When I read that 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge after two other students posted a video of him having sex with another man online, my heart dropped. Tyler grew up in New Jersey and played the violin, and I did too. I don’t know what life was like for Tyler before he chose to end it, but my early high school years were spent improvising survival strategies. I mentally plotted the corridors where the jocks hung out and avoided them. I desperately tried to never go to the bathroom during the school day. I was Asian and gay, stood 5’2", weighed 95 pounds and when I got excited about something—which was often—my voice cracked into a register normally only heard among Hannah Montana fans. If it weren’t for the fact that I ran really fast and talked even faster and enjoyed the protection of a few popular kids and a couple of kind-hearted teachers—well, it’s not hard to imagine a similar fate.
I say all this not to elicit pity—I’m a bigger boy now, and I bash back—but to make it clear that I’m conditioned to abhor people who bully queer kids. There’s nothing—nothing—that raises my hackles more than seeing an effeminate boy being teased. But I also find myself reluctant to join the chorus of voices calling for the law to come down hard on Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the Rutgers students who posted the video and who are now facing "invasion of privacy" charges. If convicted they could face up to five years in prison; some gay rights groups like Garden State Equality are calling for the two to be prosecuted under New Jersey’s hate crimes law, which could double the sentence.
What Ravi and Wei did was immature, prurient and thoughtless; it undoubtedly played some role in what became an awful, awful tragedy. That they acted with homophobic malice, that they understood what the consequences of their actions might be, or that their prank alone, or even chiefly, triggered Clementi’s suicide is far less clear. There’s no record of Ravi and Wei discriminating against gays in the past, and there’s nothing exceptionally homophobic about the tweet Ravi sent—"I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." One could easily insert "fat chick" or "masturbating to porn" into the scenario, which wouldn’t have made it any more acceptable—or legal—for Ravi and Wei to surreptitiously broadcast the incident, but might have provided just as much titillation and inducement anyway. More importantly, we know virtually nothing about Clementi’s life prior to his last days, including how he felt about his sexuality or whether or not he found affirmation of it at home, among his friends or on the campus at large.
But for some gays and liberals shaken by Clementi’s suicide, the complexities and unknowns don’t seem to matter. It’s convenient to make Ravi and Wei into little monsters singularly responsible for his death. In the words of Malcolm Lazin—the director of Equality Forum, a gay rights group that’s calling for "murder by manslaughter" charges, a demand echoed on sympathetic blogs and Facebook pages—the duo’s conduct was "willful and premeditated," an act so "shocking, malicious and heinous" that Ravi and Wei "had to know" it would be "emotionally explosive." Each and every one of these accusations is entirely speculative at this point, a fact that you’d think Lazin, a former US assistant district attorney, would bear in mind before rounding up the firing squad.
Clementi’s is the latest in a rash of suicides by gay teenagers, most of them boys. In September alone the body count includes Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Indiana who hanged himself after repeatedly being called a "fag" by his classmates; Asher Brown, a 13-year-old Texan who shot himself after his fellow students performed "mock gay acts" on him during gym class; and 13-year-old Seth Walsh from California who hanged himself from a tree in his backyard after being teased for years for being gay. In each of these cases, news reports focused almost exclusively on the bullies—other kids who were 12, 13, 14, 15 years old—as the perpetrators in what’s been dubbed "an epidemic of anti-gay bullying." In each of these cases, liberals and gays expressed dismay that the bullies weren’t being charged with crimes. Few of the articles asked what home life was like for these gay teens or looked into what role teachers, schools and the broader community played in creating an environment where the only escape from such routine torment seemed death. And too few (with the exception of Ellen Degeneres and Sarah Silverman) drew the line to the messages mainstream adult America, including its politicians and preachers, sends every day.
It’s not hard to do. Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina is in the news of late for doubling down on his 2004 statement that out gay people (and unwed mothers) should be banned from teaching in public schools. Both New Hampshire Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte and Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle support making gay adoption illegal, as did Florida’s Charlie Crist until he flipped his position and tacked to the center in his race against Tea Partier Marco Rubio, who still supports the ban. These right-wing policies would discriminate against gay adults, but what fuels them is the anxiety that having openly gay men and women teaching and raising kids would make it known to children that being gay is a survivable, even joyous, condition. As such the real targets are queer kids, and the message is quite simple: Please, don’t exist.
At least the right is relatively honest in its brutality. Oregon has no ban on gay teachers, but that didn’t stop the Beaverton school district, which is located just outside lefty Portland and has an anti-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, from removing Seth Stambaugh from his fourth grade classroom. A 23-year-old teaching intern, Stambaugh responded to a student’s question about why he wasn’t married by saying that gay marriage is illegal in Oregon. A spokeswoman for the school board claimed that the action wasn’t discriminatory, but rather based on concerns about Stambaugh’s "professional judgment and age appropriateness."
And there you have a pithy example of the limits of liberal tolerance; even in communities that would denounce the DeMints of the world, a palpable phobia remains when it comes to the children. Gay teachers should teach, until they teach about the plain realities of being gay. (It’s this vacuum of education that’s inspired Dan Savage’s direct-to-teen Youtube campaign It Gets Better). Let’s just have the kids figure it out themselves and come out when they’re all grown up, rather than ask pesky questions we’d rather not try to answer: What does the "closet" mean for a kid who announces she’s gay when she’s 11, or 5, or wants to marry someone like Mommy and not Daddy? What to make of the fact that your little boy begs to dress exclusively like Taylor Swift? Is he gay or trans or just going through a phase—and oh God, isn’t not knowing the worst of it?
Even for liberals who like to think of themselves as pro-gay, this is uncharted territory, little discussed except perhaps in the deepest corners of Parkest Slope. So when faced with something so painful and complicated as gay teen suicide, it’s easier to go down the familiar path, to invoke the wrath of law and order, to create scapegoats out of child bullies who ape the denials and anxieties of adults, to blame it on technology or to pare down homophobia into a social menace called "anti-gay bullying" and then confine it to the borders of the schoolyard.
It’s tougher, more uncertain work creating a world that loves queer kids, that wants them to live and thrive. But try—try as if someone’s life depended on it. Imagine saying I really wish my son turns out to be gay. Imagine hoping that your 2-year-old daughter grows up to be transgendered. Imagine not assuming the gender of your child’s future prom date or spouse; imagine keeping that space blank or occupied by boys and girls of all types. Imagine petitioning your local board of education to hire more gay elementary school teachers.
Now imagine a world in which Tyler Clementi climbed up a ledge on the George Washington Bridge—and chose to climb back down instead. It’s harder to do than you might think.
(Follow me on Twitter: @richardkimnyc)