By Kittredge Cherry (Jesus in Love)
Tyler Clementi (1992-2010) brought international attention to bullying-related suicide of LGBT youth when he jumped to his death on Sept. 22, 2010 (one year ago today). Clementi was an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey when he died. A talented violinist, he came out to his parents as gay before leaving home for college.
Three days before his suicide, Clementi’s room mate used a webcam to secretly record Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room and streamed the video live over the Internet. In messages posted online before he took his own life, Clementi told how he complained to authorities about the cyber-bullying and asked for a new room assignment. Then he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. It took a week to find his body.
The room mate, Dharum Ravi, also 18 at the time, is charged with several crimes in connection with Clementi’s suicide, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. His accomplice, Molly Wei, avoided jail time by agreeing to testify against Ravi. He is scheduled to be back in court Oct. 20.
Anti-LGBT statements by public figures are also partly responsible for Clementi’s death. They created the hostile environment that drove Clementi to suicide. Artist Louisa Bertman emphasizes this point in her powerful ink illustration, “Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” She makes visible the hateful voices that may have been in Clementi’s mind. In her drawing, his head overflows with people urging him to jump.
They are politicians as well as the actual students who bullied him. Their names are listed in a stark statement at the bottom of the drawing: “Message brought to you by Sally Kern, Kim Meltzer, Nathan Deal, Carl Paladino, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tom Emmer, Jeremy Walters, Rick Perry, Bob Vander Plaats, Dharun Ravi, & Molly Wei.”
Bertman, an artist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for her non-traditional portraits. Clementi’s highly publicized tragedy made him into a gay martyr whose untimely death put a public face on the problems of LGBT teenagers. His story sparked efforts to support LGBT youth, raise awareness of the harassment they face, and prevent suicide among queer young people. Another result is new legislation stiffening penalties for cyber harassment.
Clementi helped inspire the founding of the It Gets Better Project and Spirit Day. The It Get Better Project aims to stop suicide among LGBT teens with videos of adults assuring them that “it gets better.” Spirit Day, first observed on Oct. 20, 2010, is a day when people wear purple to show support for young LGBT victims of bullying.
Unfortunately Clementi’s experience is far from rare. Openly lesbian talk show host Ellen Degeneres spoke for many in a video message that put his suicide into context shortly after he died: “I am devastated by the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi….Something must be done. This month alone, there has been a shocking number of news stories about teens who have been teased and bullied and then committed suicide; like 13-year-old Seth Walsh in Tehachapi, California. Asher Brown, 13, of Cypress, Texas and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Greensberg, Indiana. This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone: teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country, and the death rate is climbing.”
Help is available right now from the Trevor Project, a 24-hour national help line for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens. Contact them at 866 4U TREVOR or their website: thetrevorproject.org.
___ Kittredge Cherry is a lesbian author who blogs on LGBT spirituality and the arts at the Jesus in Love Blog, where this is cross-posted.
Image credit: “Tyler Clementi, Jump!” by Louisa Bertman