Eighteen-year-old Tyler Clementi stood on the bridge that spans from New Jersey to one of the largest, most cosmopolitan concentrations of humanity in North America—New York City—and jumped to his death.
This is not Mississippi or Louisiana or some other so-called American backwater. The New York metro area is home to more out lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people than anywhere on the continent. The GW Bridge is just a few miles north of Greenwich Village, where the modern gay power movement was born.
How could it happen here? And now?
The reported details that led this young man to take his own life are so cruel and stupid that tens of thousands of strangers have already signed onto Facebook’s mourning page to express their horror and sorrow. But behind the salacious background to Tyler’s suicide—the videocam images of him being intimate with another young man splashed over the Internet by his roommate and another student—is a more banal and deadly crime.
It’s not technology’s grip on youth. Or even the inhumanity of two insipid 18-year-olds playing a savage “prank.” The crime is that LGBT people continue to be held in an official state of civil inequality that foments a soulless social pathology toward sexual minorities in this country. Official policy carries over into social attitudes. So long as schools lack sex and sexuality education along with anti-bullying campaigns the insane rates of LGBT youth suicide and harassment will continue.
Tyler took his life last Wednesday, and the next day in Houston, eighth-grader Asher Brown shot himself to death after enduring endless homophobic harassment at school about which, according to his parents, no officials lifted a finger to alleviate.
In the Anoka-Hennepin School District in Minnesota, there have been four suicides in the last year alone due to anti-gay bullying. When asked why they do not teach about sexual diversity and enforce any anti-gay bullying policies the district spokeswoman, Mary Olson, explained, “We have a community with widely varying opinions, and so to respect all families, as the policy says, we ask teachers to remain neutral.”
So out of respect for bigots our kids must kill themselves?
There are grassroots efforts to document and fight this national calamity. Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) and the suicide prevention group The Trevor Project have teamed up with Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) to educate and fight this, but they do so on shoestring budgets with little official support. According to them, LGBT youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide. Even that figure grossly underestimates reality since only 14 states even bother to collect such data.
Politicians will howl that since Tyler’s suicide appears to be a result of the unconscionable acts by Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the two who secretly videoed, Twittered and broadcast Tyler’s trysts, they should effectively hang. Prosecutors may even go for the maximum penalty of five years in prison for each of them.
But politicians—starting with President Obama—sit atop institutions that continue to deny equal rights to LGBT people. And school officials have been generally complacent at fighting the conditions that created Ravi and Wei—and all the others like them.
Tyler’s suicide so far appears to be the most publicly mourned death of a young gay man since that of murdered Matthew Shepard in 1998. If these people in positions of power want to honor Tyler’s death, let them start by finally passing legislation that will guarantee full federal equality for all LGBT people. School officials from the earliest grades can start teaching these well-crafted curricula that have been gathering dust for years. I suggest they start with GLSEN’s Web site.
I’m not for letting Ravi and Wei off the hook, though. The punishment should fit the crime. What better way to punish two young adults so alienated from their own humanity that they would seek to publicly humiliate another person than for them to play a modest role in stanching the harassment. Ravi and Wei should have to stand before their peers at high schools and colleges for years to come and talk about their selfish and stupid acts and how they led to the death of a talented young man and destroyed a family.
The two who sought to publicly humiliate Tyler will be human pariahs for some time, as they should be. But they’re young and maybe can reclaim some portion of their humanity.
What about those who control our institutions of power? What will they do? How will they reclaim their humanity?