“What is it in contemporary culture that makes suicide continue to seem like a logical outcome for queer youth?” asks communication scholar Rob Cover. Compelled by personal experience and the spate of highly publicized queer youth suicides in the United States in late 2010, Cover wrote Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity: Unliveable Lives? to demonstrate the relevance of cultural studies and queer theory to popular and scholarly responses to queer youth suicide. Steeped in Butler- and Foucault-inspired sensibilities, Cover’s examination of popular media, academic, and Internet texts challenges existing narratives that assume that homophobia is the root cause of queer youth vulnerability and that all queer youth are equally at risk of suicide.
Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity is divided into two sections. The first employs close textual analysis to assess how various depictions of the suicides of non-heterosexual youth (11–25 years) limit public understandings of its causes and prevention. The second is an in-depth application of queer theory to critique research on GLBTQ youth suicide. In Chapter 1, Cover begins with film and television representations, illustrating how they tend to portray suicide as the only option for GLBTQ youth facing shame, stigma, rejection, isolation, and/or mental illness. Chapter 2 argues that academic writing on queer youth suicide relies too heavily upon influential studies from the 1980s, failing to reflect changes in political, social, and cultural conditions. As he identifies four dominant assumptions in the scholarship (e.g., in policy, sociology, and medicine), Cover explains how queer theory can expose and address the limitations of these assumptions. For example, homophobia is still frequently offered as a primary explanation for GLBTQ youth suicide in academic texts. Cover argues that homophobia has declined significantly since the 1980s, but heteronormativity is now “a more prevalent concern as it continues to relegate non-heterosexuality to otherness despite public and private articulations of tolerance and institutional [End Page 216] anti-discrimination policies” (42). He further challenges the assumptions that queer youth are isolated and invisible in the media, that coming out is always a beneficial process, and that hetero- and homosexualities are innate. In Chapter 3, Cover turns his attention to the online It Gets Better Project, a collection of more than 50,000 videos produced by activists, celebrities, politicians, and everyday citizens in an effort to help prevent queer youth suicide. His trenchant critique of the Project illustrates how the videos misleadingly construct high school graduation as the end of oppression/heteronormativity and express “success” in neo-liberal terms, i.e., the achievement of career goals and greater capacity for the consumption of goods. Cover further explains how the videos foster a lack of agency in their viewers by addressing them as vulnerable victims.
In the second half of this text, Cover engages with the work of Judith Butler, Michel Foucault, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Elizabeth Grosz, Michael Warner, and others to explain how queer theory’s perspectives on the hetero/homo binary, shame, and homonormativity might help practitioners better understand GLBTQ youth sexuality and sociality. He challenges the dominant frame of queer sexual development as a linear process, arguing that it is not innate, but an on-going process of identity stabilization. The shame of being unable to meet neither heteronormative nor homonormative expectations, and the lack of access to tools that can help make one’s identity coherent, he argues, increase queer youth vulnerability to suicide. Even those environments that may seem to be supportive, like GLBTQ clubs, media, and advocacy institutions, Cover explains, tend to portray limited, assimilationist views of what it does and can mean to be non-heterosexual. Ultimately, Queer Youth Suicide, Culture and Identity seeks to help provide “the means by which to open the space for the emergence of alternative ways in which sexuality, desire, erotics, bodies, pleasures, and genders can be thought, articulated, and performed” in an effort to make GLBTQ youth lives more livable (143).
Cover’s analysis would have benefited from greater attention to racial and class differences in the lives of...