Nov 28, 2010

Gay Rights and Teen Suicide: A Polemic

Why Tyler Clementi’s Death is a Hate Crime
In 2010 gay men and women enjoy more acceptance in the United States than they did fifty years ago. Being gay has entered the social vocabulary, more so in urban areas than in rural parts of the country, but for the most part, gay rights has reached a middle ground in America. Gay people are not rallying in the streets with the same intensity as their older gay counterparts did. The LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgendered, Questioning) community has successfully mainstreamed itself into secular society. So, the question remains, why does hate continue to exist? Has Gay Rights really won? Even though a gay man or woman can more or less exist in America as an openly gay person, everyone in America does not entertain a copacetic harmony with the integration of the Rainbow flag with the American flag. The sobering statistic is not even Gay Rights can ameliorate hate completely.
The Case of Tyler Clementi
According to the Massachusetts Youth Risk Survey, lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Why is that? What makes being gay harder to deal with, then say, being too tall or too short, or too wide or too shy? What makes “being gay” a driving force for a young person to end their own life? Hearing the story of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University student who jumped off the George Washington Bridge because his room mate broadcast a video of him kissing another guy, my first reaction is to think homophobia kills gay kids. Hate kills. Tyler’s death was driven by the same hatred that killed Matthew Sheppard. I say hatred because hatred is the only human emotion that I know of that actively and forcefully seeks to expel another person outside of the human circle. Tyler Clementi’s death is a hate crime because he was punished for being openly gay in the internal forum. If this is the case, then, Gay Rights has still far more reaching activism to spread.
An objection can be made, of course, that Dharun Ravi (with the help of Molly Wei) was not driven by hate when he chose to broadcast to the world his room mate’s private life to the world. People who use this argument miss the point. The intention of the perpetrators in this case does not wipe away what happened. Only a deep seated feeling of hatred drives a person to end his own life out of shame. Tyler Clementi’s wall post on Facebook captures his shame: “"jumping off the gw bridge, sorry." The statement feels like a self-indictment and an apology for his own actions. The question of whether it is legitimate shame or not is a moot point. It is the same argument the bully uses. “I did not mean it.” Does it matter if the bully means what he says if the person bullied is obviously affected? If not, then these cases would be called mere pranks or pallor games. Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei’s action go beyond bullying because the actions extend beyond face-to-face harassment and into the broader social sphere.

Not Only Gay Teens Choose Suicide
Straight teens kill themselves too. Many factors can lead to the suicide of a young person. Depression. Alienation. Abuse by a parent. Bullying. Public shame. Loss of hope. Suicide among young people is a complex issue without easy answers. If no child was ever harassed because of their sexuality and every child was able to express themselves in the way they felt most comfortable, it still would not eradicate the possibility of suicide. In some cases, suicide is caused by internal factors not constitutive with external factors at all. In some cases, the reason why a person chooses to terminate their own life remains inexplicable. But, I would argue, a majority of suicide cases could be eliminated if hate were dissolved from the equation.
I know of a case where a boy killed himself because he was afraid he would be sent to live again with his abusive father. Does it matter, here, that the father had mended his ways and vowed never to hurt the boy? The fact remains, in this case, the boy was convinced that living with his father would be worse than remaining alive. We have to go back to the beginning of the story to understand his actions. Romeo and Juliet killed themselves because of hatred between their families and a misinterpreted sign. Shakespeare’s tale has meaning as a cautionary one: the actions of those in power as the power to destroy the innocent. Suicide can be prevented if we become more aware and less numb to the vicissitudes of others. Society must open her eyes.
Gay Rights Is Not Finished
Suicide among gay youth could be drastically reduced if we open our eyes and see the Gay Rights movement as an incomplete project. Gay Rights has been a successful social movement only because gay and lesbians have been granted permission to integrate into heterosexual society. The invitation, however, is a thin cloak of civility. Beneath the veneer of domesticity violence can still ensue. Matthew Shepard lost his life because he naturally showed interest in another man who happened not to share his own sexual orientation. Shephard flirted, a gay person, flirted with a man at a bar, who took offense. Does a misinterpretation warrant death? Tyler Clementi would also be saved if he believed a misinterpretation did not warrant death.
    In 1984, Americans learned how to be civil towards gay people. Ryan White was presented to television viewers as a white boy with AIDS who did not die because he was gay. Ryan White’s story taught Americans to treat gay people with respect, not because of their being gay, but because not only gay people die of AIDS. There is a serious disconnect here we fail to realize. Heterosexual Americans are still perceived as unaccepting of gay people for who they are. Violence will continue to occur within the internal forum until the external forum consciously changes.
    If a straight man meets his girlfriend’s gay brother, she may say, before introducing him, “Oh, he’s gay. But he’s cool.” Slipping in the, “oh, he’s cool,” qualifier at the end may seem like an innocuous social formality, but it seems to hint at the unnerving notion that queer folk can exist as long as they’re “cool.” The gay male teacher is legit as long as he’s cool with his students, read, “doesn’t out himself in the classroom.” The way gay people have come to acceptance is to find ways to normalize their otherwise abnormal state to heterosexual interlocutors. I don’t think that is the intention of the gay rights movement, nor do I think gay men and women with jobs and success should think that gay rights is over. We’ve reached a plateau. The gay man is legit as long as he blends in.
Not An Innocent Prank
    Tyler Clementi was caught kissing another boy in his dormitory by his straight roommate. This is not cool. According to the New Jersey Star Ledger, Ravi reported on his Twitter account, "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." Gay boys do not have sex with each other under the straight man’s watch. To have gay sex once is bad enough, but to do it again is tantamount to insubordination. "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it's happening again." So, why did Dharun Ravi broadcast the video? Why did Molly Wei allow her room to be used as a conduit? The video was broadcast to deliver the message that gayness does not happen at Rutgers. Or anywhere. “It is happening.” The use of the word it smacks of the sentiment that what Clementi was doing was alien and even reprehensible. The messages do not have the feel of harmless pranks, but rather, they read like exclamations of astonishment. I dare you to see what has been dared, reads the subtext of the messages.
It does not matter who is gay or who is straight in this scenario, even though I am assuming the perpetrators are straight. Dharun Ravi can be a gay man and the story does not change. The violence was sanctioned by the unwritten laws of hazing. When a member of the group disobeys punishment must be laid down. Obviously Ravi and Wei believed they were acting according the unwritten laws, albeit slightly different from the civil law. The two were charged with live videotape of someone having sex without their consent. But, I argue, the actions were carried out under the violent pretense that being gay is not acceptable behavior and ought to be shamed. Or, to put it more subtly, the underlying message is Tyler Clementi was too gay and not straight enough. This subtle message was enough to kill him.
People disagree with me here. Some want to argue that Dharun Ravi’s action should be interpreted as benign. A Rutgers student defended the “prank” by saying the video would have been broadcast even if Tyler Clementi had been kissing a girl. But, even that claim misses the point. Whose corpse was found floating in the Hudson? Not theirs. No one has remarked the reverse. What if Tyler Clementi had broadcast Dharun Ravi’s private actions in his own dorm room to the world? What would have been the result? We all know the answer. Nothing would have happened. Why? Because we all know that Dharun Ravi would not have jumped off the George Washinton Bridge for kissing a girl in his dorm room. Maybe a lawsuit. Maybe a fight behind the dormitory. Maybe disciplinary action. But, guys don’t jump off bridges by following the hetero-normative script. People who jump off bridges are driven to it by a message -- whether real or imaginary is no consequence -- that explicitly says, “You are not wanted.” Reading the story of Tyler Clementi this way, it makes sense that his perpetrators led him to his death.

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