21 or so – but fortunately I had met and made friends with a number of people who hadn’t grown up in Oklahoma and didn’t share the Oklahoma bigoted narrow-minded religious worldview. The people from “elsewhere” gave me hope that Oklahoma wasn’t the entire world, that there were/are other ways of being in the world, that there is love an acceptance for whoever you are available in the world. Its a matter of finding it.

    Since learning that I’ve been able to move on and construct the life I’d only hoped/dreamed was possible, including a long-term loving relationship of 15 plus years. I was told way back when that “the best response to bigotry is living well” and that’s been true for me.

    As best I can I focus on, work with, and give more credibility to, the kind, caring supportive people in my life than I do the hateful mean bigots. Just because someone calls me a “bad” person does NOT mean that I am one – it simply means that the person calling me “bad” is toxic to be around. So, I don’t associate with toxic people – I find some other friends, find some other family, find some connections that are positive – and give them my attention, time, money, love….

    Life as a gay person really does get better – especially if you work to create the “better” for yourself. And we are worth the effort!

    • Thanks for explaining what has happened to you. I was wondering if, after all these years, you were able to look back and see anything positive about Oklahoma. I have only been there once and it was literally for about 5 minutes (I drove over the border from KS and then left), so I don’t know much about it. As far as the area, I thought the land was very beautiful, though I did not get a chance to talk to anyone, so I don’t know much about it.

      • Not much positive about Oklahoma. If you dig hard enough you can find many cool and supportive people – they’re the positive thing about Oklahoma. You can even find positive organizations – if you look hard enough. But you have to really look hard.
        Most people who are not straight, white and/or Baptist leave Okla. as soon as possible.
        I know I’m leaving.
        I’ve traveled widely and I know that there is a whole world out there that is open-minded and friendly.

        Glad you were only in Okla for 5 minutes.

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