When my family and I realized that Robbie was gay we let him know immediately that we loved, supported, and accepted him. After all, we had raised him to believe that God loves and accepts everyone despite their differences in race, color creed, and sexual identity. But our efforts could not protect him from the rejection and harassment he experienced at his Catholic schools and his overall perception of how society and religion view homosexuality.
As early as first grade, Robbie was teased and harassed because he was noticeably different from the other boys. Robbie was soft spoken, gentle, creative, and hated sports. Despite his many efforts to fit in with the other boys, such as participating in sports and pretending to have crushes on girls, Robbie was still perceived as different and eventually as gay.
When he did tell us about the early years of harassment, coming home with scratches and torn pants, of being hit by another boy in the locker room, having rocks thrown at him, and of being pushed down in the snow and called "faggot" by a school mate, we took him to a counselor and eventually changed his school.
Unfortunately, the teasing and harassment that so humiliated Robbie, proceeded to escalate as he got older. Robbie however, stopped telling us about it. Most of the teasing and physical attacks Robbie experienced in school occurred out of the teacher's view in hallways, playgrounds, bathrooms, locker rooms, buses, and unsupervised classrooms.
In a classroom filled with students, but no teacher, a classmate came after him with a sharpened pencil, pointed it in his face and yelled "faggot" repeatedly. Many other acts of aggression were subtle, but persistent. Over time name calling, pushing , shoving, and general exclusion left him feeling ashamed, insecure, and alone.
By the time Robbie knew he was gay, at age 10, he was already aware of societyıs hatred of people like him. In the later elementary grades, Robbie continued to be teased and harassed because he was perceived as gay. Our family was not aware of it until his close friend Jennie, shared letters that he had sent to her. He wrote, "I'll tell you why people make fun of me...You see I talk differently, I have a slight lisp and Iım kinda of sucky at sports. People call me gay." He also described everyone in his school, including himself, as being homophobic.
It was in 8th grade that Robbie made his first suicide attempt. His suicide note began with "Whatever you find, I'm not gay" and ended with "Robbie Kirkland, the boy who told himself to put on a smile, shut up, and pretend you're happy. It didn't work." After that attempt, his therapist confirmed our suspicions that he was gay. Our family rallied around him with love, acceptance, and support. My unconditional love and acceptance blinded me from seeing how unhappy he was. After several months, his therapist helped me to understand Robbie's struggle and unhappiness with who he really was.
We hoped that high school would be different. Because his new high school was large, he had high hopes that he would not be picked on or singled out. In a letter to his close friend he wrote, "I yearn for high school, because there I'll just be a face in the crowd and no one will notice me and I'll be left alone." But Robbie's hopes were just that, hope. Although we were not aware, the harassment continued.
Robbie shot himself in the head on January 2, 1997, four months into his ninth grade year. It was the end of Christmas break. He was fourteen, and was found by my nineteen year old daughter Danielle. I believe his timing to be intentional so that he could avoid the pain of returning to school. Robbie wrote "I hope I can find the peace in death that I could not find in life," and he asked for us to pray for him and to remember him.
For 2 years prior to his death the change in Robbie from a happy fun loving child to a reclusive moody teenager had profoundly affected our family. I initially dismissed his change in behavior as typical of being an adolescent. Little did I realize what the future held. Needless to say, our whole family has been devastated by this tragedy. Our lives are forever changed for having lost such a loving gentle sensitive young man. Since his death, I have told Robbie's story to whomever will listen, in the hope of bringing some good from this tragedy.
Robbie's death has already had an influence on the Catholic school which he attended. After Robbie died, the school's president addressed the student body and explicitly spelled out that gays - and indeed all people - have dignity, and that this is never to be violated. The speech will be given to all incoming freshman.
My purpose now is to help other gay youth. To this end I have become active in the gay rights movement and have joined organizations such as GLSEN and PFLAG. I sincerely hope that GLSEN's Back To School Campaign can bring about the needed change to make every school environment a safe place for gay youth.