History of the Suicide Problem in Gay Communities

Karl Heinrich Ulrichs (1825-1895), a lawyer and a pioneer of the modern gay movement, often noted the reality of suicide, especially with respect to the legal prosecution of homosexuals(15). Being "outed" by the legal system, and especially being threatened to be "outed" (often accompanied by blackmail), was a great concern of the poet, writer, and expert on homosexuality, John Addington Symonds (1840-1893) who wrote: "I do not think it far from wrong when I mention that at least half of the suicides of young men are due to this one circumstance."(16:150) Gender nonconformable gay males were also deemed to be at greater risk for suicide, as the situation still exist today for gay youth(31). In the first book on homosexuality in the English language, Sexual Inversion, Havelock Ellis reported that "inverted men [effeminate men]...frequently commit suicide."(17:201)1

Although this information is anecdotal, such life experiences were reported throughout the twentieth century, and especially during the last 30 years in North America. Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon(1972) described the prominence of the suicide problem in the American lesbian community by reporting on a group of "twenty lesbians between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-two" who had been involved in a discussion. There were "only two [who] had not attempted suicide when they were teenagers."(18:27)

Concerning suicide in the gay community, Allen Young(1972,1977) noted: "Most of us in gay liberation don't hear about a suicide without automatically assuming there's a good chance the person is homosexual."(19:23) More recently, Gens Hellquist (Gay and Lesbian Health Services, Saskatoon) reported that "AIDS is not the only thing that is killing our friends. While I'm not aware of any statistics on the subject I believe we've lost more lives to suicide than to AIDS. I certainly know more people in our community who have taken their own lives than I know who have died from AIDS."(20)2

Reports of significant suicide problems have a long history in gay and lesbian communities, but this reality has not been recognized by most suicidologists. To this day, however, openly gay males do commit suicide, as do closeted homosexually active males. In some cases the latter commit suicide following an arrest related to their homosexual activities, or following the threat of an arrest. Related information is available at SIEC (The Suicide Information and Education Centre, Calgary, Alberta.), in gay literature, and from me and others. For example, in 1988, a married male high school teacher in a Calgary Catholic high school committed suicide after a male student complained to police about a sexual advance. Suicides of gay males and lesbians also occur for other reasons but it is often not known that the victim was homosexually active, and that he/she may have been wrestling with wholly or partially recognized and unwanted gay/lesbian desires and/or identity. This intra-psychic situation is well recognized factor (among others) in the suicide attempts of GLB youth(24-25).

Due to a number of homophobic social factors, among them the nature of the closet, it may not be possible to establish the exact representation of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people in the suicide problem. The same problem applies to a lesser extent with respect to suicide attempts. People who commit suicide cannot tell us why they did it, unless they left a suicide note, reported their problems in a diary, or confided in a friend or therapist who can tell an investigator the facts of the case. For some GLB individuals, we learn that they often committed suicide for reasons wholly or partly related to their unwanted homosexual identity, and the same factor is also often implicated in GLB youth suicide attempts(23-38).

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25 Nov 1995