As many of you know, both my brothers died by suicide, and so, whenever I turn on the news and hear a report of another life being lost to despair and hopelessness, the little shard of ice in my chest which never quite melts, twists a little.
This week, Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, jumped off the George Washington bridge after his roommate and a another student secretly videoed a sexual encounter between Tyler and another man and then posted it on the internet. Tyler’s cell phone and wallet were found on the bridge, and there is something piercingly heartbreaking about that — he left behind his way of communicating, and that which identified him. I cannot imagine the loneliness of his final moments. How we all failed him, and youth like him.
There’s been considerable chatter lately about cyber-bullying. Phoebe Prince killed herself in January 2010 and nine people have since been charged in connection. Alexis Pilkington also killed herself. And there are others, sadly. The media’s been rabbiting on about cruelty and a lack of empathy — all good points — but should, I think, keep sight of the central issue in Tyler Clementi’s case, which is the same as that of Ryan Halligan who killed himself in 2003, and Seth Walsh and Asher Brown and Justin Aaberg… and many, many others: gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgender youth are at far more risk both of bullying and suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. And why is that?
Why was Tyler so undone by the possibility of being outed? What sort of a society are we when the idea having who we love exposed is so terrifying a prospect? Kim Kardashian and Paris Hilton and Pam Anderson/Tommy Lee might have been upset by the release of their respective sex tapes, but apparently they found a way to cope.
It’s beyond baffling – it’s disgraceful Pop over to The Trevor Project and take a look at the statistics on suicide among GLBT youth. It’ll break your heart, and if it doesn’t, I propose you don’t have one.
I’m not saying this country has sorted out its racial issues — it hasn’t, although I live in hope — but if people of color were treated today the way GLBT people are, you can be sure politicians from coast to coast would be taking on the issue, anti-ignorance initiatives would be funded, and I suspect even the President would step in, as he did during the racially charged incident involving Prof. “Skip Gates. If African-Americans were told to please God by killing themselves, for example, I hope law enforcement, the government, whole communities would stand up and demand it stop immediately.
There are some marks of progress for GLBTs, of course (although don’t get me started on how insulting the don’t-ask-don’t-tell stupidity is to all involved) — it’s only a matter of time, I believe, until gay marriage is recognized, as it should be, and hate crime laws are now in effect — hate crimes being those offenses committed against a person or property motivated, in whole or in part, by the offender’s bias against a race, color, ethnicity, national origin, sex, gender identity or expression, sexual orientation, disability, age or religion.
And the two people whose actions resulted in the death of Tyler Clemti may well be charged with a hate crime.
But what can we — the neighbor, the friend, the co-worker, the family member, the teacher — do?
I find it difficult to write about these things. It is impossible to put into words the sense of loss, of sorrow I feel when I hear of just how beastly we can be to each other. There are holes in the world, gaping, and raw, where the victims of our shameful prune-hearted pitilessness once stood. Who knows what has been lost? What great strides in medicine, art, music, economics — in any and all disciplines — have been missed because these young people, so full of potential, are now gone. There are holes in our collective souls, for which each and every one of us is responsible.
As writers, we have a responsibility to stand up, to point a finger at what we perceive to be injustice and cruelty and hypocrisy, and say, as Emile Zola so famously did during The Dreyfus Affair...”J’accuse!” It is hard to do, to stand between the victim and the mob, to confront the face of nastiness and brutality and heartlessness, but for the sake of the innocent, and for the sake of ourselves, in the end we have no choice.
My belief is that one day each of us will have a moment of clarity in which we see our lives for what they really were — we will see the things we did and the things we left undone. I have said it before, and I will say it again… we are each diminished, and we are each responsible, for every broken heart. We can’t, of course, protect everyone, nor can we right every wrong, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try, that we shouldn’t make our voices heard.
If nothing else, do this: I guarantee you that in your circle of friends-and-acquaintances, there is at LEAST one GLBT person. Tell them you love them, and know them to be perfect, and precisely what the world’s been waiting for, beloved of God, exactly as they are. Let them know that if ever they are the victims of such cruelty as Tyler and these other young people endured, they will not be alone; you will stand with them.