Filmmakers respond to teen's death
September 5, 1997
By Jeff Dupre and Eliza Byard
In early 1996, the nation learned of a battle being waged by a group of young people in Salt Lake City, Utah. Students at East High School wanted to start a Gay-Straight Alliance to provide a safe haven for teenagers dealing with issues of sexuality and homophobia.
The New York Times and the national news media followed the story as the Utah State Legislature attempted to block Alliance members' efforts by passing a law banning all extra-curricular clubs so as to prevent them from convening. The East High Gay Straight Alliance persevered, and became a symbol of this generation's determination to make schools places where everyone is respected, regardless of sexual orientation.
This year a young man named Jacob Orozco was to be president of the Gay-Straight Alliance. Yesterday, Jacob took his own life.
We had the opportunity to meet Jacob last March in Salt Lake City while producing a film, Out of the Past, which documents the Gay Straight Alliance's struggle and places it in the broader context of the history of gay men and lesbians in the United States.
Jacob stood out as a dynamic, funny and seemingly confident young man. Our camera was drawn to his energy and charm again and again. He was an accomplished athlete, a talented gymnast and an inspiration to the fellow members of the Alliance. His apparent self-assurance made us both reflect on how far the struggle for gay and lesbian liberation has come since our own high-school experiences a mere decade ago.
His death reminds us how much remains to be done. Despite the support of the Gay-Straight Alliance at East High, Jacob had to cope with hearing daily reminders of society's loathing and rejection of gays and lesbians. A recent study indicates that high school students hear anti-gay epithets like "faggot" and "dyke" an average of nearly thirty times a day (Massachusetts Department of Education, 1994). According to the Centers for Disease Control, one in six gay and lesbian teenagers is beaten up so badly during high school that they require medical attention.
When you're seventeen and this is the only reality you've ever known, it can be hard to imagine that things will ever get better. It's no wonder that for kids like Jacob, suicide seems an acceptable alternative. Nationwide, gay and lesbian youth are four times more likely than their straight peers to attempt suicide (U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1989). Every year, too many of them succeed.
As teenagers, both of us needed so desperately to hear that there was the possibility of a good life beyond the fearsome challenge of telling the world we were gay. We were each fortunate enough to have loving families who went through a difficult transition with us and emerged intact, supportive and accepting of who we are. We hope the surviving members of the East High Gay Straight Alliance get the information, support and love they need to deal with the world as it is, and perhaps to continue fighting to make it a better place.
If only someone could have gotten through to Jacob to tell him that it's worth the struggle. We just wish he could have seen himself the way we saw him - as a vibrant and impressive young man who turned handsprings on a sunny lawn to the applause and admiration of his friends.
Jeff Dupre and Eliza Byard are independent filmmakers in New York.
Teenagers who need information, referrals or a chance to talk about these issues can call 800-96YOUTH or 800-347-TEEN.