The Norman Transcript

October 10, 2010

North grad took own life after week of 'toxic' comments

By Andrew Knittle
The Norman Transcript

NORMAN — A week after attending a Norman City Council meeting where a heated debate played out in public, 19-year-old Zach Harrington took his own life at his family’s home in Norman.

At the Sept. 28 meeting Harrington attended at City Hall, the council acknowledged receipt of a proclamation recognizing October as Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender History Month in the city. Council voted 7 to 1 in favor of it, with only Councilman Dan Quinn casting a nay vote.

Support for and opposition to the proclamation were fairly even and the public comment portion of the agenda item lasted for three hours — the entire time allotted.

The entire process was an exercise in representative government, with both sides — and those in between — given their chance to speak their minds.

One man said he moved to Norman because he thought it was the kind of place that would never accept the GLBT community with open arms. A woman, who described herself as “bi-racial,” said she was tired of the GLBT plight being compared to Civil Rights.

Some of those who opposed the proclamation claimed that members of the GLBT community would use it to infiltrate the public school system, essentially allowing the “gay lifestyle” to become a part of the curriculum.

Others claimed that council recognizing October as GLBT History Month was a waste of their time. Some members of the audience even suggested that any council members voting in favor of the proclamation may have trouble getting reelected.

Numerous residents also claimed the Bible was their guiding light, citing the ancient text as their primary reason for opposing the proclamation and the GLBT community in general.

And for those in attendance, it was hard to ignore the intolerant grumblings, the exasperated sighs and cold, hard stares that followed comments from supporters of the GLBT proclamation.

Even most council members admitted that a majority of the e-mails and phone calls they fielded regarding the proclamation were against it.

Harrington’s family, who described him as a private young man who internalized his feelings and emotions, said it was this “toxic” environment at the Sept. 28 council meeting that may have pushed their gay son and brother over the edge.

Nikki Harrington, Zach’s older sister, said her brother likely took all of the negative things said about members of the GLBT community straight to heart.

“When he was sitting there, I’m sure he was internalizing everything and analyzing everything … that’s the kind of person he was,” she said. “I’m sure he took it personally. Everything that was said.”

Harrington’s father, Van, said he wasn’t sure why his son went to the meeting, especially after his experiences in Norman once he revealed that he was gay as a teenager. He said he feels his son may have glimpsed a hard reality at the Sept. 28 council meeting, a place where the same sentiments that quietly tormented him in high school were being shouted out and applauded by adults the same age as his own parents.

“I don’t think it was a place where he would hear something to make him feel more accepted by the community,” he said. “For somebody like Zach, it (the meeting) was probably very hard to sit through.”

Zach Harrington, who graduated from Norman North High School in 2009, had been struggling with acceptance for years. Despite being a talented musician “who could play any instrument he picked up,” Van Harrington said his son asked to leave school early during his senior year and finish his diploma in a separate program.

“He feared for his safety on many occasions at (Norman North), and other people like him,” Van said. “Even though he was 6-4, he was passive and I’m sure being gay in that environment didn’t help.”

Nikki Harrington, who is eight years older than her brother and also attended Norman North, said she recalls the way members of the GLBT community were treated during her time there.

“There was one gay guy in my high school at the time, and he was made fun of all the time,” she said. “It was a pretty much non-stop thing at school.”

Harrington received a $1,000 scholarship from the Norman chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays when he graduated high school and briefly studied music at the University of Central Oklahoma. He had been living in Arkansas for about a month prior to his death.

In high school he was a member of the band, orchestra and the “first-ever male captain of the color guard,” Van Harrington said, adding that his son wrote an anthology while at Norman North to document his young life.

“He could have done whatever he wanted to do,” he said.

Both Nikki and Van said they hope people will think about the things they say in public. Both feel that words can do more than hurt feelings, especially when they come from our friends and neighbors.

“When we talk about our feelings in a hypothetical way and we send our toxic thoughts out in a public setting that way, they will affect people in a negative way,” Nikki said. “People need to think about the things they are saying and ask themselves, ‘Is this right?’”

Harrington’s parents don’t seem to hold any resentment toward the community that spoke out against Zach and others like him, even with the loss of their son not yet a week old.

“I don’t have any anger … I just hope those people look inside themselves and put themselves in somebody else’s shoes before saying things like that,” Van Harrington said. “Maybe if more of us did that, well, maybe things would’ve turned out different.”

Harrington’s mother, Nancy, said she hopes that other parents can learn a lesson her family is now paying for in sorrow and loss.

“This can happen to anybody,” she said. “No matter how diligent we are.”

Andrew Knittle 366-3540 aknittle@normantranscript.com