Queer Suicide and the Malpractice of “Love”

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 Suicide

“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.

Insults like “fag,” often combined with physical assault, name the queer self as sick, sinful, or an object of disgust and derision—images that swirl in social consciousness long before blows are brought to bear upon a queer body.

These social-theological discourses not only make queer bodies eligible for attack; they also provide material out of which queer people come to construct a sense of “self.” 

Didier Eribon captures this reality in a hauntingly poignant paragraph in his book, Insult and the Making of the Gay Self. Eribon says,

[A] gay subjectivity is formed through a process of self-education, through a severe self-discipline that can never be relaxed, that must scrutinize every move, with the goal of appearing to be ‘as normal as everyone else.’ The long-term effects of insult and hatred… write themselves into the body; they act by way of your own submission to the injunction that they carry, your own consent to the order they enforce—that your personality and your desires must remain hidden, that the line must be toed. They command you always to act ‘as if.’ They necessitate a permanent effort to ensure that none of your emotions, feelings, or desires are ever revealed.

Every queer person knows Josh Pacheco. Not every queer person grew up being pushed into lockers and teased at school like Josh. Not every queer person contemplates suicide. But the effects of insult and hatred that write themselves onto our bodies mark the life of every queer person. Every one of us is familiar with the kind of violence that psychiatrist Marie-France Hirigoyen so aptly calls “stalking the soul.”

Josh’s last note read, “I’m sorry I wasn’t able to be strong enough.”

Love: It’s Complicated

“Love can make you do strange things.” That’s the popular wisdom on the subject, anyway. And then there’s: “If churches would just learn to love, we wouldn’t have so much hatred and violence against queer people.” 

Maybe love is a little more complicated than it seems. It does, indeed, seem to make churches do some strange things.

There are those churches that insist upon “normalizing” practices of “reparative” or “conversion” therapy. “We must lovingly and compassionately help homosexuals heal their wounds and repair the brokenness evidenced by their same-sex attraction,” they say. 

“Yes, but that’s not really love,” protests the purveyor of popular wisdom on the subject. “At least, not the kind of love I’m talking about.”

Of course, but as psychologically inept and theologically bankrupt as these practices may be, love is understood by practitioners as the guiding principle upon which to compassionately “repair” queer lives—turning them toward the “straight and narrow,” so to speak.

But then there is the love that is more “accommodating” to queer lives. In churches, it comes in two types: The “silent type” (e.g., “We love everyone here and all are welcome… We don’t need to get into the specifics.”). And there is the “vocal type” that seeks more overtly to accommodate queer people into the structures of privilege already enjoyed by straight folks (e.g., marriage, church leadership, organizational visibility, ordination, etc.).

Accommodation is sometimes helpful, for sure, but perhaps perhaps we will dream up a vision of love that is supported by a robust understanding of justice, concerned not only with the wider distribution of privileges but also with the more fundamental inequality of some having to grow up with the marks of insult and hatred being written onto their bodies.  

I’m still at the stage of dreaming, here. Daydreaming, of course, because I can’t sleep.

Perhaps the death of queer kids like Josh Pacheco and the multitude of queer faces reflected in his image will keep other practitioners of love awake at night wondering if their practices are “best practices.”

Ministerial Malpractice 

As I said in a Religion Dispatches article after the spate of highly publicized bullying-related gay teen suicides back in 2010, anti-gay bullying is a theological issue. But, to be clear, queer suicide is more than a theological “issue.” It is an indicator of rampant ministerial malpractice.

Of the three classic “professions” (law, medicine, and divinity), we are well aware of malpractice in the medical and legal professions. But we don’t talk much about ministerial malpractice, aside from cases of criminal child sexual abuse that have come to light in myriad denominations.

By ministerial malpractice, I mean the negligent attitudes of clergy and congregations concerning the violence being enacted upon queer lives—not just the violence of bullying, but the persistent injury to the bodies, psyches, and souls of queer people.

By ministerial malpractice, I mean the youth minister who invites representatives of “ex-gay” ministries to speak to teenagers because these “practices of love” are theologically responsible, despite evidence of their destructive power.

By ministerial malpractice, I mean the pastor who knows the realities of violence enacted upon queer lives and is deeply concerned, but who, nevertheless, avoids any mention of sexuality in the pulpit so as not to upset parishioners.

By ministerial malpractice, I mean the theological scholar who prevaricates in public when asked about concerns of justice for queer lives—not even out of a sense of personal conviction on the matter, but in order to protect a public career: speaking invitations, book deals. 

By ministerial malpractice, I mean the congregation that skirts around open discussions of queer affirmation, inclusion, and justice because they don’t want to become a “gay church” or (more liberally) they don’t want to be “defined by that one issue.”

The difficulty is that I know these people and these churches, and so does every reader of this article. More difficult is the realization that those of us who live and work in a religious context are the only ones capable of providing accountability for ministerial malpractice. Parishioners, ministerial colleagues, sister congregations—we must awaken to what is at stake and develop the discipline of accountability one for another. Accountability must include both longterm loving support for the courage of our peers, pastors and sister congregations, alongside confrontation when negligence is openly and persistently displayed. 

I imagine I’m in good company on this sleepless night. Lynnette and Michael Capehart, Josh’s parents, are probably still up reliving the events of the last few weeks, playing over in their minds the life of their son—“funny,” “sensitive,” “loving,” “a young man with an old soul.”

Perhaps others will lose sleep too—those who not only wish for a better tomorrow for queer people but who are also willing to work and risk to achieve it, those willing to dream up more radical practices of love, those who will summon the courage and then act upon it in order to cultivate a more just world for all of the queer lives reflected in the life and death of Josh Pacheco.