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Looking Out: With Robin Williams' death, an LGBT icon falls to a familiar threat

His eccentricity, boundary-pushing bravado and brilliant knack for flamboyance could have all made it so on their own, but it was perhaps Robin Williams' way of taking up queer characters with just the right balance of warmth and pitch-perfect irreverence that made us love him most.

Yes, Williams -- gay cabaret owner in "The Birdcage" and the one-and-only dad-in-drag "Mrs. Doubtfire," among other favorites -- was an icon for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community just as much as he was a cherished persona for anyone in the world who loves comedy and could tell a genius of the form when they saw one.

Williams' death by suicide this week was no doubt more cutting for many in the LGBT community because of the support he'd shown for them and theirs, decades before many of their own family and friends would do the same. But it should also strike a chord for the intense relevance that the newly-revived national conversation around depression and suicide has for so many LGBT youth.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LGBT kids are "at increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors, suicide attempts, and suicide." 

In an overview of the issue on its website, the CDC references one study that showed lesbian, gay and bisexual students in 7th through 12th grades were more than twice as likely to have attempted suicide as their heterosexual peers. More than twice.

It also cites a second study of 7th- and 8th-graders that found students "who were questioning their sexual orientation reported more bullying, homophobic victimization, unexcused absences from school, drug use, feelings of depression, and suicidal behaviors than either heterosexual or LGB students."

Just this week, a coalition of youth advocates spoke out about the need for more support for LGBT kids in the state's education, foster care and juvenile justice systems. And one mental health expert, in reaction to Williams' death, mentioned a lack of child psychiatrists and wrap-around services for those suffering mental health issues in the community as major barriers to preventing tragic outcomes like suicide.

When Gov. Martin O'Malley formed a state commission in 2009 to address suicide in the state, vulnerable populations -- including members of the LGBT community -- were explicitly targeted for intervention efforts, and that work continues. Still, there is much to be done.

Perhaps something to focus on should be one more finding from the studies cited by the CDC: Lesbian, gay and bisexual students who did not experience homophobic bullying reported the lowest levels of depression and suicidal feelings of all student groups. In other words, it's not their identity that is giving them hell, but others who disapprove.

How many promising young LGBT kids in arts and theater programs in Maryland schools have the same promising charisma and zany talent that Williams' must have shown at a young age?

How many are holding it in for fear of standing out? How many are fighting similar battles with depression?

More to the point: How many would thrive and go on to reach great heights if more was done to ensure that bullying -- for any reason, including sexual orientation or gender identity -- was more thoroughly stamped out for good?

As we all reflect back on Williams -- an ally and friend to the LGBT community -- they are questions worth asking.

Elsewhere in the world: 

- Arizona State University offensive lineman Chip Sarafin has come out as gay, making him the only known publicly gay player in major college football.

- Jim Becker, executive editor of Baltimore OUTloud, has penned a piece in support for the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Community Center of Baltimore, which you can read here.

- Looks like it's onward and upward for gay nuptials in our neighbor to the south, where federal judges have refused to stay a decision striking down Virginia's same-sex marriage ban.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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