Washington Town Grapples with Why Openly Gay Teen Rafael Morelos Committed Suicide

In January, Rafael Morelos joined the number of openly gay (and perceived-as-gay) teens who have committed suicide. He was described by friends, family and school officials as confident and outgoing, a popular kid despite having just transferred to the district recently, who dyed his hair and wore pink skinny jeans to school. His death seems to have come as a shock to everyone, his mother especially. Of course it did — how could the suicide of a 14-year-old ever be anything but totally and utterly unimaginable?

Some, however, are arguing that his death could have been foreseen and possibly prevented. As has become the pattern, voices from the community are asking whether anyone — the school district, or peers, or his mother — could have seen this coming. Rafael was a cutter, and his diaries (found after his death) indicate that he was depressed. That’s already a mother’s worst nightmare; finding out that your child was struggling with problems that they didn’t feel they could share with you. But according to some of Rafael’s classmates, Rafael was also facing something else: bullying based on his sexual orientation. The attempted suicide rate for teens is shockingly high across demographics — in 2005 it was estimated by the National Conference of State Legislatures that 19.3% of high schoolers had seriously considered killing themselves. Often we consider teen suicide a tragedy, a terrible loss to both a family and a community. But now, in 2012, when the word “bullying” is used, we wonder whether suicide might really be a crime of negligence, whether there’s someone who’s at fault.

And so in the aftermath of Rafael’s death, questions abound: was he a victim of anti-gay bullying, or not? If he was, was that the cause of his death? Some seem skeptical; Rafael was well-liked, and the principal says that Rafael only reported one incident of harassment, which was investigated and settled. Principal Rob Cline says that if there were other incident, he feels confident that “the teen would have felt he could report those, too.” A second teen also committed suicide only weeks after Rafael, and there’s now a community meeting scheduled around issues of grief and healing. There are no specifically LGBT issues on the agenda. In contrast, Rafael’s friends report that he was taunted, called names, and pushed into lockers; that as the only openly gay kid at school, he was an “easy target.” Worst of all, they report that Rafael actually reported incidents to the school more than once, to no avail. “Kids know that if they are bullied it’s useless to talk to anyone at the school because they don’t do anything about it.”

If the school was unaware of the extent of Rafael’s bullying, or if they were aware and didn’t take action against the bullies, it wouldn’t be the first time. But even if we don’t make the school administration or community out to be villains, there’s still a problem with this conversation. Implying that Rafael’s death either was or wasn’t a consequence of specifically anti-gay bullying ignores some of the nuances to Rafael’s story — both the story of his life as a teen, and the story of his life as a specifically gay teen. As a young person, one who had a history of self-harm, is described by  his mother has having a “sometimes-rocky home life,” and who struggled with depression, Rafael was already experiencing factors related to suicide. This isn’t an either/or, mutually exclusive experience from being a gay teen, but even gay teens live full, complicated emotional lives, and a lot of factors need to be taken into account. Trying to talk about Rafael’s mental health status by only talking about his sexual orientation is a mistake.

And at the same time, trying to talk about Rafael’s life as a gay teen by deciding whether he was or was not bullied isn’t productive. Living as an out queer person, like other marginalized identities, means experiencing near-constant microaggressions day in and day out. It means that even if Principal Cline is right and Rafael didn’t experience a level of bullying that differs too much from your average straight middle school student (or at least didn’t report it) it doesn’t mean that he experienced the same quality of life or level of dignity and self-esteem that a straight teen would have. Even before the “gay bullying epidemic,” queer teens had significantly higher rates of suicide than their straight peers. The truth is that teens already struggle with a lot of issues, and gay teens struggle with more, Rafael Morelos included. So while it’s comforting to attempt to ensure that our schools are free of the mysterious and terrifying phenomenon called “gay bullying,” what kids ultimately need is emotional and mental health support in general. And what gay kids need specifically is for the pervasive homophobia that such bullying grows out of to end. The problems that suicidal (and all teens) face are complex and deeply nuanced, and while we’ll never know for sure what influenced Rafael to end his life, it doesn’t do his life justice or help anyone else to try to pin everything he did or thought on one issue.

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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.

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  1. :(
    A huge chunk of our whole culture is a bully.
    I want adults who are anti-gay marriage, anti-rights and generally anti-gay to realize that they are the bullies, too.

    • I wish there was a counter to It Gets Better, like the You’re a Bully Campaign, where people make videos to call out ant-gay politicians about the real negative effects they have.

  2. This happened in my hometown. My hometown, where I went to high school just five years ago. I can’t even.

  3. No matter how many of these stories I read, they never cease to break my heart.

    Here is another scenario to consider, in which bullying has indirect victims as well. In my small hometown, a 22 year-old boy who graduated from the same tiny high school as me killed another boy from that same, relatively calm and uneventful high school on New Years Eve 2012. He left the body in a stream bed behind a hotel. It was a tragedy unlike any our hometown could have imagined. The convicted murderer was a few years younger than me, so I didn’t know much about him, but I do remember him as an outcast, someone who was constantly picked on and no one wanted to be friends with. The press released after his conviction revealed that the teasing had not stopped in high school, and that in his work place he was ridiculed for being homosexual and even beat up for it once. This story continues to haunt me every time I think about it… two young lives down the drain needlessly.

    I am not saying that killing another human should be blamed on anyone but the killer and I don’t know the motive behind the killing (he was also charged with sexual abuse), but it makes me sick to think that the whole scenario could maybe have been prevented if maybe even just one person reached out to this kid, cared for him. We are ultimately responsible for our own actions, but if we spend our whole lives knowing that no one gives a sh*t about us, we are much more likely to really not give a sh*t about anyone either. Pretty much everyone gets bullied and hurt in middle school and high school, and having a support systems of friends and family can make all the difference in how we handle that hurt…

    What do y’all think? Do you know of any other “indirect victim” stories?

    • I think you bring up an interesting point. I believe many bullies act that way because of underlying, untreated issues. These bullies need help and counselling just as much as the bullied. If these bullies had happy, fulfilling and balanced lives, would they really waste their time and lives ruining other people’s?

  4. I’ve just been googling this, and it’s really interesting that this is being addressed solely as a queer issue, and not as a queer person of colour issue.

  5. This article really breaks my heart, as someone who had a similar experience in middle school, but made it through alive.

    I just have one slight issue – I’m not entirely comfortable with suicide being framed as a “crime of negligence”. I know in this case you are referring to the “negligence” being failure to stop the bullying – which I think is true. But often that idea is applied more broadly – it’s taken to mean we should force the depressed person into the mental health system by any means necessary. Involuntary hospitalization and forced medication are hugely traumatic. A typical hospital stay even for a compliant, voluntary patient can involve violent physical restraint, forced sedation, humiliating invasions of privacy, and a tyrannical level of control over your every movement. During one of my stays I was constantly bullied by the other patients for being gay, and the staff’s response was to tell me to stop being silly, of course I wasn’t gay; revoke my phone privileges for “bad behavior”; and then force-sedate me to shut me up when I wanted to call my parents. And I was lucky enough to for my insurance to cover a private hospital – patients at poorly funded hospitals are abused much more severely.

    This might seem tangential, but because the accepted treatment for teens who self-injury is to lock them up for a week and/or throw drug cocktails at their brains without proper informed consent, I really caution against blind trust in the mental health system to “save” these kids. The abuse I suffered in the system (including overmedication, which is a story for another day) was much more traumatic than the isolation I experienced due to my sexual orientation, and the fact that I was forever after the “crazy dyke” meant it was impossible to reintegrate into my peer group until I left and went to college.

    Basically, my point is that if we keep framing suicide as a “crime of negligence”, kids with mental illnesses become liabilities rather than people, opening the doors for them to be coerced into even more unnecessary violent and otherwise abusive situations.

    • I think this is an excellent point. My involuntary experiences with the mental-health system—though nowhere near as extensive/traumatic as yours—also ended up being at least as disruptive and distressing as the symptoms/behaviors they were meant to address. And I think you’re right that part of the way to approach this tough, tough thing is to change our discourse around it.

  6. Wait, which hospital did this to you? Unless you dont want to say.

    Ugh. That makes me sick. It’s like something out of the fucking middle ages.

    We think we are all advanced with our iPhones but really society treats the vulnerable in a barbarian fashion.

    I hope you sue that private hospital, or someone does…

  7. My mother completed suicide last September. September 4th, 2011. She would have been 54 later that month. She had depression and struggled with alcoholism, had attempted suicide twice before, and was just generally a troubled person. This has been the hardest thing I’ve ever gone through, partly due to the fact that I found her body. I have obviously done a lot of thinking and blaming and crying and screaming since September, but what it boils (in my opinion) is that if someone, anyone, chooses to end their life, there is really nothing anyone else can do to stop them. We found her and saved her the first two times, we had her put in the hospital, we did everything in our power to try and save her, but it didn’t work. She made up her mind that she wanted to end her life, so she did. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to figure out the why’s and trying to not blame myself, and even though I am still having trouble believing this myself, its not my fault. I’m not saying that this young man’s life was not hard or that he was not bullied, and I’m not saying that it doesn’t matter if he was bullied either. If he was (which he probably was) that is awful and inexcusable. No one deserves to be bullied. It is an epidemic that needs to be dealt with. But I think that there is such a stigma about mental health issues in this country that people feel ashamed to ask for and to get help, regardless of their age, sexual orientation, social status, etc. I believe that’s a bigger part of the problem. Sorry this is long and only semi-related but I felt the need to share. And just in case anyone here ever has to deal with a suicide, please don’t treat the survivors like they have something that is contagious. Every single one of my friends, even ones I have had for 15 years, avoid me now like the plague. And its the worst feeling in the world. Suicide has such a stigma about it, and the fact is that survivors of suicide often need more support for longer than survivors of other loss due, but they get the least support out of any group. Fucking stigmas and stereotypes. They are destroying lives.

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