Grieving parents: Gay teens walk a painful, lonely path

Tim and Tracy Rodemeyer, of suburban Buffalo: After the death of their son Jamey, seeking to raise awareness of the trials and solitude of gay teens or youths confused about their orientation.

In the days after the death of Jamey Rodemeyer, his parents discovered he’d kept a blog they hadn’t known about. Jamey’s Internet entries described the uncertainty of a 14-year-old coming to terms with the realization that he was gay, and the fear that it meant a lifetime of isolation.

One entry especially haunts Tim and Tracy Rodemeyer, who drove Sunday from their Erie County home to All Saints Roman Catholic Church in Syracuse, where they took part in a prayer service on bullying. They said Jamey, last September, had just started his freshman year at Williamsville North High School in suburban Buffalo. In a post on his blog, he spoke of attending a meeting of gay, lesbian and transgender students.

He didn’t mention the meeting to his parents. Instead, he told them he went to drama club.

The pain represented by that entry — the idea that Jamey thought he might be rejected by his own family — explains why Tim and Tracy so willingly speak out about their loss. At 13, Jamey revealed to Tracy that he might be gay. Tracy said she and her husband were hardly experts about raising a gay child, but she offered a gut reaction: She told Jamey she would love him, whatever path he took.

In September, nine school days into his freshman year, Jamey hung himself in their backyard.

“It’s something I’ve got to live with the for rest of my life, just wondering how long he’d had this planned,” Tracy said. “There are certain days we don’t want to talk about this anymore, and we sit back and say, ‘We just want our son back.’ But we firmly believe he was put here to get a message out.”

What they know is that their son had no choice in who he was. As a young child, they said, he preferred the company and games of little girls. Even in grade school, that led to mocking from other boys, taunts that intensified as Jamey grew older.

Twenty or 30 years ago, Tracy said, gay children could at least find safety away from school. In the age of Internet, electronic insults followed Jamey home. Since his death, Tracy and Tim have grown to realize, day by day, how unbearable his ordeal must have become.

“People don’t wake up one day and say, ‘I’m gay,'” Tracy said Sunday, from an altar adorned with rainbow-colored cloth and candles at All Saints. “My son, on his 14th birthday, didn’t say, ‘I want to get picked on, I can’t wait to get pushed around, so I’m going to tell people I’m gay.'”

As they went through Jamey’s room in the days after his death, his parents were surprised by what they found: Their son had written a passionate essay supporting gay marriage. He created T-shirts with slogans supporting gay rights and tolerance.

“Unfortunately,” Tracy said, “he had a harder time believing it for himself.”

The talk Sunday by the Rodemeyers, followed by a question and answer session, was part of an ongoing theme of acceptance at All Saints. Vince Sgambati, a parishioner, offered statistics from New York City’s Ali Forney Center, an organization dedicated to homeless gay youths. Nationally, Sgambati said, as many as 240,000 gay teens may be living on the streets because their parents turned away. In New York, many homeless gay youths survive by becoming prostitutes; up to 20 percent, Sgambati said, may be infected with HIV.

He recommended that gay youths, or parents seeking help and guidance, call the Q Center, an arm of AIDS Community Resources in Syracuse. The Rev. Fred Daley, pastor of All Saints and a celibate gay man, described that kind of institutional support as another step in a Christian imperative:

“It’s an opportunity to recognize that a significant population among us is hurting, that it has been hurting for a long time, and it’s a scandal that so many churches have been quiet.”

During a conversation between the Rodemeyers and the audience, Bill Tenity, a retired middle school teacher from Auburn, reassured the couple about Jamey’s reluctance to speak openly about his orientation. That’s typical, Tenity said; gay men and women often go through life with a deep fear of rejection. He recalled how he declined to reveal he was gay when he was teaching, afraid the truth might put his job at risk.

Such hesitation continues among many teachers, Tenity said, which eliminates potential role models for gay students and reinforces the sense of isolation among teens.

The Rodemeyers received a standing ovation as they stepped down from the altar. In the end, you got the sense their mission was profoundly simple: The next time any of us feel the urge to make a cruel judgment or joke, maybe we’ll pause for just a second to think about their son.

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