Whether it’s the recent release of the film “The Social Network” or the prevalence of things like Facebook in our day to day lives, focus on a recent story about an 18-year-old student at Rutgers who committed suicide after being outed in an invasive manner has shifted to cyber-bullying.

Tyler Clementi at his High School graduation. His friend gives him a departing hug, unaware that she'll never see him again due to our nation's sole forgivable bigotry. (AP Photo/Ridgewood Patch, Sam Fran Scavuzzo)

It’s an issue that’s certainly deserving of attention,but I also think it’s a bit misguided. The use of the phrase “cyber bullying” implies behaviors and attitudes towards other individuals that didn’t exist to this extent before the advent of the internet, which simply isn’t the case.

Here’s the thing: the internet has made it seemingly easier to spread gossip about people. I say “seemingly” because rumors, half-truths, and scandals have permeated the student bodies of high schools and colleges long before the first cell phones hit campuses. It seems easier to spread this information using the internet, but only because kids have found a different way of interacting with each other. Instead of telling everyone they run into face to face, they’re posting it on Facebook or sharing it through text.

This changes the process, but does not modify its frequency or severity. Nor is it more serious because it’s on the internet, or more specifically Facebook. Sites like it and Twitter have, if anything, decreased the staying power of things like this. So much is presented in such quick succession that a rumor drops out of sight – further down the “Wall” if you will – in very little time.

More embarrassing and intrusive? Maybe and definitely. Still, while it’s a conversation worth having, it’s not the one that I feel is most pertinent to this case.

Tyler Clementi didn’t kill himself because he was harassed online. He killed himself because he was gay and made to feel that he should be ashamed and that there was something wrong with it.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the conversation we should be having. But we’re not, because it’s not a pleasant one. As progressive as we like to think we are, there are still far too many people who think it’s okay to dislike or even disapprove of homosexuals. The problem is that homophobia is rooted in religious beliefs and what are considered holy texts.

Combating bigotry can seem like an insurmountable task when religion gives an excuse for homophobic attitudes.

Not that I said “excuse” and not “reason.” There are plenty of Christians and congregations that not only don’t denounce homophobia, but openly accept homosexuals into their fold and celebrate them for who they are. The justification seems shaky when presented with such fervent opposition from most organized Christian churches. But keep in mind that folks will openly acknowledge context of when holy books were written so they can write off or ignore behaviors, rituals, and rules that don’t jive with modern culture. Many of these are mentioned with equal and, in many cases, greater frequency than homosexuality.

Using Facebook or Twitter to bully or harass someone is wrong. Using any medium to bully or harass someone is wrong. What’s completely unforgivable is that we live in a country that still makes gay teens (and many adults) feel ostracized, threatened, and ashamed of who they are. Homophobia is the last truly forgivable hate in the United States, and it’s not going to go anywhere so long as we pretend there’s room for dialogue, discussion, compromise, or outright  acceptance of animosity and disdain towards homosexuals.

Railing about kids being cruel on Facebook and Twitter goes after the symptom, but it doesn’t address the pervasive disease of bigotry that forces young men and women to take their own lives because they were made to feel that who they are is immoral and wrong.

If only we had people in positions of authority brave enough to take an authoritative stance on the matter. Unfortunately, there are few of them in Washington, and seemingly just as few in Albany.

Now there’s something to REALLY get angry about.


21 Responses to We’re Having the Wrong Conversation over Gay Teen’s Suicide

  1. Angelos says:

    Erm, key edit here:

    There are plenty of Christians and congregations that not only DON’T denounce homophobia

  2. Bill says:

    Sorry, THIS is the right conversation. LINK

    Note: Leads to a blog post that contains some coarse language. Adult discretion is advised. – KM

  3. Angelos – Right, and I make that pretty clear. But why can’t we give credit where it’s due to those that are accepting and progressive?

    Bill – I mean, okay, yeah, those two kids are jerks. I still maintain the greater issue is that there’s more of them out there and they’re encouraged.

    Again, there’s something a bit odd about saying “it doesn’t matter that he was gay, he was VIDEOTAPED having SEX.” Okay yeah, nobody disputes that. But it’s (perhaps unintentionally) dismissive of the all too common homophobic attitudes in this country.

  4. Gman says:

    After my first wife and I split up, I had an extra ticket to a Leafs game in Toronto, so I took a dear old friend who had just come out. I, of course, had no idea the old Maple Leaf Gardens was right on the edge of Toronto’s gay district, but she was really ecstatic. And we went into a kinky shop…

    Up until that moment, my wholehearted support of gay rights (if skepticism at some of the more outre events as effective ways to petition for them) had been really intellectual.

    But I stood in that shop for about 5 minutes and felt kinda uncomfortable…and then it hit me: “Hey, this is what this poor girl feels like EVERYWHERE ELSE!”

    And now I have absolutely no tolerance for anybody who can’t see that full equality is the only right thing to do. It is a bigotry that shrinks anybody who holds it immeasurably in my eyes.

  5. Angelos says:

    Kevin, what I mean, is, your sentence is missing the word “DON’T” and has a very different meaning… you should edit that.

    Also: good post.

  6. Ah-HA! This is why I need an editor. Thank you.

    ..and thank you.

  7. slilly says:

    I agree that the “hardware” currently available and used to bully/shame Tyler Clementi, was completely secondary to the “software” with which those homophobic kids were programmed. Love your point and agree wholeheartedly. My blog posting on the same topic:

  8. Bill says:

    Hey Kevin. Yes, the point isn’t that bullies are jerks, it’s that they are excused under the sticks and stones rule, so to speak. Names will never hurt? No way, they leave lasting scars. These bullies, kids or otherwise, need to be held accountable fir their actions. We need to stop coddling them.

  9. Victoria Roth says:

    For true, Kevin. In addition to denouncing homophobic attitudes and behavior, perhaps we all need to do more to voice our support for the LGBT community. As absolutely vile and cruel as Molly Wei and Dharun Ravi’s actions were, what bothers me most about this is that Tyler felt that he had no other option than to take his own life. Did he feel like he had no one to turn to? Did he really feel that being “outed” (granted it was in an extremely invasive way) was worse than death? What was going on in his head, and how great was his fear of rejection? How many people are dealing with that fear of rejection day in, day out right now?
    For as far as I sometimes think this country as come, apparently a lot of kids are not getting the message that there are people out there, gay and straight, who will love them and accept them for who they are. They are not getting the message that there is nothing wrong with them in the first place.
    So in this conversation, while we’re denouncing and dismantling homophobia, we should remember to focus on putting out positive, supportive messages as well. There needs to be more hope in the world for kids like Tyler.

  10. Sue says:

    I agree. The conversation needs to be about respect and decency and how to treat others. I think technology needs to be a part of it, because kids interact with each other in different ways now than they did 10 years ago, but the message is the same. Be good to one another.

  11. Donna H says:

    I hear you, Bill.

    Kevin, yes, everything you said but I think the invasion of privacy issue is no small thing.

    If you’re a modest, private person and this had happened to you, it could very well make anyone feel that way. As young as Tyler was and still identifying with who he was, I think it’s a fair assumption that he wasn’t horribly experienced yet. I’m straight and if this had happened to me at that age — hell, if it did now — I’d at least feel like crawling in the corner and dying.

    I think you’re downplaying the invasion of privacy too much. I’d be utterly mortified at the idea of a videotape of me on the internet in an intimate moment. Perhaps to the same extent Tyler was.

    I really think that there’s a horrible lack of understanding for the shy and modest these days too and that it definitely played a factor here. Do you really thing Tyler wouldn’t have felt any differently had he been with a girl?

    I hope they find some way to put these two monsters ($@*ing @$$holes way too kind) away for a long, long time. I think they should suffer.

    • Donna – not downplaying invasion of privacy. But something tells me if an 18-year-old straight kid is videotaped having sex, he’s a lot less likely to commit suicide because he didn’t want people to know he was straight.

  12. irisira says:

    Though I totally agree with your post (as demonstrated from my initial comment), to address #13, a guy probably would not, you’re right. But, a young woman might. The shame placed on women for having sex is not the same level as the shame placed on men and women for being gay, but it is there, and it is real.

    However, I reiterate that I agree the invasion of privacy is a symptom, not the disease.

  13. derryX says:

    I agree, Kev, that the issue for the more recent cyberbullying cases are rooted in this deeper issue of acceptance and equality and are centered around the “gay” topic. Cyberbullying has affected non-gay people in the past. One case that received alot of attention is this one: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,312018,00.html. [sorry to link to a fox news, but it has the gist of the whole story]

    So, yes, right now, the media is focused around all of these stories regarding gay males who are committing suicide for whatever reason, but cyberbullying is becoming a much broader epidemic.

    I also want to say that I’m done feeling bad for the Star Wars kid (http://derryx.com/?p=745). That kid spent years misinterpreting cyberbullying for adulation and gave up a shot to turn it into something good.

  14. Megan says:

    Great post. I agree with you 100%.

  15. HomeTownGirl says:

    I agree with Donna H, the invasion of privacy is an issue here. As a female, I would be horrified if someone were to video such a private moment (whether it be with a man or a woman) and circulate it online.

  16. Craig B. says:

    This is tragic, but I am a little torn.
    Can we say that this ONE incident led to his suicide?

    I feel like he may have had other problems in addition to this, and the resulting incident was the ultimate trigger that made him commit suicide.

    I guess it could have been the result of a lifetime of shame about being made to feel bad about being gay, then not being able to handle the public scrutiny of being exposed.

    But you make a valid point that the conversation should be about the attitudes of people toward homosexuality.

  17. Katie Maffucci says:

    When gays are not allowed to marry the person they love or serve openly in the military, I would imagine that discourages many gay teens and sends the message that they can’t live a “normal” life, no matter how hard they try. That being said, America doesn’t reserve the right to act shocked when something like this happens. Luckily, people’s attitudes are changing.

    Awesome blog post!

  18. April says:

    Wow – by far one of the best blog posts I’ve read on this issue. Well done!

  19. Victoria Roth says:

    When you come back, share this video. This is the conversation that needs to be had.

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