He stands at the front of a crowd gathered for a Las Vegas mall’s grand opening. The boy vogues, whips his hands around his face. He strikes a pose. Local news reporters drone on about the mall, but no one pays attention to them. All eyes focus on 15-year-old Brendan Jordan. A few days later, media outlets picked up the 54-second video, which registered millions of YouTube views. “God bless the guy who had to report that story,” said Queen Latifah when Jordan appeared on her talk show. “You kind of just stole the spotlight.”
In the following months, clothing line American Apparel shot Jordan in a fashion spread, for which he wore pink hot pants and a PVC skirt. The ad states: “We were inspired by Brendan after seeing his fearless act of spontaneity and applaud his efforts with the LGBTQ community.” The campaign led Out magazine to wonder if Jordan was the “gayest boy in the world.”
Around the time of Jordan’s American Apparel campaign, 12-year-old Ronin Shimizu committed suicide, as one article reported, “over anti-gay bullying.” Two photos of Shimizu: a class picture, and one in which he wears a pink shirt and dark sunglasses. He’s smiling in both. There’s still a few baby teeth.
I feel devastated for this boy, who barely reached puberty. For a child to take his life so young – to even think of such a thing – is a tragedy. News outlets said Shimizu had been his middle school’s only male cheerleader. Kids bullied him so much his parents had taken him out of school. In an ABC News clip, white candles line a brick ledge in his California hometown. Pre-teens hold flowers. A group gathers near a house decorated for Christmas.
As the Sacramento Bee reported: “Students posting on the social media site Instagram said Ronin had been bullied and said they saw that as a link to his death.” The top comment for Brendan Jordan’s popular video comes from a YouTuber who says: “You can be gay, in the privacy of your own home so you won’t disgust more people. It’s pathetic, immature and gross. You wanna be treated like normal people? Act like normal people. NOT DIVAS.”
While an adult could brush off these poorly punctuated comments, queer kids might internalize the internet trolls. “The younger you are, you don’t have a reference point that adults do,” clinical psychologist Dr. Andrew Mendonsa said later in the news clip. “’That’s just a bump in the road.”
One of the “suggested links” on the article about Shimizu’s suicide is the music video for rock band Rise Against’s song “Make It Stop (September’s Children).” In the video we are shown three queer kids; the two boys are effeminate and the girl is called a dyke. “Born free, but still they hate,” sings the front man. “Born me, no I can’t change.” Though this video came out in 2011, I don’t think I’d ever previously seen it. “It’s always darkest just before the dawn,” sings the frontman. “So stay awake with me, let’s prove them wrong.”
Toward the end, we see interspersed clips from the 2010 campaign “It Gets Better,” which writer Dan Savage created. For the project, people uploaded videos describing how much their life improved after the homophobic high school halls. From celebrities to politicians to some of my friends, over 50,000 people contributed their stories. “Keep your head up,” says a teen in one of the clips included in the Rise Against video. The front man sits at a yellow desk. He recites names of gay boys who have killed themselves.
Tyler Clementi: Age 18
Billy Lucas: Age 15
Harrison Chase Brown: Age 15
Cody J. Barker: Age 17
Seth Walsh: Age 13
I hate how this song invokes dead boys, but I cannot shake my chest’s hollowness. I have now lived twice as long as the youngest boy. Five names represent only a small percentage of total LGBT youth suicides. It’s not safe to assume that since Brendan Jordan can become a star, our work is done. The Trevor Project, an organization dedicated to helping LGBT youth, reports “LGBT youth are four times more likely” to attempt suicide than straight kids. At the rock video’s conclusion, the three teen actors decide not to kill themselves. One boy walks away from a bridge’s ledge; the girl puts down the gun she held to her head. Far too often, this is not the choice teens make.