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May 25th
2000

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His Struggle To Accept Being Gay

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Robbie KirklandRobbie Kirkland
1982 - 1997


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Teen Turns to Suicide to End Nonstop Torment
By Paula Schleis and Kim Hone-McMahan

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On the day the world buried Princess Diana, two families stood on the quiet shores of the lake at Camp Christopher in Bath Township.

They came seeking peace, and Leslie Sadasivan held the magic they hoped would accomplish that -- a bag of hair clippings taken from her only son.

The lighter, finer locks she had clipped when he was born 15 years ago.

The darker, coarser hair had been clipped by the undertaker.

On Jan. 2, 1997, Robbie Kirkland ended the turmoil in his heart by putting a bullet in his head.

His last wish, in his suicide note, was to be cremated and spread over Lake Marian. His mother, a devout Catholic, couldn't bring herself to do that.

But perhaps she could do the next best thing to respect Robbie's feelings toward a place that was his heaven on Earth.

Joined by the family of Jenine Coffman -- an Akron girl Robbie had met at camp and took as his confidante -- a heartbroken mother sent his wisps of hair over the waters where Robbie spent his summers swimming and canoeing.

The magic worked as well as it could on that September day.

"I think we all felt closure," Sadasivan said.

But Robbie's memory is as vivid as ever, in part because of his mother's determination to use her son's fate as an instrument for saving other struggling gay children. Sadasivan has become a public speaker and activist, mostly targeting educators to make them aware they have gay teens suffering in silence in their classrooms.

The year since her son's death has seen no real progress, and she fears for children who continue to slip through society's cracks. But she is unwavering in her mission.

"Let them see Robbie's face," she said.

Robbie's face. Mention Robbie Kirkland to those who knew him, and they will tell you about his smile.

"It was a beautiful smile," said Gerry Coffman, Jenine's mother.

The 14-year-old Strongsville boy often wrote about smiles in his poems, and drew smiling faces on his letters to Jenine, who attends Akron's St. Vincent- St. Mary High School. On one such face, he penned a caption: "Keep smiling and maybe you'll get something to smile about!"

But despite loving reassurances from his family that being gay was in God's plans for him, the sensitive St. Ignatius High School freshman was mortally wounded from years of taunting by classmates.

He had been made to feel ashamed -- even afraid -- of who he was.

A letter to Jenine in January 1995 was written by a boy whose emotions were broiling.

"Sometimes I feel really really alone. It's not sad just kind of scary... I hope this letter doesn't make you feel down. Sad songs keep on playing on the radio... Yeah, I am sad when I think I'm alone. I lied. I'm sorry. I wish I was different. No I don't. I do like myself. I have this weird feeling something really big and tragic is gonna happen soon. It's probably nothing. I hope it's nothing."

The unsure, fragile boy who wrote Jenine was not the boy she knew at Camp Christopher. There, he was popular and confident and happy.

"Everyone liked Robbie. He had a wonderful sense of humor and was easy to get along with. He was warm and sensitive, and he had this wonderful smile," Jenine said.

As the friendship between Robbie and Jenine grew, he began to confide in her more.

In January 1996, he wrote: "Guess what? I'M HAPPY!"

"I realized that no one means what they say when they make fun of me," he wrote. "I'll tell you why people make fun of me. I haven't told anyone else this and it's a secret. You see I talk different. You know I have a slight lisp (s's come out th's) ... and I'm kinda well, sucky at sports. So people have called me gay. They don't mean it cuz if they did I'd be beat up by now. You see everyone in our school is like homophobic (including me.)"

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Letters Reveal Anguish

Robbie's graduationBut Robbie was far from OK. A month later, he ran away from home. He arrived in Chicago to meet a man he met on the Internet, but had a change of heart during the bus ride there. A homeless man he met at the bus station gave Robbie his coat and helped him find the police.

In the 24 hours he was gone, his family found a suicide note in his room, and Jenine shared Robbie's letters with an FBI investigator. The most recent revealed a suicide attempt.

"I tried to kill myself Saturday night," he wrote. "I took like 30 of these painkiller pills and went to bed. I was really calm. Then in the middle of the night I woke up and puked it all up. Now I'm glad I puked. If I didn't I might be dead. Now I want to live."

Robbie said he tried to kill himself because he was afraid of something on the Internet, because he'd been having jumbled nightmares and because "something weird is going down with me and God."

"I keep telling myself to shut up, smile and pretend I'm happy. I was always taught that if you're a good person and do your share and help others, you'll be OK and mostly happy. I was taught wrong."

After returning from Chicago, Robbie began therapy. Sadasivan, now suspecting her son was gay, told the therapist: "If you find that he's gay, I don't want you to change him. I want him to be what God meant him to be."

When the therapist confirmed that Robbie was gay, his family accepted it immediately. His father, John Kirkland; his stepfather, Dr. Peter Sadasivan; and his sisters, Danielle, Claudia and Alexandria, tried desperately to make Robbie feel normal.

At night his mother would hold him as he cried, and tell him how everything would be OK. Someday he would find love, that if he wanted to be a father he and his partner could raise children, that he could still have just about any kind of job or future that he wanted to dream for himself.

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Nothing Seems to Help

But Robbie refused to attend local gay support meetings with his mother, and refused to speak to gay friends she wanted to bring home for him to meet. His depression grew worse.

Then, Sadasivan said, it struck her: "He wasn't happy being gay. He was uncomfortable with it. It was like a self-loathing about it."

It was only after his death and in speaking with Robbie's friends that Sadasivan came to understand what a huge role the school environment had played in her son's self-hatred.

It all came back to her -- how he would feign illness on gym days, the times he would come home looking as if he'd just been in a fight, how he had asked to be transferred from one school to another in the third grade.

"I thought he was being picked on because he wasn't athletic. I didn't realize he was being called faggot and queer," she said.

The end came in high school. Robbie had hoped that at St. Ignatius High School -- an all-boy Jesuit school in Cleveland -- he would be just another face in the crowd.

But almost from day one, students sensed he was different and began taunting him, and Robbie was crushed that high school did not prove to be the safe haven he thought it would be.

Four months later, he was dead, leaving behind a shattered family wondering what else they could have done to protect him.

"He realized when he was 10 that he was gay," Sadasivan said "and I think he saw that it wasn't something he could control.

"Some kids can repress those feelings until they're older, but he couldn't. I wish he could. If he could have repressed it until he was old enough to deal with it, I think he'd be alive today."

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Nothing seems to help

But Robbie refused to attend local gay support meetings with his mother, and refused to speak to gay friends she wanted to bring home for him to meet. His depression grew worse.

Then, Sadasivan said, it struck her: "He wasn't happy being gay. He was uncomfortable with it. It was like a self-loathing about it."

It was only after his death and in speaking with Robbie's friends that Sadasivan came to understand what a huge role the school environment had played in her son's self-hatred.

It all came back to her -- how he would feign illness on gym days, the times he would come home looking as if he'd just been in a fight, how he had asked to be transferred from one school to another in the third grade.

"I thought he was being picked on because he wasn't athletic. I didn't realize he was being called faggot and queer," she said.

The end came in high school. Robbie had hoped that at St. Ignatius High School -- an all-boy Jesuit school in Cleveland -- he would be just another face in the crowd.

But almost from day one, students sensed he was different and began taunting him, and Robbie was crushed that high school did not prove to be the safe haven he thought it would be.

Four months later, he was dead, leaving behind a shattered family wondering what else they could have done to protect him.

"He realized when he was 10 that he was gay," Sadasivan said "and I think he saw that it wasn't something he could control.

"Some kids can repress those feelings until they're older, but he couldn't. I wish he could. If he could have repressed it until he was old enough to deal with it, I think he'd be alive today."

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"The boy who told himself to put on a smile, shut up, and pretend you're happy... It didn't work,"

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