why we’ve all killed tyler clementi

02Oct10

It’s all over the news. Tyler Clementi, freshman at Rutgers, jumped off the George Washington Bridge last week. This happened a few days after his roommate videotaped Clementi engaging in romantic activity with a man and broadcast it over the internet, complete with some pretty heinous tweets. The roommate also planned to do it again and made an announcement online asking people to tune in at a particular time (the same few hours that Clementi had asked to have the room to himself, presumably to have more romantic fun).

Suicide is one of those things that’s hard to understand. In theory, it’s the result of a longstanding, crippling depression and feeling as though one has no other options. Life’s not worth living, etc. And so some have used that to downplay the import of the roommate’s actions. I’m no specialist in psychology. All I know is my own experience with serious depression. But I also know that random events can trigger significant and outsized mental and emotional reactions in people who are emotionally vulnerable and isolated. And it’s this that I want to talk about: Clementi’s vulnerability.

Of course, I’m speaking in abstracts. I know nothing more about Clementi than what’s been reported, nor do I know anything about his family dynamic, or frankly, anything about his sexuality. But I feel like the coverage of this has tended to hone into narrow, nitty-gritty debates about whether the roommate and the friend are criminally responsible for Clementi’s death (the answer is probably no) and lengthy debates about cyberbullying. All of which are important (ish?) conversations but that miss the larger point: what might have caused Clementi’s susceptibility.

I see Clementi’s death in the context of the recent spate of gay teen suicides all over the country. In the month of September alone, there were four or five well-publicized cases of teenage boys (who may or may not have identified as gay) who killed themselves presumably in response to bullying based on their perceived homosexuality, Clementi included. (I emphasize “may or may not be gay” and “perceived homosexuality” because what we’re really dealing with is a homophobia that is built upon a very narrow perception of what masculinity is and what it looks like that casts many boys and men, straight and gay, aside. For those people who don’t care about gay children, a point I will get to in a minute, maybe they should care about the straight children getting caught up in this vicious cycle.)

The reason I say we’ve all killed Tyler Clementi (and by “we”, I mean straight people) is because we have created a society in which homophobia runs rampant and we carry on gleefully in this society because it doesn’t affect us. We can express our love to our opposite-sex mates without a care in the world, so who cares that some kid in rural America shot himself because he was bullied for being effeminate? This goes way beyond the question of same-sex marriage or gay adoptions, although the opposition to these things comes out of the same stew of homophobia.

The problem is that many (most?) Christian teachings tells us that gay people are sinful for being born, even though they’re being born in God’s image. And with that idea rattling around in most people’s mind, it becomes perfectly okay to wage war on everybody who isn’t straight. After all, we’ve got to root out sin, right? This is why we have offshoots from Focus on the Family who decry anti-bullying programs that supposedly push a gay agenda. (Never mind the agenda of treating everyone humanely.) This is why we have people prattling on about how marriage is going to be ruined, as though we don’t all see the carnage of wrecked straight relationships on a daily basis. This is why people insist that having a mother and father is automatically better than any other family arrangement. (I’ve got firsthand knowledge that this isn’t true. Quick diversion: this obsession with having fathers and father figures around is getting dangerous. See: Eddie Long.)

All of this, all of the ways people will twist themselves around just to insist that homosexuality is evil has a dire effect on the LGBT community and, in particular, a dire effect on LBGT children. Not only are they facing severe problems in school that nobody is addressing (one principal even suggested that one deceased child was asking for it), these children may not have families they think they can turn to. (Again, I’m not making any speculations about the families of the recently deceased teenage boys.) It all creates a situation in which people spend an entire childhood being told from some combination of parents and families, teachers and principals, peers, religious leaders, politicians, and our culture at large that they themselves are sick and sinful and evil. We should be ashamed of ourselves that we’ve sat back and allowed this to happen.

And so we get back to Tyler Clementi. Again, we don’t know what he was thinking or what his experiences were or anything. But here’s what’s struck me: as repugnant as the prank his roommate played was, it was a typical freshman prank.* Anybody who’s lived in a dorm knows the kinds of shenanigans that go on. But the prank explodes into what seems to have been a catastrophic event because Clementi was outed so publicly and his roommate revelled in shaming him for being gay. His roommate clearly anticipated that others would find his roommate’s sexuality as repulsive as he did, a fair bet in American society at present. And this is where we have to take responsibility. Why is it such a safe bet that we’re all going to find the actions of gays and lesbians repulsive? Why are we fine with that being the case?

*I don’t say this to minimize the actions of the roommate. Here’s where the cyberbullying people are onto something: what might have been an embarrassing event that could be forgotten in a few days 20 years ago is now spread all over the internet for the whole world to see. Also, even though it was a typical freshman prank, that doesn’t mean it was all right even if Clementi hadn’t committed suicide or hadn’t been with a man. These pranks suggest to me a real lack of home training and a serious lack of empathy that’s very concerning and should be addressed, regardless of the target.

As long as we continue to ignore the hostile environment we’re all a part of creating, then we have these children to answer to.

Tyler Clementi, 18.
Asher Brown, 13.
Billy Lucas, 15.
Seth Walsh, 13.
Cody Barker, 17.*
Raymond Chase, 19.**

LGBT teenagers are 4 times more likely to commit suicide than straight teenagers. I, personally, cannot accept that.

A note: I will put up with no nonsense in the comments. Reasoned and thoughtful debate is fine but if random people show up to spout homophobic bullshit, I will shut down comments immediately.

*Post updated to add the name of yet another gay teenager, Cody Barker, who killed himself during the month of September.

**Post updated yet again to add the name of another gay teenager, Raymond Chase, who killed himself during the month of September.

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10 Responses to “why we’ve all killed tyler clementi”

  1. 1 The History Enthusiast

    These stories always sadden me, and you’re right, we need to do a better job of stopping bullying in all its forms.

    The only thing I want to point out, though, is your explanation of Christianity. It isn’t that Christians wish gay individuals had never been born, which is what your wording implies (and by Christians I mean mainstream groups, not Fred Phelps). It is that we believe everyone is born sinful, regardless of sexual orientation, race, gender, nationality, etc. So, being gay is a manifestation of sin.*

    That said, the problem I see is that we (Christians) treat gay people like they are some sort of freak. Like their sin, because it is more visible, is worse than our own sins as straight people. That message runs counter to Jesus’s teachings. I believe that the Church should be welcoming to gay individuals and treat them just like the rest of the congregants/parishioners, but based on my interpretation of the New Testament, accepting them into the fold does not equal accepting their sin. The NT preaches forgiveness, not being judgmental, etc., but Jesus is also quite clear about how we must root sin out of our lives.

    The story I think of is when Jesus comes across the Pharisees who are about to stone a woman for adultery. He points out their own sin (by writing in the dust), and then he addresses the woman. He does not say, “woman, what you did wasn’t wrong, it is perfectly acceptable.” Instead, he says “go, and sin no more.” Thus, he acknowledges her flawed humanity and doesn’t excuse the behavior, showing mercy instead. The Pharisees, then, were wrong in their treatment of her (and self righteous attitudes), not in their belief that her actions were wrong. That’s the distinction I see.

    *While I understand that many people do not see homosexuality is a sin, in my personal opinion we should love gays as people, flawed as they might be, since we are sinful too. We are all equally sinful in God’s eyes.

  2. 2 thefrogprincess

    Thanks for posting, THE. Thinking in your terms for a minute, what struck me when I was still a practicing evangelical was just what you mentioned. In my experience, homosexuality wasn’t being treated as one of the countless manifestations of sin equal to divorce, embezzling money from the church, lying, etc. It was treated as the absolute worst possible thing, which runs counter to a literal reading of the Bible that preaches that all sins are equal. Nothing else got nearly as much attention at the pulpit or was railed against with such vitriol as homosexuality.

    That being said, I personally cannot accept (as a Christian) that homosexuality is sin. Other sins are choices; I don’t believe being gay is a choice and I cannot accept that God would create people to be one way and then punish them for it by forcing them to live a life devoid of love and full of shame. I hear you on the fact that we are all sinful and I know that that’s the major tenet of Protestant Christianity but, if that’s the case, then for me, that means being straight is a sin as well. Moreover, although I usually can let various religious beliefs lie, whether I agree with them or not, I think this particular belief is dangerous and is killing people. I do not believe that every single person who believes homosexuality is sin is advocating violence but I think we have to get real about the consequences of having this belief swirling around. That very premise opens up an enormous cultural space that sanctions violence against people who are different; that creates enormous shame in LGBT people that manifests itself in a variety of ways, including ways that put us all in danger (here I’m thinking of varieties of being down-low and the clergymen who have used their power to prey on children in their pastoral care); that puts forth an incredibly narrow version of masculinity that is based solely on the ability of a man to look as though he can dominate a woman in bed, which is an enormous problem for all of us; and that creates a culture of suspicion in which everybody is looking for hints that so-and-so might be gay and where men (gay and straight) are going out of their way to try to fit this model of masculinity.

  3. 3 Dobbeanne

    I don’t agree that we”ve all killed Tyler. The blame lies solely with his room mate and the room mate’s friend. What they allegedly did should never have happened to anyone. It was a crime and they should be punished. They knew better and there is no excusing it or diminishing such a horrific crime in anyway. It was done to make fun of Tyler and to humiliate him. It is unfortunate that he thought that he would not have the support that he needed to turn this around and expose these two people for their alleged crime. I don’t believe that his death was caused by any other underlying psychological problems. Tyler died from humiliation. He thought that he would never get past this. He felt that there was no other way out. I didn’t know him, but I feel the pain that he must have felt. It breaks my heart. I wish so much that I could have been there for him.
    As a straight christian, I believe that Tyler was created by God and he had the God given right to love whom ever he chose to love. If he was gay, then God created him this way. God doesn’t make mistakes. Gays don’t choose to be gay.
    As much as I understand and appreciate that gay people are speaking out about this horrible tragedy, I think it is time for all straight people to speak out. The next Tyler could be our child.
    There should be justice for Tyler and his family. We couldn’t be there for him when he needed us. Perhaps we can be here to be a voice for him now.
    This precious child is now in the arms of the angels. His fight is over. It is time for our’s to begin. We should all let everyone know that we won’t tolerate hate of any kind.

  4. 4 The History Enthusiast

    The point you make about gay individuals being born that way is something I’ve thought a lot about. This is how I reconcile it, for what it’s worth.

    We are all born sinful (gay or straight), but the Christian life is not about staying where we are, it is about constantly challenging our sinfulness and becoming more like Christ. As I said in my other comment, Christ loved both his enemies and his friends, but He constantly pushed for them to let go of their sin; He was not content leaving them just as they were. So, God wants us all to change. The message of Scripture is not that we are “perfect” just as we are, but that God loves us all even though we are not perfect.

    I was born with Original Sin, but God’s love and forgiveness has helped me overcome that sinfulness (not that I’m perfect, but grace has saved me). Living the Christian life–when done correctly–is supposed to be a struggle because changing our very natures is not a comfortable process. Following Christ has its high moments alongside the lowest of the low. Thus, if we work under the assumption that gays are born with those proclivities, the message of Scripture is still a message of change. For a gay person they may need to repent of their sin of homosexuality, while I need to repent of my sin of pride (just as examples).

    Now, that change should come from within, not from harassment, bullying, etc. And, of course I understand that this is a distinctly evangelical view and that others may not subscribe to this belief system, but that is how I make sense of that question. I don’t know whether gays are born gay–maybe they are, maybe they aren’t–but either way the doctrine of Original Sin comes into play.

    Let me be clear, and I hope this was clear in my earlier post, that I in no way condone harassment, name calling, bullying, etc. I am so sad that Tyler believed suicide was his only option.

  5. 5 The History Enthusiast

    P.S. I’m with you on the patriarchy bit, though, because a patriarchal society does limit men’s choices and lead to harassment of both gays and straight people who are perceived as gay. Neither case deserves the self-righteous name calling I’ve seen from some religious groups.

  6. What Dharun Ravi did was irresponsible and cruel. I hope he and Molly are both feeling the shame they should be. The school should expel them both and a permanent statement should go in their school record. Invasion of privacy is something that can’t be violated by anyone. Now they will have to live with their action for the rest of their worthless lives. RIP Tyler.

  7. 7 thefrogprincess

    THE, your first post was clear on the point about bullying and harassment.

    Thinking as an Evangelical for a moment (which is the belief system I was raised in), I understand your logic but my sticking point continues to be the issue of whether homosexuality is a sin at all and I can’t accept that it is. Obviously I know what’s in the Bible but I’m again struck by what that would mean: Is 10% of the population supposed to go without love and remain celibate their entire lives? Or force themselves into heterosexual relationships? The latter option creates two victims, b/c no spouse should have to be married to somebody who isn’t interested in their gender. (Here too is where my thinking differs from an evangelical position: I don’t believe people who are gay can ever gain complete happiness in a heterosexual marriage.) I can’t condemn other people to bear a life that’s full of shame, lying, and self-hatred, all without the hope of a loving relationship and companionship, while I get to revel in my heterosexual relationships. And, despite what those Bible passages say, I don’t believe that’s what Jesus is calling for, either.

    I’ll admit: this is one of the central reasons why I am no longer an evangelical and why I don’t go to church any more.

  8. 8 Bri

    All in all, it doesn’t really matter what your religion says about anything having to do with being gay. The fact of the matter is that we live in a society that is built upon freedom, and we hinder the freedoms of our citizens when we hinder the rights of gays. Whether being gay is a chosen freedom or not, it is still a freedom to have the same rights of others, no matter what those rights may be. You cannot ask for the freedom to have your religion, and then use it against those who don’t subscribe to it, just as you cannot ask for you freedom of speech and deny a gay man or woman the right to marry their partner. On top of which, no matter what your views on homosexuality are, it is never, never, never okay for a child to commit suicide – gay or not – in the sense of people acting like it’s acceptable that that happened. It is especially not okay for some Christians to think that it *is* okay and pass that message onto their children. It’s also not okay for parents to lodge their own hate and their own views onto their kids and raise them to just say exactly the same things their parents do. It is my belief that children should be taught every view of religion and politics until they are completely informed and then be allowed to make a decision for themselves what they believe – not churned out constantly as mindless droning robots. The same thing goes for homosexuality and heterosexuality. This is what I plan to do with my own kids (when I have them and once they’re old enough for each different topic). Whatever they believe, I may not agree with it, but as long as it is not purposely hurtful towards someone, I will respect it.


  1. 1 In Memoriam « Prone to Laughter
  2. 2 Sunday Roundup « Are Women Human?

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