LGBT groups fight suicide rates with comms efforts

LGBT organizations launched communications efforts to help LGBT youth who are being bullied at school, in the wake of national news headlines on gay teen suicides.

WASHINGTON: LGBT organizations launched communications efforts to help LGBT youth who are being bullied at school, in the wake of national news headlines on gay teen suicides.

Daryl Presgraves, PR manager for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, says the reported cases, while disturbing, don't reflect an epidemic. “It's a problem that has been around for some time, it's just now the media is taking notice,” he says.

While some people may assume it is easier for LGBT youth than prior generations, in part because of positive portrayals of gay characters on popular primetime TV shows, Presgraves says “there is a disconnect between what is happening on TV and the kind of support kids are getting at home and in schools.”

At Rutgers University in New Brunswick, NJ, the media has heavily covered the incident of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi who committed suicide after another student and his friend broadcasted a video on the Internet of an encounter between Clementi and another male. The student, Dharun Ravi, and his friend Molly Wei have both been charged with invasion of privacy.

To help address the issue in schools, the network launched a campaign aimed at creating a safe space for LGBT youth.  The 42-page Safe Space Kit informs educators on the best ways to provide a “safe place” in schools for LGBT youth. The kit is being promoted through a PSA and media appearances by Chely Wright, a country music singer who recently revealed she was a lesbian. Wright also attended a launch event on October 7 at a Los Angeles high school.

The kit costs $20 and includes a poster and sticker to help students identify supportive educators. “Schools have been slow to recognize the support [kids need],” says Presgraves. “We're hoping to place a Safe Space Kit in every middle school in the country.”

The network will also encourage people through its social media channels, including its 80,000-plus fans on Facebook, to let educators know about the kits. “We want to tap into the grassroots anger that is going on and give people a positive way to get involved and show their support,” Presgraves tells PRWeek.

LA-based Fifteen Minutes is providing PR support for the effort.

Cathy Renna, managing partner of Renna Communications, is working with organizations like The Family Acceptance Project at San Francisco State University to help lobby government and educative bodies on the need for legislation and policies that help cultivate a safe culture for kids in school. “Kids are coming out at a much younger age because there is so much more visibility about LGBT issues and that is a challenge for schools,” says Renna. “We've seen a tremendous amount of cultural change but what we haven't seen is the kind of institutionalized change we need in schools.”

Other organizations have turned to celebrities to speak out against bullying and provide gay youth with a message of hope. The Trevor Project, for instance, has released PSAs and statements from Harry Potter actor Daniel Radcliffe, movie actress Anne Hathaway, and Glee actor Chris Colfer. It also got behind syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage's It Gets Better project, which features celebrities sharing their challenges growing up gay and how their lives did improve.

Laura McGinnis, communications director for The Trevor Project, tells PRWeek “that message of hope from an affirming, accepting adult is really important, because LGBT youth who are depressed but have a sense of hope will be more likely to seek help than attempt suicide.”

To influence a wider audience, Steven Le Vine, partner at grapeVine PR, would like to see more youth-driven organizations enlist “mainstream” celebrities. “People like Eminem, Linkin Park and Miley Cyrus, those with big followings who haven't really made big social statements outside of their music, could for example do PSAs about stopping bullying against gay youth,” says Le Vine. “When you solely or mostly have openly gay celebrities speaking out they end just preaching to the choir.” 

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