September 22, 2011

LGBT News: Tyler Clementi: Loyal Son of Rutgers - Gone But Not Forgotten


The past ten days have been hard with the 9/11 anniversary, my mother died on 9/18/08, the controversy and execution surrounding Troy Davis, and Jamey Rodemayer - the young 14 year old in Buffalo who took his own life. We sometimes have to remind ourselves to CELEBRATE LIFE! In the right column you will find a Social Vibe widget for the LGBT youth oriented suicide prevention hotline the Trevor Project. It costs nothing to click the widget, and will raise money for a good cause. Thanks!

One year ago today, on September 22nd 2010, New Jersey native and Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi, drove himself from the Livingston campus in Piscataway, to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee. He parked his car and jumped off of the bridge, and took his own life.

In a matter of days word spread like wildfire, right across the country, that a bright and gifted musician, just starting college, had a prank played on him by his new college roommate. The prank involved a webcam, and Tyler’s privacy had been grossly violated, seemingly because Tyler was gay, and as a result Tyler committed suicide. Tyler's spirit captured the nation.

From College Avenue in New Brunswick, to gay ground zero at Castro and Market in San Francisco, there were candlelight vigils. Not only was Tyler’s death discussed, but the topic of LGBT bullying was center stage. In just a few short weeks after Tyler’s tragic death, there were other teen suicides in Texas and California.

It was obvious that there was a need for a Federal plan and national response to the epidemic of bullying. Not only were LGBT students being bullied, but those perceived to be LGBT, were being victimized as well. In response to this tragedy, the New Jersey State Legislature passed the toughest anti-bullying laws in the nation. Dan Savage started the “It Get’s Better” Project, a grassroots internet suicide prevention initiative - that utilises the power and reach of video, youtube, and the internet - to reach out to kids, and let them know that with perseverance and fortitude, and the natural aging process - that life gets better.

When I heard about Tyler Clementi’s death, it touched a raw nerve, and upset me deeply. No one can pretend to know what Tyler was feeling, or what he was thinking, one year ago today. But I do know that Tyler was in a lot of pain, and mental anguish, and lacking the coping skills for the pressure he felt, with no relief for the humiliation and pain, he felt his only alternative was to take his life.

His death bothered me on many levels. I didn’t know Tyler - but we grew up in the same general area, about 15 miles apart. I went to Rutgers too - and remember the struggles I had with my own sexuality, and coming out, and how big a school Rutgers is - and how very alone you can feel at the same time, and I could feel his pain.

I didn’t have a clue that I was gay when I first arrived to move into my dorm on College Avenue. I was sexually active in high school with women, and assumed that my peers were as well. In high school we didn’t brag or tell tall tales about women, and didn’t talk about sex. The people we hung out with, which was a pretty big social group, numbered as many women as guys. In retrospect, we always were respectful to each other. Plus some of the women could have kicked our ass if we got fresh, so we stayed in line.

When I got to college, away from the small smothering Republican town I grew up in, I made a fast friend on my first day away from home, who I instantly fell in love with. She looked at me the second day at Rutgers and informed me that I was gay. I still don’t know what she saw that I didn’t - but denial was certainly no longer an option.

Early in the first semester I became very depressed, as I was terribly confused. There were three things that saved me. The first was the friend I made that first day who told me I was gay. Julie was a breath of fresh air, who always spoke the truth - and I needed that.

The second thing that saved me was being a member of the Rutgers Glee Club. Having a place to go where you could sing, and having a place to go where you were needed, and counted on, was a godsend.

The third thing that saved me was the fact that we were living in what was known as the “gay” dorm. There was absolutely no caché, and you got no points for being gay or living in Demarest Hall. It was the target of epithets, including screams and shouts, on a daily basis. Residents were derided and called fags, and people walking to and from the adjacent quad, at all hours of the day and night, screamed nasty things, threw things at the building, toilet papered the trees and dorm, and tried to set the dorm on fire.

As volatile as it was, we formed a community that stuck together. Demarest Hall was a coed special interest dorm - with sections for History, Spanish, French, African American Studies, and much more. There was a small, but vocal gay community within the dorm. While it seemed as though everyone was finding their way in the dark, the Demarest Hall community served me well - and I was lucky to have been placed there by chance.

I made an appointment at the Hurtado Health Center to speak with a therapist about my sexuality. It was a very upsetting time, and I was having a hard time coping. The therapist asked me a bunch of questions, asked me why I was there, and he nodded a lot. He kept asking me about masturbation, over and over again. I was immature and thought he was being a pervert. Now that I’ve grown up I still think he was a pervert. At the end of the session he told me he could make me “straight” if that’s what I wanted. I told him that I would think about it, and let him know, but that I had to get back to the dorm to talk about it with the woman I was enamored with.

Rutgers is a big school - and it can be a lonely place when you’re different and you don’t feel as though you fit in. For students just discovering their sexuality and figuring out who they are, it can be particularly challenging. I made a comment recently on a blog that was discussing “LGBT” housing at universities and colleges, that had Tyler Clementi known about Demarest Hall - perhaps there would have been a different outcome that day. That was pure speculation on my part, and while I still believe that - he may have known about Demarest and chose not to live there.

I know that Demarest Hall worked because it was mixed. No one was segregated or confined by sexuality or gender, and it was a great place to live because of the diversity. Because of that diversity we always had the best parties, the best music, and the meanest and most wonderful woman who cleaned and policed the building - who ever lived.

When I heard about Tyler’s death, with the other suicides that followed, I vowed one year ago that I would do everything I could to make the world a more tolerant place. I made a commitment to myself, and each victim of the needless suicides over the last year - that we have to do better. I have to do better. Whether I have to speak with a kid, or talk with a parent, or loved one - don’t hesitate to reach out. I also vowed that day that I would work on eliminating hate speech, and anti-gay groups with their lies and false rhetoric. For me this isn’t about gay rights, or marriage equality, or politics. This is about tolerance. This is about telling your kid that you love them no matter what. This is about NOT making fun of people in your class who might look or sound different. Kids learn bullying behavior from their parents. As a parent you may make an innocuous comment about someone you dislike, or make a remark about a neighbor’s ugly dress, and your child who hangs on every word might go to school the next day and pick on the children of the women you innocently chided.

It’s because of Tyler Clementi that I started this blog. It’s because of Tyler that I’m so dedicated to the boycott, and committed to fighting hatred and intolerance. I was Tyler Clementi at Rutgers many moons ago, and I will do anything I can to help anyone choose a different outcome.

As tragic as Tyler’s death was, many committed people have ensured that his legacy will live on forever. On this twenty second day of September 2011 - join me in saying a prayer and sending Tyler and his family some love. He might be gone - but he will never be forgotten.

Disqus