With NY teen's suicide come spotlight, cautionBUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Taunted since grade school for hanging out with girls, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer told his parents things were finally getting better since high school started. Meanwhile, on a blog his parents didn't know about, he posted increasingly desperate notes ruminating on suicide, bullying, homophobia and pop singer Lady Gaga.
By: Carolyn Thompson, Associated Press, The Jamestown Sun
BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Taunted since grade school for hanging out with girls, 14-year-old Jamey Rodemeyer told his parents things were finally getting better since high school started. Meanwhile, on a blog his parents didn't know about, he posted increasingly desperate notes ruminating on suicide, bullying, homophobia and pop singer Lady Gaga.
A few days later, he hanged himself outside his home in suburban Buffalo, quickly gaining a fame like that described in one of his idol's songs. Activists, journalists and Gaga herself seized on the suicide, decrying the loss of another promising life to bullying. His cherubic school picture pervaded the Internet and television, as well as a video he had posted earlier about his experience.
But what the incomplete and conflicting portrait of Rodemeyer's life did not convey were the complexities of the teenage mind and the reality that bullying is rarely the sole factor at work. It also highlighted the risk of creating an icon at the price of glamorizing suicide as an option for other bullied or attention-seeking teens.
"If we portray it as something that is admirable and very sympathetic, vulnerable youth may hear that as, 'Look at the attention this case is getting and everyone is feeling sorry and praising this individual,' and it can form a narrative that can be compelling," said Ann Haas, senior project specialist at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Like in other prominent teenage deaths linked to bullying or intimidation — notably Phoebe Prince, an Irish immigrant in Massachusetts taunted by classmates after she dated a popular boy, and Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman whose roommate is accused of spying on his same-sex encounter via webcam — police are investigating to see whether any bullying constituted a crime.
Tracy Rodemeyer said her son was hurt deeply by words from the time he was very young. Boys started picking on him in elementary school, she said.
"People would say, 'Oh my god, you're such a girl. What are you, gay? That kind of stuff," she told The Associated Press in an interview last week.
By middle school, the bullying was overwhelming, she said. His friends would report the abuse, and school officials would pull the boy and the alleged bullies into the office. Rodemeyer also regularly saw a school social worker, who would call his mother after meetings.
"People would be like 'faggot, fag,' and they'd taunt me in the hallways and I felt like I could never escape it," he said in a YouTube video posted in May as part of columnist Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" project, which seeks to give voices and hope to bullied gay and lesbian teenagers. The teen's video has now been viewed more than a million times.
He had talked about suicide in the past but denied recently that the bullying had carried over to high school, which he started shortly before his death, his mother said. He was making plans to attend dances with girlfriends and had talked about the next family vacation and Halloween.
His parents monitored his Facebook posts but said they didn't know about a separate Tumblr blog, on which he identified himself as gay, filled with troubling posts like "Stop bullying people. Maybe they won't commit suicide" and "Ugh today makes me wanna kill myself."
His final blog and Twitter posts the day he died thanked Gaga. He also wrote: "I pray the fame won't take my life," possibly a reference to her song and album "The Fame."
When Gaga projected his image on a screen during a concert in Las Vegas last weekend and dedicated a song to him, his celebrity status was undeniable.
When a Gaga song began playing at the school homecoming dance the day of the teen's wake, his sister and her friends began dancing and chanting, "Jamey." Some schoolmates responded by yelling that they were glad he was dead, his father, Tim, told the AP. School officials are investigating.
Neither Savage, who appeared on network news shows after the suicide, nor Gaga have responded to AP requests for comment. Gaga has promised to push President Barack Obama to make a law in his memory.
If he does, Rodemeyer wouldn't be the first gay suicide victim to be memorialized with such legislation. Two New Jersey lawmakers are pushing a federal anti-harassment and cyberbullying bill bearing Clementi's name.
New Jersey's own anti-bullying laws were tightened following the death of 18-year-old Clementi on Sept. 22, 2010, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge between New Jersey and New York amid a rash of suicides nationwide that brought attention to the problem. Clementi's roommate has been charged with a hate crime and invasion of privacy.
The death of Prince, a heterosexual teen who killed herself in Massachusetts in January 2010, resulted in civil rights charges against five of her classmates and then plea deals, as well as state legislation called "Phoebe's Law" to crack down on bullying.
Suicide prevention and human rights groups, saying some of the news coverage of those and other deaths was oversimplified or sensationalized, collaborated last year on guidelines for talking publicly about suicide with the hope of preventing copycat deaths.
The problem has occurred to Tracy Rodemeyer, who wrestled with whether to continue her son's anti-bullying message.
"You don't want to glorify this and make it where the kids are going to be copycats," she said, describing conversations she had with her son's peers while dropping off his no-longer-needed rented cello at school.
"All the kids I talked to at school, I said, 'Look at this, children. Would you want your family to have to have to go through this?'"
David McFarland, acting executive director and chief executive of the Trevor Project, a help line for LGBT teenagers who may be contemplating suicide, said the focus should be on educating families, schools and communities.
Anti-bullying curriculums in schools are not without controversy, as in the case of Minnesota's Anoka-Hennepin School District, whose policy came under criticism after six students committed suicide in less than two years.
In July, five current and former students sued, saying a policy requiring staff to remain neutral when sexual orientation is discussed in the classroom prevents teachers from effectively protecting kids perceived as gay. School officials have defended the policy as a reasonable way to balance the family ideologies seen in the suburban Minneapolis district.
McFarland urged looking beyond the individual.
"There's the personal story about Jamey and his family, and our hearts go out to them and that community," McFarland said, "but as a whole, this is an issue facing youth across this country, particularly LGBT youth."
The boy's mother said she does want other children to know about help lines like the Trevor Project when contemplating suicide.
"The very second Jamey made that decision and followed through was the very second he found out it was a mistake, but there's no going back," she said she told her son's schoolmates. "I want to say I know my boy's at peace with himself, but there are other ways" to handle life's problems.
Contributing to this report were Associated Press writer Geoff Mulvihill in Trenton, N.J., and AP National Writer David Crary in New York.