Eighteen-year-old Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi was a sweet introvert, a redhead, a gifted musician. And, as the entire nation is now painfully aware, he was gay. The issue Tyler Clementi’s sexuality is now more notorious than he ever could have anticipated thanks to a prank by his roommate that got way out of hand. The roommate, 18-year-old Dharun Ravi, decided that it would be funny to set his webcam to record Tyler’s sexual acts with another boy, unbeknownst to Tyler himself. Ravi and Molly Wei, another Rutgers freshman held responsible for the prank, planned to stream the feed of Tyler live from Ravi’s webcam. Ravi informed friends of the feed via Twitter, saying, “Roommate asked for the room til midnight. I went into Molly’s room and turned on Molly’s webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Ravi and Wei proceeded to stream an illegal video transmission of Ravi and Clementi’s room.
That was September 19. On September 22, at around 8 pm, Tyler posted what would be his last Facebook status: “Jumping off the gw bridge. Sorry.”
Unfortunately, as horrifying as it is, Tyler’s story is not an anomaly. Just since the beginning of September, six teenage boys have committed suicide because of harassment they endured for being gay. Seth Walsh, Billy Lucas, Raymond Chase, Asher Brown, and Cody Barker all gained similar notoriety to Tyler, a tragic notoriety that could have been prevented.
Family, friends, and classmates, almost all of these boys reported stories of bullying by peers or classmates. According to a friend of Seth Walsh, “People would say [to Seth], ‘You should kill yourself,’ ‘You should go away,’ ‘You’re gay, who cares about you?”
Billy Lucas was similarly ridiculed and tormented in school. One of Lucas’s friends, Nick Hughes, said that, “[Billy] was threatened to get beat up every day…he would try to [defend himself] but people would just try to break him down with words and stuff and just pick on him.”
Another one of the boys, 13-year-old Asher Brown, had been teased and bullied so much that his family complained to his middle school and demanded that they do something. Regardless of whether or not the school took action, Brown shot himself on September 23.
In the wake of these six suicides, the bullying of LGBT teens has become an issue at the very forefront of our nation’s consciousness. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan spoke out regarding the suicides, calling them unnecessary tragedies. Duncan implored, “This is a moment where every one of us — parents, teachers, students, elected officials and all people of conscience — needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms.”
The Rutgers University community has also come under close scrutiny, as it provided the backdrop for Tyler’s tragic end. In the days following Tyler’s suicide, both the college and state community have taken action to make sure no one else has to suffer as Tyler did. Lawmakers in New Jersey are now proposing harsher penalties for privacy invasion, while Rutgers students are speaking out in memory of their peer.
New Jersey state senator Shirley Turner has drafted a bill concerning stricter privacy protection laws, which would raise the maximum fine for privacy invasion from $15,000 to $150,000 and increase the possible prison sentence from three to five years, to five to 10 years. Turner stated that regardless of Clementi’s roommate’s motives, “what happened on Rutgers University’s campus was a crime…we need to send a clear message that we’re not going to take this lightly.”
The national reaction to Tyler’s suicide has focused less on legal action and more on counseling and support services for those facing similar problems. One national campaign is the It Gets Better project, a YouTube channel recently launched by columnist and gay activist Dan Savage. The It Gets Better project features hundreds of videos from gay adults, each telling their own stories about challenges they have faced and overcome. The videos include those posted by actor Zachary Quinto, the cast of Broadway’s “Chicago,” pop singer Kesha, a gay cop and gay marine, comedian Kathy Griffin, and countless other contributors with messages for struggling teens.
One celebrity who has been particularly vocal about this issue is Glee singer and actor Chris Colfer, who is openly gay. “It is vital that [gay teens] know that there are people out there who care, and can help,” said Colfer in a PSA, “I know what it’s like to be bullied and teased every single day. And I know that it may seem like there is no chance of happiness left, but I promise you there is a world full of acceptance and love just waiting for you to find it.”
The question then becomes why Wei and Ravi decided to broadcast Tyler’s private life to the student body. As much as organizations like the It Gets Better Project are trying to dispel myths about homosexuality from the public, there is no escaping the fact that it is still regarded with a certain taboo by the mainstream media. The nydailynews.com article about Tyler Clementi refers to Clementi’s sex with another boy as a “tryst,” a “liaison,” and a “rendezvous,” conjuring up images of forbidden scandal. Many MTV and VH1 reality shows portray the homosexual community as a form of entertainment (Tila Tequila making men and women lick whipped cream off a slip and slide in the name of love…) So, with the media regarding the homosexual community as popular means of amusement, it’s no wonder Wei and Ravi thought that gay sex would be a form of entertainment. The responsibility for this tragedy does not just lie in the moronic choice of two Rutgers freshman, it lies in the environment that shaped them.
With the publicity surrounding projects like the It Gets Better project, hopefully a tragedy such as these suicides will never have cause to happen again. Many of those mourning Tyler expressed the hope that things will improve, that teens will feel safe expressing who they are, that the torment many gay teens endure is only temporary. But at the same time, we have to live with the terrible regret that nothing more was done for Tyler. One boy posted on the group’s wall, “Your last words on Facebook will forever stay with me: ‘jumping off the gw bridge. Sorry.’ I’m sorry too,” he writes to Tyler. “I’m sorry that someone wasn’t there to grab hold of you on that bridge and not let you go; to tell you that everything will be alright, that things will get better, and that we love you.”