FRESNO, Calif. — When Seth Walsh was in the sixth grade, he told his mother he had something to say.
“I was folding clothes, and he said, ‘Mom, I’m gay,”’ said Wendy Walsh, a hairstylist and single mother of four. “I said, ‘OK, sweetheart, I love you no matter what.”’
Last month, Seth went into the backyard of his home in the desert town of Tehachapi, Calif., and hanged himself, apparently unable to bear a relentless barrage of taunting, bullying and other abuse at the hands of his peers. He was 13.
The case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after a sexual encounter with another man was broadcast online, has shocked many. But his death is just one of several suicides in recent weeks by young gay teenagers who had been harassed by classmates, both in person and online.
The deaths have set off an impassioned — and sometimes angry — response from gay activists and caught the attention of federal officials, including Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who on Friday called the suicides “unnecessary tragedies” brought on by “the trauma of being bullied.”
And while suicide by gay teenagers has long been a troubling trend, experts say the stress can be even worse in rural places, where a lack of gay support services — or even openly gay people — can cause a sense of isolation to become unbearable.
“If you’re in the small community, the pressure is hard enough,” said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network, which is based in New York. “And goodness knows people get enough signals about ‘how wrong it is to be gay’ without anyone in those communities actually having to say so.”
Glennda Testone, the executive director of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center in New York City, said their youth programs serve about 50 young people a day, often suffering from “bullying, harassment or even violence.”
“The three main groups of pivotal figures are family, friends and their schoolmates,” she said. “And if they’re feeling isolated and like they can’t tell those people, it’s going to be a very rough ride.”
In Tehachapi, more than 500 mourners attended a memorial on Friday for Seth Walsh. One of those, Jamie Elaine Phillips, a classmate and friend, said Seth had long known he was gay and had been teased for years.
“But this year it got much worse,” Jamie said. “People would say, ‘You should kill yourself,’ ‘You should go away,’ ‘You’re gay, who cares about you?”’
Wendy Walsh said she hoped her son’s death would teach people “not to discriminate, not be prejudiced.”