When I interviewed Kevin Patrick O'Neil in August 2010, I did what any decent journalist would do. I quoted my subject accurately and in context. In retrospect, red flags should have been raised before the interview was completed. Gay activist O'Neil spoke of himself in such glowing, heroicterms it was as though he were competing with Mother Theresa for sainthood.
A few months earlier, O'Neil launched a Facebook page that was then called Wipeout Homophobia on Facebook — now known as STOP-Homophobia.com. The page's original stated goal was to flag and delete anti-gay, racist, sexist and transphobic hate speech from various Facebook pages. It's current stated mission is to eliminate homophobia from the face of the earth, and to prevent LGBT suicide.
Worthy goals indeed. But is O'Neil actually achieving these goals? He claims that he and his administrators have saved many lives.
My interview with O'Neil was posted at After Elton on August 16, 2010. Soon after its posting, I began to hear complaints, all from within the LGBT community, about the O'Neil’s conduct and that of his administrators. One of those complaints came from Maria, a former group administrator. Maria told me that she left the group because it was "crazy.” O'Neil instigated a vicious flame war on her personal Facebook page, she claims.
Stories like these continued to circulate and escalate. On August 23, 2011, a young man named Brian Hughes posted a request for help on Lady Gaga's Facebook fan page. Hughes claimed that O'Neil and his administrators were cyber-bullying him, and that these attacks continued even after he had left their page. They followed him to other pages, Hughes said.
"I'm a gay person," Hughes wrote. "These people use their page as a reason to attack anyone who has a disagreement on an issue. Kevin O'Neil attacked me viciously."
While a Lady Gaga fan page may seem like an odd place to post a request for help, I understood why Hughes had done this. The attacks from O'Neil and his administrators had become so vicious, people were desperately grasping at straws, looking for any way they could think of to stop him.
At this point, I requested that my name be removed from the After Elton piece I had written. The story is now credited to Michael Jensen, who was then After Elton's editor. Looking at that story today, I see more disturbing comments about O'Neil.
"I was called stupid, a troll, a homophobe, and blocked," posted EmuUpASumTree on October 11, 2011.
"I read loads of negative comments and intolerant speech from the owner of this page," posted Lusoanglian on June 17, 2012. "If you have any sense, leave the group."
I was then contacted by Julian Vigo, a queer writer and teacher who contributes to Huffington Post. Vigo shared her own story of being attacked, ridiculed and banned from O'Neil's page. But nothing I heard prepared me for what I was told by Rinna Hoffman, a young lesbian who survived a suicide attempt.
Shortly before contacting me, Hoffman had been blocked from STOP-Homophobia.com for doing nothing more than expressing her opinion at the page's comments section. Hoffman felt that a poem titled The Golden One, posted on the page, romanticized the notion of suicide.
Hoffman emailed O'Neil to question why she was blocked. She forwarded their email exchange to me.
"I am gay," Hoffman wrote to O'Neil. "I am a teen suicide survivor." She told O'Neil that his focus should be on keeping teens alive, not on romanticizing their deaths. She included links from mental health practitioners in order to back up her statement.
O'Neil's response to Hoffman, dated Jan. 22, 2012: "Your IP address has been logged and the next step is to report the harassment to the police and your Internet provider. Please troll elsewhere. You are putting lives at risk."
After the email exchange with Hoffman I felt it was time to write an article.
And then there’s Christopher Wells, a gay man who lives in Washington State. O’Neil and his administrators flagged Wells’ Facebook group — a place where LGBT people could rant about whatever was bothering them — as a hate page.
"It made me feel very angry," Wells told me in an email. "One gay group passing judgment on another without even looking at the message the group was putting out there. From what I have seen, Mr. O'Neil goes after any homosexual group that can possibly detract from his."
When I showed Hoffman's emails to LGBT people, the reaction was swift.
Roger Wetzel of Texas explained why he left the STOP-Homophobia.com page: "I have a problem with a group that condemns hate in others but accepts hate when it comes from LGBT people."
"Seeing this kind of behavior from a leader can make someone feel even more alienated," Bobby Collins, a young gay college student, stated in an email.
"Today's teens have too few outlets to express their sexual identity, and too many self-righteous activists who take advantage of their cause," said Carl Szulczyski, a 43-year-old father of two in Illinois. "How we treat others is often a reflection of what we think of ourselves. It seems these gay organizations are run by self-loathing, insecure people who can't admit when they're wrong."
Szulczyski knows of what he speaks: in 2010, gay activists ridiculed his past as a homeless, bisexual-identified teen — he retains copies of the emails he received from them.
"I will not defend the indefensible," proclaimed Alfonso Chinea. The openly gay San Francisco resident informed me that on the very day his long-term partner died unexpectedly of a coronary, the now-defunct New Leaf Counseling Services, which was in place to serve the LGBT community, denied him emergency grief counseling. Chinea says he told New Leaf that he was suicidal, and that the clinic blew him off.
Scores of stories like these have crossed my desk since Hoffman first contacted me a year ago. The situations may differ, but the end result is always the same: LGBT people, kids and adults alike, say that when they expressed themselves or asked a gay organization for help, they were ignored, subjected to ridicule, told they were unworthy, bullied, or accused of anti-gay bigotry.
In his 2005 book “The Velvet Rage,” openly gay clinical psychologist Alan Downs, Ph.D., addresses the many self-destructive behaviors that he claims gay men routinely engage in.
"Rage is the experience of intense anger that results from his failing to achieve authentic validation," Downs writes in the chapter “Out and Raging.” It would appear, according to the book, that the vicious lashing out from O'Neil, and many others like him, is the result of growing up gay in a straight world. It's a world that often does not accept us and demands that we conform to the accepted norms of heterosexual culture.
At what point does it become acceptable for people like Rinna Hoffman and Christopher Wells to turn to O'Neil and his supporters and say: "We have rights and feelings, too."
Perhaps it's time we did a little soul searching, and faced the truth about what we've become. Because as we continue to "process our rage,” LGBT youth are killing themselves in record numbers. We are failing them miserably.
A few months ago, I was contacted by Steven Dunn, a young man in Portsmouth VA. Portsmouth is roughly 2,500 miles from where I live in California. Steven was born into a conservative, anti-gay Christian family. He's since converted to Judaism and has come out as bisexual. Steven and I have yet to meet. I don't know if we ever will. But through our regular telephone chats, I've given him the support he's never before gotten. Others may tell him that he needs to "find the Lord,” but I tell him it's OK to be who he is.
If you see an LGBT person in pain, ask them if they need a friend. Give them a hug. Tell them you care. Listen to them. That's how we'll save lives. That's how we'll become a real community.
And remember that what goes around comes around. The love and support you give will be the love and support you get.
"We can't just say It Gets Better," says Carl Szulczyski. "We all have to do our part to make it better."