Queer Youth Resilience: Critiquing the Discourse of Hope and Hopelessness in LGBT Suicide Representation

Rob Cover

Abstract


Introduction

Discourses of queer youth suicide regularly represent non-heterosexual young men as vulnerable and as victims who are inherently without strategies for coping with adversity  (qv. Rasmussen; Marshall; Driver 3).  Alternatively, queer youth are sometimes marked as fundamentally resilient, as avid users of tools of resilience and community such as the internet (Smith & Gray 74; Wexler et al. 566; Hillier & Harrison; Bryson & McIntosh).  In the latter approach, protective factors are typically presented as specific to queer youth (e.g., Russell 10), therefore also minoritising and essentialising resilience.  Both approaches ignore the diversity of queer young lives and the capacity for a subject to be both vulnerable and resilient—concepts which need to be unpacked if we are to further our understanding of minority lives.  Significantly, both approaches also ignore the fact that growing up occurs in a series of transitions, cultural encounters and circumstantial changes.  Queer (LGBT) youth are neither all victims and vulnerable, nor are they all self-reliant and resilient.  Recent research has indicated that non-heterosexual youth continue to have a higher rate of suicide and self-harm (Cover, Queer Youth Suicide), although this is by no means indicative that vast numbers of LGBTI require support, intervention or preventative measures throughout all aspects of the transition into adult life. 

This article has two objectives, both of which are best addressed together in order to come at an understanding as how best to frame approaches to queer youth suicide as an ongoing social concern.  Firstly, to ask what human, psychological and subjective ‘resilience’ might be said to mean in the context of public discourses of queer youth suicidality, and secondly to ask what a concept of ‘resilience’ does for queer youth identity in terms of relationality.  Neither objective, of course, can be met alone in a short article—the purpose here is to open thinking on the topic in ways that question normative assumptions about the conditions of queer youth in the context of liveable lives and the positioning of resilience as reliant on normative accounts of identity.  The article begins with a brief overview of the different uses of resilience in the context of broad social representations of queer youth.  It goes on to discuss the It Gets Better video site which aimed to produce resilience among predominantly bullied queer youth by ‘imparting hope’.  Some remarks on the relationship between identity, sexuality, sociality and resilience will conclude. 

Resilience and the Queer Youth Subject

Developed by Crawford Holling in the 1970s, the concept of resilience was used to describe the capacity of a system to “absorb change and disturbance and still maintain the same relationships between populations or state variables” (Holling 14).  In terms of ecology and the physical sciences, the notion of resilience operates within an assumption that future events will not be known but will be unexpected, thereby requiring a capacity to accommodate those events whatever form they take (21).  When later used in the psychological sciences, the term resilience likewise assumes disruption and uncertainty in lived experience, requiring a resilient subject to be capable in both learning and adaptation.  In the context of queer youth, resilience, then, can be applied to mean an adaptation to new situations which exacerbate vulnerability to suicidality for those who are positioned to seek escape from intolerable emotional pain or the perception of life as unliveable (Cover, Queer Youth Suicide 10, 148).  Resilience in this use presumes that, for example, bullying has a detrimental causal relationship with suicidality when it newly occurs if the subject does not have the capacity to adapt and incorporate it into everyday life.  Bullying, however, is generally related to suicide only by virtue of its ongoingness rather than it being a sudden shift in social relations. 

Striking about much of the discourse of resilience in the psychological sciences is that the concept of resilience presumes a unitary subject who is a subject prior to relationality and sociality (e.g. Leipold & Greve; Singh et al.; Smith & Gray).  Resilience is thus seen as a capacity to cope with adversity as if adversity arises prior to the subject rather than being a form of relationality that conditions the subject.  In that context, the queer youth subject is understood in essentialist terms, whereby sexual subjectivity is represented simultaneously as both a norm and abnormal, and is a factor of subjectivity that is understood to pre-exist sociality.  That is, the queer youth subject is queer before relationality with others, thereby before the kinds of relationalities that might demand resilience. 

An alternative is to understand queer youth not as vulnerable because they are queer, but as subjects constituted in the (inequitably distributed) precarity of corporeal life in sociality, and thereby already formed in (inequitably distributed) resilience to the sorts of shifts, changes and adversities that shift one from an experience of vulnerability to an experience of a life that is unliveable (Butler, Precarious Life; Frames of War).  Approaching queer youth suicide from a perspective not of risk but through the simultaneous fostering and critique of resilience opens the possibility of providing solutions that aid younger persons to resist suicidality as a flight from intolerable pain without articulating the self as inviolable and thereby losing the ethical value of the recognition of vulnerability.  The question, then, is whether such critique can be found in sites of resilience discourse in relation to queer youth. 

Queer Youth and It Gets Better

The video blogging site It Gets Better (http://www.itgetsbetter.org) was begun by columnist Dan Savage in response to a spate of reported queer student suicides in September/October 2010 in the United States.  The site hosts more than a thousand video contributions, many from queer adults who seek to provide hope for younger persons by showing that queer adulthood is markedly different from the experiences of harassment, bullying, loneliness or surveillance experienced by queer youth in school and family environments.  This is among the first widely-available communicative media form to address directly queer youth on issues related to suicide, and the first to draw on lived experiences as a means by which to provide resources for queer youth resilience.  The fact that these experiences are related through video-logs (vlogs) provides the texts with a greater sense of authenticity and a framework which often addresses youth directly on the topic of suicidality (Cover, Queer Youth Suicide). 

Savage’s intention was to produce resilience in queer youth by imparting ‘hope for young people facing harassment’ and to create ‘a personal way for supporters everywhere to tell LGBT youth that … it does indeed get better’  (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/).  Hope, in this context, is represented as the core attribute of queer youth resilience.  The tag-line of the site is:

Many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like, let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/).

Hope for the future is frequently presented as hope for an end to school days.  In the primary video of the site, Dan Savage’s partner Terry describes his school experiences:

My school was pretty miserable … I was picked on mercilessly in school.  People were really cruel to me. I was bullied a lot.  Beat up, thrown against walls and lockers and windows; stuffed into bathroom stalls. . . . Honestly, things got better the day I left highschool.  I didn’t see the bullies every day, I didn’t see the people who harassed me every day, I didn’t have to see the school administrators who would do nothing about it every day.  Life instantly got better (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/pages/about-it-gets-better-project/)

Such comments present a picture of school life in which the institutional norms of secondary schools that depend so heavily on surveillance, discriminative norms, economies of secrecy and disclosure permit bullying and ostracisation to flourish and become, then, the site of hopelessness in what to many appears at the time as a period of never-ending permanency.  Indeed, teen-aged life has often been figured in geographic terms as a kind of hopeless banishment from the realities that are yet to come: Eve Sedgwick referred to that period as ‘that long Babylonian exile known as queer childhood’ (4).  The emphatic focus on the institutional environment of highschool rather than family, rural towns, closetedness, religious discourse or feelings of isolation is remarkably important in changing the contemporary way in which the social situation of queer youth suicide has been depicted.  The discourse of the It Gets Better project and contributions makes ‘school’ its object—a site that demands resilience of its queer students as the remedy to the detrimental effects of bullying.  Here, however, resilience is not depicted as adaptability but the strength to tolerate and, effectively, ‘wait out’, a bullying environment. 

The focus on bullying that frames the dialogue on queer youth suicide and youth resilience in the It Gets Better videos is the product of a mid-2000s shift in focus to the effects of bullying on LGBT youth in place of critiques of heterosexism, sexual identity, coming out and physical violence (Fodero), regularly depicting bullying as directly causal of suicide (Kim & Leventhal 151; Espelage & Swearer 157; Hegna & Wichstrøm 35).  Bullying, in these representations, is articulated as that which is, on the one hand, preventable through punitive institutional policies and, on the other, as an ineradicable fact of living through school years.  It is, in the latter depiction, that experience for which younger LGBT persons must manage their own resistance.  In depicting school as the site of anti-queer bullying, the It Gets Better project represents queer youth as losing hope of escape from the intolerable pain of bullying in its persistence and repetition.  However, the site’s purpose is to show that escape from the school environment to what is regularly depicted as a neoliberal, white and affluent representation of queer adulthood, founded on conservative coupledom (Cover, “Object(ives) of Desire”), careers, urban living, and relative wealth—depictions somewhat different from the reality of diverse queer lives.  The shift from the school-bullying in queer youth to the liberal stability of queer adulthood is figured in the It Gets Better discourse as not only possible but as that which should be anticipated.  It is in that anticipation that resilience is articulated in a way which calls upon queer youth to manage their own resiliency by having or performing hopefulness. 

Representing hope as the performative element in queer youth resilience has precedence as a suicide prevention strategy.  Hopelessness is a key factor in much of the contemporary academic discussion of suicide risk in general and is often used as a predictor for recognising suicidal behaviour (Battin 13), although it is also particularly associated with suicidality and queer teenagers.  Hopelessness is usually understood as despair or desperateness, the lack of expectation of a situation or goal one desires or feels one should desire.  For Holden and colleagues, hopelessness is counter to social desirability, which is understood as the capacity to describe oneself in terms by which society judges a person as legitimate or desirable (Holden, Mendonca & Serin 500).  Psychological and psychiatric measurement techniques frequently rely on Aaron T. Beck’s Hopelessness Scale, which utilises a twenty-question true/false survey designed to measure feelings about the future, expectation and self-motivation in adults over the age of seventeen years as a predictor of suicidal behaviour.  Beck and colleagues attempted to provide an objective measurement for hopelessness rather than leave it treated as a diffuse and vague state of feeling in patients with depression.  The tool asks a series of questions, most about the future, presenting a score on whether or not the answers given were true or false.  Questions include: ‘I might as well give up because I can’t make things better for myself’; ‘I can’t imagine what my life would be like in ten years’; ‘My future seems dark to me’; and ‘All I can see ahead of me is unpleasantness rather than pleasantness’.  Responding true to these indicates hopelessness.  Responding false to some of the following also indicates hopelessness: ‘I can look forward to more good times than bad times’; and ‘When things are going badly, I am helped by knowing they can’t stay that way forever’ (Beck). While these questions and the scale are not used uncritically, the relationship between the discursive construction through the questions of what constitutes hopelessness and the aims of the It Gets Better videos are notably comparable.  The objective, then, of the videos is to provide evidence and, perhaps, instil hope that would allow such questions to be answered differently, particularly to be able to give a true response to the last question above.  Hallway Allies liaison support group, which operates across university campuses and high schools to prevent bullying, stated in this representative way in the introduction to their video contribution: ‘Remember to keep your head up, highschool doesn’t last forever’ (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/video /entry/5wwozgwyruy/). Or, as Rebecca in the introductory statement of another video contribution put it:

You may be feeling like this pain will last forever, like you have no control, it’s dark, oppressive and feels like there is no end. I know – I get it. but I promise … hang in there and you’ll find it … Wait – you’ll see – it gets better! (http://www.itgetsbetter.org/video/entry/wxymqzw3oqy/).

As can be seen, such video examples respond to a discourse of hopelessness aligned with the framework exemplified by Beck’s scale, prompting queer youth audiences of these videos to imagine a future for themselves, to understand hope in temporal terms of future wellbeing, and to know that the future does not necessarily hold the same kinds of unpleasantness as experienced in the everyday high school environment. 

Sexual Identity, Resilience and the Normative Lifecycle

In the It Gets Better framework, resilience is produced in the knowledge of a queer life that is linear and patterned through stages in relation to institutional forms of belonging (and non-belonging).  That is, a queer life is represented as one which undergoes the hardship of being bullied in school, of leaving that institutional environment for a queer adulthood that is built on a myth of safety, pleasure, success and a distinctive break from the environment of the past (as if the psyche or the self is re-produced anew in a phase of a queer lifecycle). Working within a queer theoretical and cultural understanding of identity, sexual subjectivity can be understood as constituted in social and cultural formations.  Overturning the previously-held liberal notion of power as the power which represses sex and sexualities, Foucault’s History of Sexuality provided queer theory with an argument in which power, as deployed through discourse and discursive formations, produces the coherent sexual subject.  This occurs historically and only in specific periods. In Foucault’s analysis, homosexual identities become conceivable in the Nineteenth Century as a result of specific juridical, medical and criminal discourses (85).  From a Foucauldian perspective, there is no subject driven by an inner psyche or a pre-determined desire (as in psychoanalysis). Instead, such subjectivity occurs in and through the power/knowledge network of discourse as it writes or scripts the subject into subjectivity. 

Canonical queer theorist Judith Butler has been central in extending Foucault’s analysis in ways which are pragmatic for understanding queer youth in the context of growing up and transitioning into adulthood.  Her theory of performativity has usefully complexified the ways in which we can understand sexual identity and allowed us to overcome the core assumption in much queer youth research that heterosexual and homosexual identities are natural, mutually-exclusive and innate; instead, allowing us to focus on how the process of subject formation for youth is implicated in the tensions and pressures of a range of cultural, social, organisational and communicative encounters and engagements.  Butler projects the most useful post-structuralist discussion of subjectivity by suggesting that the subject is constituted by repetitive performances in terms of the structure of signification that produces retroactively the illusion of an inner subjective core (Butler, Gender Trouble 143).  Queer identity becomes a normative ideal rather than a descriptive feature of experience, and is the resultant effect of regimentary discursive practices (16, 18).  The non-heterosexual subject, then, is performatively constituted by the very ‘expressions’ that are formed as recognisable identity performances in the context, here, of a set of lifecycle expectations built through a vulnerable queer childhood, being bullied, attaining hope, leaving school and fruition in queer adulthood.  Resilience, in the It Gets Better discourse, then, is seen to be produced in understanding the stages of a normative queer life. 

An issue emerges for how queer youth suicide is understood within this particular formation that posits non-heterosexuality as the problematic source of suicidality emerges in the assumption that the vulnerability to suicidal behaviours for queer youth is the result singularly of sexuality, rather than looking to the fact that sexuality is one facet of identity – an important and sometimes fraught one for adolescents in general – located within a complex of other formations of identity and selfhood.  This is part of what Diana Fuss has identified as the “synecdochical tendency to see only one part of a subject’s identity (usually the most visible part) and to make that part stand for the whole” (116).  This ignores the opportunity to think through the conditions of queer youth in terms of the interaction between different facets of identity (such as gender and ethnicity, but also personal experience), different contexts in which identity is performed and different institutional settings that vary in response and valuation of non-normative aspects of subjectivity, thereby allowing a vulnerability not to be an attribute of being a queer youth, but to be understood as produced across a nuanced and complex array of factors. 

While the very concept of resilience invokes both an individualisation of the subject and a disciplinary regime of pastoral care (Foucault, Abnormal), queer youth in the It Gets Better discourse of hope are depicted multiply as:

  1. Inherently vulnerable and lacking resilience as a result of an essentialist notion of sexual orientation.
  2. Constituted in a relationality within a schooling environment that is conditioned by bullying as the primary expression of diverse sociality
  3. Finding resilience only through a self-managed and self-articulated expression of ‘hope’ that is to be produced in the knowledge that there is an ‘escape’ from a school environment. 

What the discourse of that which we might refer to as “resilient hopefulness” does is represent queer youth reductively as inherently non-resilient.  It ignores the multiple expressions of sexual identity, the capacity to respond to suicidality through a critique of normative sexual subjectivity, and the capabilities of queer youth to develop meaningful relationships across all sexual possibilities that are, themselves, forms of resilience or at least mitigations of vulnerability.  At the same time, “resilient hopefulness” is produced within a context in which a normative sociality of bullying culture is expressed as timeless and unchangeable (rather than historical and institutional), thereby requiring queer younger persons to undertake the task of managing vulnerability, risk, resilience and identity as an individualised responsibility outside of communities of care.  Whether the presentation of a normative lifecycle is genuinely a preventative measure for queer youth suicidality is that which suicidologists and practitioners must test, although one might argue at this stage that resilience is better produced through a broader appeal to social diversity rather than the regimentation of a queer life that must ‘wait in hope’ for a liveability that may never come. 

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Keywords


queer youth suicide; identity; vulnerability; culture



Copyright (c) 2013 Rob Cover

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