I attended high school from 1984-1987 in suburban New York. I confronted daily harassment between each period, each class. An innumerable group of male students would yell “faggot” and other insults so loud that I could not hold conversations. I was beaten twice, and spat on once. Each incident resulted from my challenging an attempt to humiliate me.
In college, I was the first openly gay male columnist at the school paper. My first column talked about sharing a dorm elevator with a popular fraternity brother who I knew was gay and his “girlfriend.” I named no names, of course. Many classmates supported me, but I became the target of intense homophobic hatred, including several death threats from groups of men. Several sources reported to me that a blown-up photograph of me was used as a dartboard in one of the more popular fraternities.
These incidents marked me in a way that I think may be hard for straight people, and even gay people who came out later, to understand. Perhaps I’m not beset by post-traumatic stress syndrome, but what I survived certainly rose to a level of torment that would have pushed many a teen over the brink toward suicide.
Not that I didn’t think of it, but fortunately I came out to my parents early, when I was 14, and their support meant that it would never have crossed my mind to care more about the vicious hatred I faced in school than about the love and support I got from my parents, teachers and friends.
So I have more than a few reactions to the death of Tyler Clementi.
I am angry. Still. Of course I’m angry at the people who did this to me, but more than that, I’m angry at the high school I went to for allowing all of this to occur to me and never expelling the people who committed the atrocities. The first time I was beaten, I didn’t report it because a friend told me I’d be viewed as a tattle-tale and that I would not be liked. It was two weeks into my new high school. The second time, I did report it and the boy was suspended for one day. I still have a scar under my chin from when he drop kicked me, leading me to fall to the floor, lose consciousness and rise to ask who had done this to me. The witnesses were all silent expect one.
For Tyler, the two individuals who arranged to film him were most responsible, but any of the individuals on their Twitter feed could have protested this cruelty. They did not, and thus were complicit in his torment.
I hear many straight people express outrage at what happened to Tyler. I’m thrilled to finally hear people express shock and object to homophobia. It’s great that they make their “ally” status official. Being a true ally requires some difficult reflection about the many ways in which hatred spreads. Hearing someone demeaned for being a “faggot” or a “dyke” turns everyone in earshot into one who hurts (including by silence) or helps the victim. Resistance to homophobia and sexist gender stereotypes is what is needed. Support is what is needed. Some “tolerant” people lament homophobia to a victim but didn’t object when the harassment was taking place in public. They were complicit in the harassment and need to own what they failed to do to stop it.
A few years ago, my closest friend from high school wrote me to let me know that the boy who had tormented us the most was arrested for a triple murder. At last this vicious man was known the world as such. At last someone would make him pay for his evildoings.
Thinking about Tyler Clementi, I don’t think the kids that videotaped him had any more intent to inflict harm than those who tormented me. They’re kids who are full of insecurity and use hatred to deflect it. Even though I do not think they committed murder, I hope they will pay some price. Maybe when the state starts protecting lesbian and gay people instead of encouraging their subjugation this will finally telegraph to other families with teenage kids that they must teach their children to refrain from such conduct.
Today, thanks to the very internet that served as a means for Tyler’s harassers to torment him, Tyler was able to connect with other gay youth and college students. He must have felt very alone, indeed, to commit suicide, but resources have become vastly more available than when I was a teenager. At last, more than just LGBT academics and a few activists are raising the need for more active statements of support for free expression of one’s sexual and gender identity. As I think is often the case (witness the Boies/Olsen Perry v. Schwarzenegger case), straight people making LGBT rights arguments may seem more persuasive because they appear to not be directly benefiting from the argument, and therefore come across as more objective. If it takes straight people to direct attention to the epidemic of teenage LGBT homophobia and suicide, it’s welcome attention. Let’s make it clear to each other and to students in schools across the country that Tyler’s death and the hateful behavior that led to it are unacceptable.