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Young gay man's suicide in Oklahoma has strengthened the family he left behind

A young gay man's well publicized suicide has strengthened the Norman family he left behind.
BY ANDREW KNITTLE Published: October 27, 2011

Van Harrington stood in a small bedroom at the back of his home as he recalled the worst day of his life.

Little remains in the room to indicate that a budding artist, writer and musician once lived there.

It is here that Van Harrington saw the unthinkable, for any parent, a little more than a year ago.

“I found him in the closet. ... He had shot himself,” he said, motioning to the corner of the room.

“Some things you can never un-see.”

The son he lost is enshrined there in the room where he took his own life on Oct. 5, 2010. A simple display of remembrance — one that 19-year-old Zack Harrington would've appreciated — greets you as you enter the room.

“He was humble,” Van Harrington said Tuesday evening. “He didn't like flashy. ... That was definitely not his thing.”

Most of his personal effects have been removed for cathartic reasons, his mother, Nancy Harrington, said.

“It got a little hard seeing his things every day,” she said. “I'm trying to make it into kind of my quiet room now.”

Zack's brother, Austin Harrington, is roughly two years younger than his older sibling. He said he and Zack were close growing up in Norman.

“Christmas was hard,” he said. “Me and Zack used to wake up before everyone else — or at least we thought we were up first — and put everyone's presents in a pile.”

Public loss

For the Harringtons, Zack's suicide thrust them into the spotlight.

Following his death, it was reported by local media that Zack was present at a Norman City Council meeting when a parade of the city's residents expressed what the Harringtons term “hateful, ignorant” sentiments about members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.

The meeting was held on Sept. 28, 2010, exactly a week before Zack shot himself. He had struggled with his own sexual identity growing up in Norman before acknowledging that he was gay.

At the time, the family believed the comments at the meeting could have been a factor in Zack's death, pushing an emotionally fragile young man over the edge. A number of other gay young people in other states, including two 13-year-old teenage boys, had killed themselves in the weeks before his death, so interest in Zack's story was widespread.

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Zack Harrington's suicide last year at his parents' Norman home was one of many reported in the media in 2010 involving young gay men or, in some cases, teens.

Harrington's parents admit they aren't sure why exactly Zack took his life but note that it happened exactly a week after scores of Norman residents attended a public meeting and expressed concerns about proclaiming October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender awareness month in the city.

Many residents, Harrington's parents said, stepped over the line and made comments that went too far.

Death toll in 2010

Young gay men and teenagers among those who ended their lives because of bullying and intolerant behavior, their families say, include:

• Asher Brown, 13, was found dead in his stepfather's closet from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in the Houston area. Brown's parents told local media the smallish teen ended his own life after two years of constant bullying. Brown died Sept. 23, 2010.

• Seth Walsh, 13, died of injuries he suffered when he failed to hang himself from a tree in his backyard. Walsh was from Tehachapi, Calif., a rural town about 120 miles north of Los Angeles. Walsh died Sept. 27, 2010, nine days after he attempted to hang himself.

• Justin Aaberg, 15, hanged himself in his room in Andover, Minn., a small suburb north of Minneapolis. Aaberg, a cellist, died July 9, 2010.

• Tyler Clementi, 18, reportedly jumped to his death from a bridge near New York City after he found out that his roommate had secretly taped him with another male student at Rutgers University. The roommate had streamed the video on the Internet and Clementi, a violinist, committed suicide the next day, Sept. 22, 2010.


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