Gordon Yeaton knows it cannot be easy being different.
As advisor to the Gay and Straight Coalition at Irvine High School, he offers tolerance and acceptance to those who have found their world intolerant.
“We have to respect diversity,” said Yeaton, who teaches art at the school and also is an Episcopal clergyman. “For young gays and lesbians, it’s difficult just dealing with their own sexuality instead of trying to fit the mold of high school jocks or cheerleaders.”
High school can be difficult enough, but for gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender students, it can be an excruciating experience that can trigger depression and sometimes leads to suicide.
Suicide is among the top three causes of death among 15- to 24-year-olds, and gay teens are three times more likely to attempt it, according to the Trevor Project, a suicide-prevention organization for gay teens.
Seeking to bring awareness to the issue, Yeaton joined more than 45 people in a forum and candlelight vigil on Sunday at the Christ Chapel Metropolitan Community Church in Santa Ana.
“We felt it was important to do something about it and shed some light on this,” said David Hart, a spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Community Services Center of Orange County.
At the forum, Hart and his staff distributed information on the signs and symptoms of depression, including feelings of isolation, worthlessness and guilt.
The reaction of a youth’s family to his or her sexual orientation is key to a person’s self image, Yeaton said.
“Families’ reactions range from support to complete disowning of their child,” he said. “And what these children need is the knowledge that nothing’s wrong with them, that they’re not immoral.”
Peer reaction can be as important as that of family.
In August, a female client of the community center committed suicide, Hart said.
She had told staff at the center that she had been taunted by students who yelled slurs and passed out a photo of her kissing a girl.
She was one of two center clients who killed themselves in five months, Hart said.
Brittany Schmid, 17, a senior at Irvine High, attended the Sunday vigil because she knew the girl and wanted to read an essay she wrote about her friend.
The recent suicides raised concerns at the center and among its constituents.
The Orange County center recently stepped up efforts to reach out to youths. Hart said the center has partnered with the Orange County Human Relations Commission to have meetings of gay and straight alliances that have formed at various high schools.
Nationally, the suicide rate for ages 10 to 19 fell from 6.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 1992 to 4.6 in 2001, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.
But the CDC also said that rates remain unacceptably high for youths, who often experience, stress, confusion and depression from situations occurring in their families, schools and communities.
“We must stem the tide of hatred,” Yeaton said.