I remember the first semester of college. It was equal parts gut-wrenching and thrilling for me. I found a group of friends relatively quickly and had a lot of fun, but I also felt fragile and homesick. I imagine Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi felt something similar. Clementi killed himself last week – a day after two other students recorded his sexual encounter with a man without his knowledge and broadcast it over the Internet. Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and fellow freshman Molly Wei, both 18, are charged with invading Clementi’s privacy. Prosecutors are still determining whether to bring bias charges against the pair. Ravi and Wei could face the additional charge if the broadcast of Clementi was fueled by hatred of gay people.
On the Columbia Law School’s Gender & Sexuality Law Blog, Katherine Franke writes:
As I listened to the NPR coverage of the matter while driving back from Hartford in the rain this afternoon, I took note of the fact that both the “teaser” and “lead in” for the story emphasized a violation of his privacy and the issue of “cyber-bullying,” not homophobia or homophobically-related shame. Have we reached a point where the (unconsented to) exposure/publication of sexuality is an offense with equal cause for objection regardless of whether it was homo or hetero sex, or is there something more and differently objectionable about the outing of a young person’s attractions/acts/desires for another person of the same sex? If so, doesn’t this reproduce and re-credentialize the notion that there’s something shameful about the exposure of same-sex desire? Yet, so long as we live in a world that exacts a price for non-normative sexuality or desire (as this world most certainly does), how can we deny the added psychic cost of having one’s sexual encounters outed in such a public manner? To pose the question another, and more legalistic, way: was what happened to Tyler Clementi a privacy crime or a hate crime? What’s at stake in taking sides on this question?
I, too, was listening to NPR in the rain yesterday. I heard the segment I posted above, and was struck by something slightly different. Despite the cries of shock and confusion, neither anti-gay bullying nor LGBTQ youth suicides are all that surprising. Our culture is very homophobic. Right-wing Christian groups like Focus on the Family and the American Family Association think it’s OK–an expression of religious freedom–to bully LGBTQ kids (and adults). Is it any wonder that kids will imitate the adults who tell them, “Do as I do and as I do?”
BeckySharper: Sadly, gay suicide is nothing new. One of my best friends growing up is a gay man, and he had suicidal thoughts in high school, thanks to all the harassment he endured, including having “fag” spray-painted on his car. He wasn’t even out–he was just a kid living his life, being attacked by asshole teenage homophobes. It was passed off as “oh, well, teenagers are always awful to each other.” or “Oh, well, if he’s going to act like that, other kids will take offense.” Even school administrators do this, as Terry Miller mentioned in the “It Gets Better” video he made with Dan Savage.
I think the Rutgers case is a really painful example of how social media just enables assholes to do things they wouldn’t have done pre-internet. Take away streaming video and Twitter, and Tyler Clementi would still be alive. There’s been a lot of talk about whether Dharun Ravi will have the charges against him enhanced—which is how hate crimes are treated in NJ—because he deliberately invaded Tyler’s privacy knowing that he was gay (they can’t be considered a federal hate crime because the federal statute require proof of violent intent).
Frankly, the whole thing just makes me sick and heartbroken. Gay kids have been killing themselves for years. This most recent rash of gay suicides is only different because it’s being reported on and discussed, thanks to the 24-hour news cycle and social media. I really hope messages from people like Dan, Terry and Ellen wake people up and offer consolation to gay kids who are suffering.