Zach Harrington, teen musician lost to hatred.

10 Oct

When we hear over and over again, from our neighbors, friends and even parents that there is something wrong with us – for our whole lives – getting up in the morning is a challenge.

19 year-old Zach Harrington, a young musician “who could play any instrument he picked up,” and who kept to himself and internalized his feelings went to a city council meeting on September 28th. The meeting was to discuss whether the town would officially declare October “Gay History Month” in the college town of Norman, Oklahoma.

The meeting was described by the openly-gay teen’s parents as “toxic.” According to his sister, “When he was sitting there, I’m sure he was internalizing everything and analyzing everything … that’s the kind of person he was.” Having come out recently, his Dad said that it may have been too much for him to deal with. While the meeting provided plenty of support for the LGBT community and had an ultimately positive outcome, the damage that can be caused by a few words from bigots can be irreparable.

What can we do to make sure they stop thinking of LGBT people in the abstract? We’re not an issue. We’re not a story on the 6:00 news. When you say something out loud, we hear it. Please share Zach’s story and have as many conversations as you can with as many people you can about why our words make a difference.

People need to be taught that we are their children and their brothers and sisters and uncles and aunts. We’re their parents and grandparents. If those who ignorantly spread hate imagine saying those words to their own children, maybe they’d think twice about their intolerance, and maybe we’d have one more talented musician around.

6 Responses to “Zach Harrington, teen musician lost to hatred.”

  1. Don Jones October 11, 2010 at 4:22 am #

    I have just spend the last 4 hours listening to every word of the actual City Council meeting. It was a discussion of a proposed Mayoral Proclamation to make October GLBT History Day in Norman. Yes, there were many cruel, bigoted, homophobic remarks. But the majority of the comments were positive, and several council members took very brave stands in favor of the proclamation, even though they were received threatening e-mails and phone calls. One has actually served as principal of both high schools. He spoke in favor of the proposition, but in fact did not actually say how he would vote. (In the end he voted in favor.)

    The mayor herself spoke with great emotion in support of inclusiveness and the dignity of all citizens. She spoke of the protection of the rights of all minorities. “What we heard tonight underscores the need for this proclamation.” She spoke of her brother who died of AIDS, even while he was working to help others in an AIDS hospice center. Many gay and lesbian citizens came to the mike and thanked the council for their consideration of this proclamation.

    The article refers to Norman, Oklahoma as a “small, rural town.” Norman is in fact a quite liberal city, a university city. There are several openly gay High School students there, and the student body is for the most part quite supportive. The University of Oklahoma (which is in Norman) is even now considering its own proclamation.

    The article goes on to say “Although the council ultimately approved the proposal, Harrington’s parents described the meeting as potentially ‘toxic’ for their son.” In fact the vote was 7 to 1 in favor, and a total of 5 council people spoke passionately not only in support of the proclamation, but of the value and contributions of GLBT people. No councilman spoke against it, even though one voted no.

    I have no doubt that Zach Harrington was a victim, but it was not of this council meeting. We must always condemn discrimination, bullying, and homophobia. But, please don’t blame an entire city. Norman, Oklahoma and its City Council have taken a brave stand against the hatred and vitriol of a very loud, vocal minority.

    • jamiemcgonnigal October 11, 2010 at 4:35 am #

      Thanks for your comments. We’ve amended the post accordingly. And while it’s true that there was some support for LGBT people shown at that meeting, the words of just one bigoted person can cause serious misgivings.

      As someone who has worked in the entertainment industry for most of my life, I can tell you that a thousand rave reviews cannot possibly counter a few negative words from one sour critic. And you hold on to that. To assume that this victimization did not come from a council meeting where people threw around these bigoted homophobic slurs is short-sided. And no doubt Zach discussed this meeting with his family as it clearly had an impact on him. Support is wonderful but so often, it’s the critical voice we hear and ultimately listen to unfortunately.

    • Joe October 11, 2010 at 9:37 pm #

      I’m going to have to agree with Jamie on this one. As someone that actually grew up in Norman and experienced it first hand I would have to say that it is unfair to listen to a recording or transcript of a meeting and make judgement statements about the overall impact of such a meeting. We know that only a small number of people actively engage in bullying, but the 85% of people that do not bully for the most part look like bullies because of their silence. In the words of Paulo Freire, “washing ones hands of conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” This is a lot of what I felt growing up. It is easy to say that it is a supportive environment, but it is quite hard to make a case to says that support is always vocal and challenges systems of oppression that exist in the schools. My brother was quite close with Zach and to say one way or another what and how his circumstances affected him is not only unfair to him as a person, but it is really unfair to all of the peers that were close to him. My hope is that instead of critiquing the circumstances and detail upon which an individual tragedy like this happens, but rather why we live in a society where youth see that as an option.

  2. Duncan Shuckerow October 12, 2010 at 2:55 pm #

    Wow this is a very very interesting story. I feel so conflicted at this whole recent outbreak of suicides. No matter what suicides are devistating and awful and should strike up quick action in our community. I guess where i am conflicted is just at this new suicide… Because it seems like his town was very very supportive. Yes, there was some bigited remarks but… really? Honestly, Jamie, I dont think you should blaim this meeting at all. It seems like this meeting was only positive reinforcement and to say that was his reason for killing himself is not good press. It shows our community as people that only need positive reinforcement and one that cant handle a little critizism. And perhaps that was the way Zach was, not able to handle it. and who is to blaim him?! But then dont focus on that. Focus on the fact that other parts of his life were very hard and that was the reason for him killing himself. Because there MUST have been another reason other than the meeting. Zach did have a reason, obviously, to kill himself and it is our job now to show the reason and that reason was not the meeting. The meeting should be looked at positively not as a negative.

    • jamiemcgonnigal October 12, 2010 at 3:31 pm #

      Duncan, I didn’t make up the idea that this meeting was the primary reason Zach took his own life. These were words that came from his parents and his sister – the people who knew him best. There’s also a difference between bigoted statements and outright hatred and “a little criticism.” A little criticism would be saying “gee, that hat doesn’t look good on you.” Zach was hearing people saying that gay people are recruiting children into this lifestyle and more than likely comparisons to pedophilia and perversion. That’s not a little criticism – that’s lies and hatred being aimed at you. While no, I’m sure the meeting was not the ONLY reason Zach took his own life, it cannot be argued that it certainly didn’t help.

      • Duncan Shuckerow October 12, 2010 at 5:30 pm #

        no, of course not. It did not help. I am just trying to look at this story from an outsiders point of view that doesnt understand our constant fight against bigotry and get them to understand that it wasnt just this meeting that got to him. Because to them, I am sure, that is no reason to take your life. I am 100% understanding where you are coming from and the reason for him feeling his only option was to take his life. We live a very very hard life trying to get over these bigoted statements. And for someone artistic like him who has a lot of emotion it can be even more difficult. I am just looking out for his good name and wanting people to understand it wasnt just one meeting that put him over the edge it was years and years of being made fun of by bigots. That is all i was getting at…

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