Phillip Parker loved animals.
At his home in Brush Creek, about 50 miles east of Nashville, his family kept an assortment of creatures — dogs, cats, rabbits, even chickens — and the woods that stretched behind their property teemed with wildlife. When he was a boy, he would often try to catch frogs to show his grandmother, Glenda Odom.
"I remember asking him once, when he was about 4 or 5 years old, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?' " Glenda recalls.
"I want to be a veterinarian, Grannie," he told her. "I don't like to see animals get hurt."
The last time she spoke to her grandson was Dec. 23, 2011, the night Phillip's grandfather Gene suffered a debilitating stroke. She asked Phillip how things were going in school.
"Things are fine," he said — his typical answer.
Tragically, Phillip's friends and family would learn that things were far from fine. On Friday, Jan. 20, Phillip came home from what seemed to be just another long day at Gordonsville High School. His mother, Gena, asked him if he wanted to go with her to Walmart. Phillip said yes, but went outside to listen to his iPod. Before he did, Gena heard her son say, "I love you, Mom." When it came time to leave, Gena couldn't find him.
They were the last words he would ever say to her. A short time later, while she was shopping, Gena got a phone call. It was her brother John, telling her that her son was in "trouble." The boy had been rushed to the hospital. By the time she arrived, doctors told her something that didn't quite register, didn't seem possible. In the time it took her to go to the store, Phillip Parker, 14, had taken his own life.
Throughout the days following Phillip's death, Gena — who accepted her openly gay son with open arms — was in shock.
"It took a part of me with him," she says. "I carried him inside of me. He was my son. ... He always said that everything was fine, so we didn't know he was being bullied until after he passed."
But as local and national media picked up the story, emerging details fit an all too familiar pattern. At school, Phillip was called "fag" and "queer," belittled for his homosexuality. His suicide occurred barely a month after another openly gay Tennessee teen, 18-year-old Jacob Rogers, killed himself following what friends described as years of bullying by Cheatham County High School students. Like Phillip, Jacob lived with taunts of "faggot," "gay" and "queer."
Scott Ridgway, executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, is quick to point out that when it comes to suicide, there are more shades of gray than neat swaths of black and white. Factors can range from the personal alienation exacerbated by electronic media to the intense dependence of kids upon familial support networks. Intolerant attitudes toward LGBT lifestyles are just one cause among many.
"People need to look at all the issues involved in that child's life," Ridgway says. "It's not one particular reason any child takes their life. It's a combination of a lot of different reasons, and people need to understand that, and especially with [Phillip Parker and Jacob Rogers]. When they died by suicide, there was the bullying thing that came up and it was automatically because they were gay and [that's why] they killed themselves. The reality is that these students, as well as other students that die by suicide, have multiple issues that are going on in their life that may have led to their death."
Nevertheless, the Tennessee Equality Project tells the Scene that students at both schools are considering creating anti-hate groups to counteract the kind of persecution Phillip and Jacob experienced. They seek to establish "NOH8" organizations modeled after one at Hendersonville High School that fosters "awareness, promote[s] education, and provide[s] a forum for discussion about issues of sexuality, religious tolerance, & racial discrimination," according to its Facebook page.
Others, though, both student and adult, are questioning whether a bigger, more nebulous problem lies off school grounds. In the midst of statewide, even nationwide concern over the impact of bullying, LGBT advocates and activists point to a spate of well-publicized bills in Tennessee's Republican-dominated legislature. These bills, they say, contribute to a culture of hostility toward gays and transgendered citizens — undermining their rights, restricting their restroom use, refusing to acknowledge their existence in the classroom.
In 2010, columnist Dan Savage co-founded the It Gets Better Project, which solicits and distributes user-made videos to console LGBT youth about the painful gauntlet of high school ridicule. It has provided the LGBT bullying/suicide-awareness movement with a credo, a rallying cry meant to console harassed teens that brighter days lie ahead. But for Jacob Rogers, Phillip Parker and other LGBT kids who ended their lives before they got a chance to find out, things didn't get better soon enough. Now the climate being cultivated by Tennessee lawmakers has some wondering: Does it ever?
Perhaps the real question is, "Better than what?" This month, the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network released its "Status of Suicide in Tennessee 2012" report. Inasmuch as any report detailing suicide statistics can offer hope, it permits a few reasons for cautious optimism. According to the report, from 2008 to 2010 the age-adjusted suicide rate declined in Tennessee from 15.7 per 100,000 residents to 14.7. Last year, among 10-19 year-olds, the number of suicides declined from 44 to 33 — though try telling the parents grieving for 33 children that those declining numbers represent anything other than devastation.
According to Ridgway, the decrease can be traced back in part to the passage of the Jason Flatt Act. The law, which requires public-school teachers to receive two hours of suicide-prevention training each year, was adopted by the Tennessee legislature in 2007. It was named for Jason Flatt, a 16-year-old Hendersonville youth who committed suicide in 1997. The nonprofit Jason Foundation was founded in his memory, and is one of many nonprofits that combat teen suicide as part of a nationwide social movement.
Despite the spike in awareness, however, many feel more should be done to prevent suicide than offering well-meaning platitudes. As a commenter wrote on Phillip Parker's Facebook memorial page, "Sometimes it is better to not wait until things 'get better.' The idea that children should just suffer for years and then when they get out of high school 'it gets better' has always struck me as a pretty lousy consolation for years of misery and torture."
Certainly it was no consolation to Phillip Parker and Jacob Rogers — or to their friends and family, who say the two teens' schools didn't do enough to prevent their deaths. Gordonsville High School officials did not return calls or detailed questions sent by email from the Scene.
Kaelynn Mooningham, a friend of Jacob's, told MSNBC that she thinks Cheatham County School administrators "ignored" his suffering, which she says only got worse. Cheatham County Schools director Tim Webb told the Huffington Post that the school was aware of only one instance of bullying against Rogers, and that a recent change of academic personnel could be blamed for his slipping through the cracks.
"We have a new principal, a new assistant principal and at least one new guidance counselor out there ... so it could've been they didn't have the knowledge of the history of what was going on," Webb said.
In an email to the Scene, Cheatham County High School principal Glenna Barrow outlines the new measures the school is taking in response to Rogers' suicide.
"Our administration, faculty, and staff commit many hours to students, student issues, and student problems that no one will ever know about because we also protect our students' privacy," Barrow writes. In the wake of Rogers' death, she says, the school has sought support from the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, going as far as to host a community meeting. The school also invited the group Students Taking a Right Stand for a training session with the faculty and staff.
"This student had many problems that we were working closely with him to solve. We will continue to evaluate all of our processes and procedures for giving help," Barrow writes. "We had procedures in place but we must do more. We do not want anyone else following in Jacob's steps."
There is reason to worry. By the most recent statistics, Tennessee has the 17th highest age-adjusted suicide rate in the U.S. These findings arrive among a list of other grim stats.
The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's 2009 National School Climate Survey found that LGBT students in Tennessee report levels of verbal abuse higher than the national average. Ninety-eight percent of Tennessee high schoolers have heard a peer use the word "gay" in a derogatory fashion, compared with a national rate of 89 percent. Likewise, 68 percent of Tennessee students did not report bullying to school faculty, and 65 percent kept instances of bullying from their families.
Compounding matters, fewer than one in 10 Tennessee students attends a school with a comprehensive anti-bullying policy. In addition, only one in seven could access LGBT information via school computers — the subject of a 2009 ACLU lawsuit against Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools and Knoxville Public Schools that was ultimately successful in overturning the policy. For these and other reasons, Chris Sanders, director of the LGBT advocacy group Tennessee Equality Project, thinks the change in attitudes he hopes for will come slowly.
"Unfortunately, it takes time for things to reach Tennessee," Sanders says. "It's not to say it won't get better at some point, but right now, 2011-2012 — or you could say the time that coincides with the 107th General Assembly — it's the worst it's been since the marriage amendment went through the legislature. We're back really to — I think the worst point in history for Tennessee's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in years."