On Wednesday afternoon, September 22, 18-year old Tyler Clementi went to practice with the Rutgers Symphony Orchestra. He’d been at college just three weeks and was a serious violinist, expertly playing pieces by Berlioz and Beethoven. Thomas Jung, who shared a music stand with Tyler said, “He loved music. He was very dedicated. I couldn’t tell if anything was wrong.”
But after practice, Tyler went back to his dorm, posted a goodbye note on facebook, went to the George Washington Bridge, and jumped off. His roommate Dharun Ravi (with friend Molly Wei) had been secretly taping Clementi’s intimate encounters with another boy in the dorm room, and streaming them live on the internet. Apparently, the shame, humiliation and pain of it became too much for this shy, fair-skinned, redheaded boy with a passion for music and theatre. So he killed himself.
I hate this story so much I can hardly stand it. It makes me sick at heart. I want to insert a conversation with a friend, a call to his parents, a punch in the mouth to stupid Dharun – anything to make it end differently. I want to stop thinking about Tyler’s parents living with the knowledge of how desperate their sweet son must have felt, standing alone on that bridge. And I want to believe that the two jerks who created the secret videos are malevolent skinheads who hate gays and should be locked away forever. But in reading about Dharun and Molly, it occurs to me that they probably weren’t out to destroy Tyler or cause him agony– they probably just wanted to be on MTV.
My kids are the same age, and I can tell you: no generation has ever been so obsessed with fame and celebrity, and less in touch with reality. They’ve grown up on reality TV, reveling in the exposure of people’s most intimate, scalding, (scripted), dysfunctional and embarrassing behavior (where cameras are in every bedroom), yet their own experience of reality is decidedly skewed. Music is free, movies are free, TV is free, photos are free – because you can download them all and get away with it. Post something wincingly personal or outrageous on youtube or facebook and you don’t get sued, you get famous. And hate – spewing out 24/7 from the mouths of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck – has become the lingua franca of mass media. There’s no civility, no boundaries, no consequences.
So it becomes okay to denigrate, exploit and dehumanize someone. And if that someone is gay, it’s even more salacious or “acceptable.” The statistics are searing – gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide, and 9 out of 10 report being harassed. High school is often a gauntlet of bullying for gay students, which is why last week, columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project on youtube, following the suicide of 15-year old Billy Lucas in Indiana.
It was too late for Savage to tell Lucas to hang in there, but by posting his own video (with his husband Terry) talking about their horrible high school experiences and periods of despair – and the healthy, joyful lives filled with friends, family and pleasure they are leading now – Savage is hoping to give gay teens hope for a happier tomorrow. And keep them off the bridge.
The site has exploded with hundreds of other It Gets Better videos, downloaded by celebrities and ordinary people, including this one from The Trevor Project.
My $100 today is going to The Trevor Project, the only nationwide, around-the-clock crisis and suicide prevention helpline for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) youth, promoting acceptance, mental health and positive self-esteem for these kids. I only wish Tyler had called.
You can donate here, or text 85944 to donate $5 to the Trevor HelpLine.