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Gay teen endured a daily gantlet

As a gentle child grew into adolescence, the taunts and bullying intensified. Finally, Seth Walsh couldn't take any more.

October 08, 2010|By Thomas Curwen, Los Angeles Times
  • Jim Walsh, the grandfather of Seth Walsh, says that when the teenager smiled, "he smiled with his whole face. ... He really meant that smile for you." Seth, 13, hanged himself after being confronted in a Tehachapi park.
Jim Walsh, the grandfather of Seth Walsh, says that when the teenager smiled,… (Rick Loomis / Los Angeles…)

When Seth Walsh came home from school, he would open the gate to a chain-link fence, walk beneath a tall red oak tree and be greeted by five dogs and two cats.

Seth lived with two brothers and a sister, four children from three fathers who were seldom around, supported by their mother who worked long hours as a hairdresser. Their home was a rental, a few blocks from Tehachapi's main street.

He was 13, and in the eyes of his grandparents, Jim and Judy Walsh, he was just a normal kid, pushing into adolescence. They looked forward to watching him grow up and never imagined that the harassment he experienced as a gay teenager, or his suicide, would resonate across the country.

Seth's mother, Wendy, is guarding her privacy, lost in grief, and his friends are keeping quiet at their parents' instructions. Only Jim and Judy are willing to share their memories.

They want to make sure their grandson isn't remembered only as "the gay kid who hung himself," so they tell stories about a bright and precocious child who enjoyed playing with their dog, Bambi, and who liked the Jonas Brothers and Magic Mountain.

"When he smiled," Jim says, "he smiled with his whole face. His eyes twinkled. It wasn't just the smile. You got it from the eyes and the beaming of the face. He really meant that smile for you."

Judy and Jim still laugh over his tastes. He colored his hair blond on occasion and wore it with a long swoop that partly covered his eyes. Judy took him shopping once, and he went to the girl's department to find pants with tapered legs. He added a vest, and a few months later she noticed the style everywhere.

His favorite songs were Nat King Cole's "Smile" and Bobby Darin's "Beyond the Sea," and he listened to Mozart in the shower. His favorite stop in Bakersfield was Barnes & Noble; he liked James Herriot's books about animals.

He was a gentle child, they say, who preferred to "relocate bugs" rather than kill them, who made sure his younger brother got his share of Easter eggs and who once apologized to a bed of flowers when he picked one and placed it on the grave of the family dog.

But the Walshes realize that Seth's gentleness made him a target, and they recall listening to Wendy as she shared her worries about Seth and what he had to endure.

The teasing and bullying began in fourth grade. At first it was because he was different — more comfortable with girls, not interested in sports, neither aggressive nor assertive — and then it was because he thought he was gay. Once classmates found out and the news spread, the abuse became more focused and cruel.

When Judy learned from her daughter that Seth was gay, she became concerned for the challenges that lay ahead of her grandson.

"Life is hard enough," she says, "but this makes it harder."

"Especially in a small town," Jim says.

Jim and Judy Walsh live on the west side of Tehachapi — about 20 minutes away from their grandchildren — in a gated community known as Bear Valley, an affluent enclave in the middle of the mountains where there are almost as many stables as there are homes.

Sitting in their living room, they talk easily about Seth. Jim is 65, a retired school principal. Judy, 69, is a retired teacher who once served on the school board.

They accept that Seth's suicide — along with the suicides of Tyler Clementi, 18, Billy Lucas, 15, and Asher Brown, 13, all within two and a half weeks — is now part of a national conversation about the consequences of being harassed and being young and gay.

At first Judy had mixed feelings about her grandson being mentioned in this context. "But the more I thought about it, the more the world needs to know why Seth was harassed," she says. "He was harassed because he was gay."

When Seth came out to his mother, it was a declaration that followed years of uncertainty. He was 11 at the time. She told him that it didn't matter; she loved him all the same.

His classmates were not as understanding. In the halls at school, students would bump him in the shoulder as they walked by. He'd get hateful messages on his cellphone — or, if he answered, a rude comment, an obscenity.

Wendy tried to help him as best as she could. Jim and Judy recall the time when she went to pick him up at school and a student called out "queer." The next day, Wendy went to the principal, and the boy was suspended.

There was little she could do, though, as Seth grew more afraid. After his suicide, Jim and Judy heard stories about students goading him to take his life ("Why don't you hang yourself?") or promising "to get him" on the way home from school.

Jacobson Middle School became unbearable for Seth. For a few months in seventh grade, he switched to a charter school. Last August he returned to Jacobson, and after just a week in eighth grade, the harassment started up again. He decided to stay at home on independent study.

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