On September 3, 1997, only eight days after classes began, Jacob Lawrence Orosco hanged himself at his mother's home. He was 17, a senior in high school, incoming President of the East High School Gay/Straight Student Alliance at East High School - part of the Salt Lake City School District, except that the Alliance had been prohibited from meeting as a student group and had been effectively prevented from meeting as a non-student group due to the imposition of a ridiculously high rental fee (including $1 million in liability insurance coverage). This time last year, Jacob Orosco's life was fuller than it had ever been.
Jacob was a very fun, hyper, and cool individual. He loved so many people and so many people loved him. He was out of the closet, not just to friends and family but to the entire community. He has given so many people happiness and a smile when they needed one. He has also helped other people get courage and strength to show who they are. He had helped found a gay club at his high school, a move that had prompted the Salt Lake City school board to shut down all extracurricular activities rather than accept the club's existence, and the state legislature talking about giving up all federal education aid rather than
accept the club's existence..
"To me taking clubs from us is like putting a gun in our hands and waiting for the trigger to be pulled. How many times do we have to walk out of our schools before we are heard... In high school 'our community' clubs give us the feeling of belonging... We need to take a stand and get our clubs back."
Jacob Orosco, 2 March 1996
He had been featured in a documentary film that focused in part on the club's struggle and the national reaction to it. He had danced with boys at the prom and helped lead panels on the problems of gay youth, speaking out on the need for gay teenagers to have organizations of their own.
In his final days, he had been busy reorganizing the club, the Gay/Straight Alliance. Despite the extracurricular ban, it had held evening meetings last spring at his school, East High, which is required by law to rent space to community organizations. In his final days, he had been dealing with a new obstacle, finding $400 to buy a $1 million liability insurance policy demanded by the school before the club could resume its evening meetings.
One of his former teacher said: "I never met a sweeter, gentler kid. What a loss this is; what an
irreplaceable person has been taken from this world. His pain must have been beyond understanding."
A Friend said: "I've actually been friends with Jacob for about three years and we always used to go to the mall and stuff when we were really really depressed and try on clothes that were way too expensive for us to afford."
Kelli Peterson, co-founder of the Alliance said: "My last word on the subject is that I miss Jacob terribly. I fear that others will look upon his suicide as an acceptable means to deal with the loss of Jacob. I don't know if I could handle the loss of another friend to such doubt and mystery. I love Jacob for the ways that he touched my life. But I feel such overwhelming rage toward him for not considering anyone but himself in his final hours."
Being young and gay isn't easy anywhere.
And in Utah, there is an additional source of stress -- the position of the dominant Mormon Church.
Jacob wasn't a Mormon. But the church's teachings profoundly influence public policy in Utah, and the atmosphere in the schools.
State law forbids Utah's public school teachers from saying anything in the classroom that would imply acceptance or advocacy of homosexuality.
When Jacob and nine other friends tried to form the club, a group of students at West High, across town, formed SAFE -- Students Against Fags Everywhere. A state legislator talked of "serious concerns about the group's moving into recruitment of fresh meat for the gay population."
After that East High banned all clubs rather than permit the Alliance to meet, students in other groups were openly resentful, accusing the gay and lesbian students of spoiling things for everyone.
The Alliance responded by holding off-campus seminars seeking to underscore the need for the club. Erin Wiser said a videotape of one of those meetings showed Alliance leaders sitting at a table, with signs on the wall behind them listing discussion topics.
One of those signs was directly over Jacob's head. It read: Suicide.
The video was shown last month at a private memorial service the Alliance organized for Jacob. "When it got to that part, everyone gasped," she said.
People who commit suicide frequently drop hints, becoming despondent, or changing their personal habits toward the end.
His friend Kelli Peterson, a club founder who graduated last year, described an exuberant youth who bleached his dark hair blond, dabbed iridescent polish onto his nails, and responded to taunts of "Hey, fag!" with a grin and a joking challenge: "Yep. Interested?"
"We just wish he could have seen himself the way we saw him -- as a vibrant and impressive young man who turned handsprings on a sunny lawn to the applause and admiration of his friends," wrote Jeff Dupre and Eliza Byard, two documentary filmmakers who interviewed Jacob and others involved in the club for their film, Out of the Past, on the history of gays and lesbians in the United States.
Jacob's friends say they are committed to carrying on the work of the Alliance without him. As a result of the publicity she received last year as one of the Alliance's organizers, Kelli Peterson gets to speak to gay youth groups around the country.
"We want everyone to know that a very worthwhile person has left us," she said, "and we want a voice for the people who can't even speak out for themselves."
Jacob Orosco, an outspoken teenage gay-rights activist who helped forge the Gay-Straight Alliance at East High School last year. Described as confident, dynamic and funny, he seemed in some ways mature beyond his years. How else could a boy of 16 or 17 crusade for a difficult cause with such flair and purpose?
Why exactly Jacob committed suicide we will never know for sure. But we do know that, statistically, gay teens commit suicide at four times the rate of other teens in America. That Jacob was a standard bearer for young gays at East and in Salt Lake City somehow must fit into the mix, or rather the fix that the young man found himself in.
The fact of the matter is young people who come to discover that they are gay find themselves in a frightening cultural predicament. The East High Gay-Straight Alliance sought to ease that fear and pain. But school officials and state leaders lashed out at the alliance and did everything in their power to torpedo the safety net for troubled gay teens and those around them.
For people close to Jacob, particularly his young friends, sorrow and anger now boil like an angry sea with huge emotional tides that ebb and flow. But let's hope they won't focus their anger on Jacob, who did not have time to ask permission before killing himself. Most suicide victims are in such agony they aren't able to consider what the impact of their own death with have on those around them.
Let's hope, when some of the pain subsides, those close to Jacob and others who came to respect him will rededicate themselves to girding up organizations like the East High Gay-Straight Alliance. In doing so, they will show those puritans who would legislate morality, as well as those who follow that sinister lead, that all lives within a community have value and should be nurtured. When one is crushed out, we have all suffered a loss.