David at age seven, at Arches National Park. Courtesy of the Phan family.
After their son took his own life on November 29th, David Phan’s family received two boxes. One box, sent by Bennion Junior High, was filled with generic pamphlets on how to deal with suicide-related grief. The other box, given by current and former classmates, contained over 600 letters expressing their support and sorrow for the loss of their child. These letters, according to family advocate Steven Ha, paint a portrait of a 14-year-old who, despite being a victim of bullying himself, protected other victims of bullying. At a December 20th briefing for local Asian American activists at the offices of the Refugee and Immigrant Center - Asian Association of Utah, Ha read out loud one such letter from a former classmate:
“Dear Phan family. Your son David is a life saver. I’m going to miss him...This kid is amazing, has a great personality...I’ve never met someone who could make me smile when I’m deeply sad. He saved my sister’s life. She was going to kill herself, but you [David] talked her out of it. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have a sister because of him, your son…I will not forget you [David]. I am letting balloons go in the air to honor you. I’m so lucky to have met him. He always made everyone smile...If someone was sad, he’d ask if they need a hug. He was the hero of the school. If only I was still there, I would’ve made sure this wouldn’t have happened.”
Tragically, it did. And now a Vietnamese American family grieves for the loss of their son and seeks answers. The answers given by Granite School District spokesperson Ben Horsely in the immediate wake of David's suicide were not only insufficient, but struck the Phan family and supporters as defensive, insensitive, and even illegal. "David," said Horsely, faced “significant personal challenges on multiple fronts” for which he supposedly received support for from a guidance counselor. And despite a report of bullying several years ago, “[David] never reported any further bullying concerns and, on the contrary, reported that things were going well.”
In response to these statements, the American Civil Liberties Union of Utah sent a letter to Granite School District Superintendant Martin W. Bates (made public in The Salt Lake Tribune), charging that Horsely "released confidential and protected information about David in violation of federal and state law, as well as making false and misleading statements and insinuations about David and his family." The letter continues, "Most troubling to David's parents and to us is that this pattern of wrongful behavior appears to be crafted to deflect questions about any potential responsibility from the District and to try to cast blame and suspicion on David and his family." The school and the school district have been asked to cease and desist from commenting further on David and his family.
Clearly, things were not "going well" for David. And as more social media chatter and newspaper articles came out, it became clear that there was a crucial dimension to the bullying that caused much anxiety for Bennion and the Granite School District -- David was gay.
As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, while David's family lovingly supported him when he came out as gay, David shielded his parents from the "horror and negative experiences" he faced at Bennion. The desire to protect the parents from knowing that one is being bullied is quite common, according to Dr. Amanda Di Bartolomeo, clinical psychologist at George Mason University, who has worked with students in similar situations. But what's uncommon and inexcusable is that no one from Bennion alerted the Phan family about any "personal challenges," whether bullying or non-bullying related.
Unquestionably, Bennion's chain of command failed to provide David the support he needed and wanted. It has also failed many of its other students, as indicated in many of the letters from current and former classmates addressed to the Phan family. So what, exactly, was the tipping point for David?
As reported in The Salt Lake Tribune, on the day David committed suicide, Bennion alerted his mother, Phuong Tran, to let her know that her son had been suspended. When Tran rushed to the school, she was told by the principal that the reason for David's suspension was because they found a condom in his backpack. When asked why a condom should justify suspension, she was told that they would discuss it further the following Tuesday.
Apparently, Bennion exists in a universe where the search of an APIA student's body and personal property is warranted, and where a condom on campus is seen as a sign of criminal behavior rather than mature responsibility (not to mention that many public schools freely give out condoms to students to encourage safe sex practices). Whereas David’s Vietnamese family unconditionally embraced him when he came out as gay, Bennion and Granite turned its back on David as he endured anti-gay bullying -- and used the condom to punitively construct David's sexuality as a threat to the school.
David, at age fourteen. Courtesy of the Phan family.
Many Asian Americans around the country turned to social media to express a range of responses -- shock, anger, sadness -- in response to David's suicide, the reports of anti-gay bullying, and the statements issued by Bennion Junior High and the Granite School Distrct. Pahole Sookkasikon, a PhD student in American Studies at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, and an organizer in the Thai American community, posted on his Facebook wall, "I am outraged for David Phan. His suicide could have been prevented...It may get better in the future, but what about it being better NOW."
Dennis Chin, member of the Gay Asian Pacific Islander Men of New York (GAPIMNY), posted on his Facebook wall, "Really triggering for me. Been thinking a lot about what the right response to this would look like. And how deep our wounds run, and persist, despite 'getting better.' And...how I even made it here alive..."
Local groups in Utah, led by Ha, are already in the process of coordinating a response. Ha, a member of Utah’s small but growing 8,000 plus Vietnamese American community, as well as first vice-chairman of the Utah Vietnamese American Chamber of Commerce, is leading a coalition of local Asian American and LGBT civil liberties organizations, namely the Organization of Chinese Americans (OCA) and the Utah Pride Center, to pursue a path of legislative changes through the Utah State Senate to combat bullying, as well as legal redress for the Phan family. To that end, according to Ha, the Phan family currently has several options to pursue multiple complaints and lawsuits. Complaints will be filed by the ACLU to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the US Department of Education. The Phan family has also accepted pro-bono services from the Salt Lake City firm of Ford and Huff, who will assist in deciding if national law firms may be more suitable. A separate suit for defamation and wrongful death is being considered as well. Ha hopes that national API organizations and individuals will support these legislative and legal efforts to prevent more tragedies like David's suicide from happening again.
However, Esther Kim, a queer Korean American organizer living in Salt Lake City (and a product of the Granite School District), would like to see other forms of mobilization that provide effective resources to local APIA and queer youth of color. As Kim wrote on a Facebook thread about David’s death, “The API community in Utah is hella heteronormative and it makes me uneasy as a queer API person to see a desire to do this work in such a reactionary, savior-esque way. Queer folks of color existed and were marginalized before David Phan and we will continue to exist after the dust settles. This work requires a real commitment from allied communities to get into it and not just folks who are looking to benefit off of a tragedy.”
In a separate interview, Kim added, “It’s really frustrating to live in Utah and then have connections to national organizations on the coasts. But the practices of these national organizations are really space-specific. They work at the places where they’re at because they have a specific kind of infrastructure to support them. So when you try to apply those kinds of models here, they don’t work. I know queer API people who are doing marriage equality in San Francisco. I understand why they’re doing that, but for me, that is not important in Utah.”
Emilio Manuel Camu, president of the Asian American Student Association of the University of Utah, had this to say: “As a student that graduated from the Granite School District, I’ve witnessed and been a victim of the neglect by the administration whenever bullying was discussed...They continue to blame the victim and the family and try to uphold their status as a wonderful and safe space for students to learn." Camu added, "If any place is a strict believer of the Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans, it’s Utah...As long as they do well in class, they're noticed, but that’s about it. I think it’s a little different in Utah because a lot of the AA students I’ve worked with think they're the only AAs because we have such a small community that they can’t reach out for support, because the 'support' they're given is deemed sufficient and their 'problem' is neglected."
For his work as president of the AASA, Camu said, "We've received plenty of complaints from counselors about hosting our annual Asian American High School Conference because we talk about issues of gender, sex, racism within the Asian American community. It’s not something they feel comfortable discussing, and even some of the administrators at the U [nickname for the University of Utah] have discouraged us from talking about being AA [and] queer.”
Unsurprisingly, Utah school districts have a long pattern of aggressive discrimination of organized queer students. I remember in 1995 when the formation of a Gay-Straight Alliance club at a high school I attended, East High School, prompted the Salt Lake City School District to shut down all non-curricular clubs, a move that led the ACLU of Utah to file two lawsuits on behalf of students. It also prompted the formation of a different club at another high school I attended, West High School -- SAFE, or Students Against Fags Everywhere. In October 2000, the Salt Lake City School District reinstated all nonacademic clubs, including East's GSA, and the ACLU dropped its litigation.
Since then, despite its status as the headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, Salt Lake City has surprised many by coming to be known as a gay-friendly city, culminating in its selection by The Advocate as “the gayest town in America” (based on an active gay nightlife and anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people, adopted by the LDS Church in November 2009). That said, the Salt Lake metropolitan area has miles to go to address bullying of youth, queer youth, queer youth of color, and APIA youth:
- According to a 2011 report by the Utah Department of Health, Utah teens commit suicide more often than their peers in other parts of the nation, with two youths treated for suicide attempts every day in Utah;
- According to Valerie Larabee, executive director of the Utah Pride Center, more than 70 percent of LGBT teens in Utah recently reported being verbally or physically harassed for their sexual orientation;
- According to a 2005 national study by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), 44 percent of LGBT students of color reported experiencing verbal harassment due to both their sexual orientation and race/ethnicity, while 13 percent of LGBT students of color experience physical harassment due to both sexual orientation and race/ethnicity;
- And according to a recent report released by AAPI Nexus, findings show that Asian American students are bullied in U.S. schools much more than students belonging to any other racial group.
All together, these harrowing numbers speak to the hostile climate that face queer APIA youth like David, a climate that Bennion Junior High and the Granite School District -- and many other schools and school districts across the country -- cannot, or will not, alleviate.
While the Phan family grieves and Ha solidifies his coalition for legal and policy redress, Cindy Huynh, a PhD student in the Department of Education, Culture & Society at the University of Utah, along with Thanh-Tung Than-Trong, David’s cousin, Phan family spokesperson, and a PhD student as well in the same department, will speak with different Vietnamese organizations and communities around the country to gather support. And individuals representing various queer-specific APIA and non-queer specific APIA groups have expressed interest in supporting the Phan family and various forms of mobilization. While the Phan family might never receive the answers they deserve from Bennion and Granite, hopefully these different efforts to address anti-gay bullying will produce some measure of solace and justice to the family for the loss of David.
Special thanks to Thanh-Tung Than-Trong for her help and for providing cherished photos of David. Our deepest condolences for your loss.