Sunday, October 3, 2010

Some thoughts on the suicide at Rutgers

The suicide of Tyler Clementi (left) has become a national discussion.  It's turned into a moment, much like Matthew Shepard's death in the 1990's at the hands of homophobic thugs in a bar.  There's a great deal of anger out there against the two students who allegedly taped the young man in an intimate moment with another man.  Still, thousands and thousands of LGBT youth have taken their own lives in the face of societal cruelty.  What made this suicide different?

First, I think there's the fear --  a fear that is felt across sexual orientations -- about invasion of privacy on the Internet. That hits home to most of us who use the Internet.  I also think that this time there seems to be (at least according to reports) a clear link between an incident of Internet cruelty to the death of a young person.  Most of the stories about teen suicide as a result of cyber-bullying and viciousness have focused on the cumulative effect of harassment that makes life unbearable.  Finally, Tyler Clementi's suicide has been linked to two people whose faces have been splashed  on newspapers and throughout the Internet.

I hope I'm not misinterpreted here: I think that these two people should be punished to the full extent of the law if, after a fair trial, they are found guilty.  But what's making me uneasy is the "off with their heads!" attitude that has picked up steam in recent days.  Facebook now has a group of more than 15,000 people who support manslaughter or murder charges for the two students. (One member attacked the two accused because of the their racial identity.  Did he even consider the irony in doing that?) The anger is justified, and I share it.  Anger is good; it is often a catalyst for change.  None of us know all the details of the case, but if manslaughter charges are warranted, they should be pursued.

Still, I wonder if every one of the 15,000 people who have joined the group can claim complete lack of responsibility when it comes to the mistreatment of many LGBT people in this country.  I know I can't, and I'm gay.  I can remember times when I didn't speak up against an anti-gay comment I heard.  And the reason doesn't matter: I might have been too tired or perhaps afraid of where my anger would lead me.  Despite everything I have tried to do to create a more accepting environment for LGBT people -- including spending years writing a book -- I have not always been helpful.

I fear that expressing anger at the accused will get in the way of us all asking ourselves some very important questions: Have I always been a model for encouraging acceptance of LGBT people?  And what can I do to make the world more welcoming for LGBT people?  It's easy to point to two people and express our rage at deadly homophobia.  What isn't so easy is to look at ourselves.

This horrible death just happened to occur at Rutgers.  But make no mistake: it could have happened anywhere, including our own beloved communities.  Along with anger we must all do some soul searching.


  1. I don't know whether you checked out my article on the case. It's on my blog if you're interested. I personally think there are two things here:

    1- This is not "just another case" of bullying. I think it's acting as a real wake-up call about the ethical use of social networking (which is something that is not spoken about enough according to me.)

    2- It happend at Rutgers, one of the hardest universities to get into in the USA. It's not "just" about bigoted attitudes from let's say, a "rural" area, for example. I think there's something else hitting home: those kids were clearly very smart. But I think they just took the medium of net-sharing for granted.

    Of course, now let's not forget what the REAL issue is here, though it's being blown out of proportion. You're right: I don't think it's about expressing anger at the accused; it's about looking into ourselves and our own lives. But it's always easier to get carried away and to blame others... *Sigh*

    For me, it remains about developing and thinking through an ethical use of online social networking.

  2. Hi, Amak- I did read your post but wasn't able to comment except to say I liked it, which I did, very much. I agree with you completely that this isn't just another case of cyberbullying -- it is a "moment" that has become a lightening rod what people have not paid enough attention to for a long time. And the Rutgers point is well taken. My experience with institutions that are considered elite is that there's often a "that couldn't happen here" mentality, when, in fact, no community is immune.