I was on my way to bed when I walked by the desk to take one last look at the computer screen—and now, tonight, I can’t sleep. And it’s not just the the sleep-thwarting glow of the screen. Tonight, my customary frivolous scroll through my Facebook feed turned up a story I hadn’t expected to see.
Josh Pacheco, age 17, from Fenton, Michigan, killed himself.
I don’t know Josh or his family. And I’ve never even been to Michigan.
But every queer person knows Josh Pacheco. Josh was a junior in high school and had just told his mother that he was gay. Like so many mothers, she wasn’t too surprised and was very supportive of her son. What did surprise her—what she didn’t know until very recently—was that Josh was the victim of persistent physical bullying and verbal harassment at school. Her son was a victim of violence.
“Queer” is not synonymous with “suicide,” as it has begun to seem. Not every queer person is on the brink of despair and self-destruction. Not every queer person is bullied by their peers or rejected by their parents. Not every queer person is vulnerable to depression or has a suicide plan at the ready.
But queer suicide should alarm us. It should keep us up at night.
The string of gay teen suicides in 2010 drew our national attention to the prevalence of anti-gay bullying. Some schools instituted comprehensive anti-bullying initiatives. Psychologists and social workers busied themselves with research into the risk factors for suicide among queer teens. Many churches took public stands against the bullying of queer kids.
These are all helpful responses, and I hope our collective efforts continue, but I’m not sure we’ve spent enough time understanding the problem.
Violence against queer people runs much deeper than physical bullying, verbal harassment, or even hate crime murder. It is a violence that takes place at the level of the psyche, the soul—at the very level at which our sense of “self” is constructed within our relation to society.
It is a type of violence that cannot be assessed by examining bruises. Violence against queer people in any form is an ideologically aggravated, theologically intensified violence— legitimated by a discourse about queer people that is already embedded in the lives of both attacker and victim.
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Rev. Cody J. Sanders is an ordained Baptist minister and a Ph.D. Candidate in pastoral theology and pastoral care at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, Texas. He is editor of the forthcoming revised edition of Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth: A Resource for Congregations in Dialogue on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity published by theAlliance of Baptists, the Association of Welcoming and Affirming Baptists, and theBaptist Peace Fellowship of North America.