Home > Reality Check > Gay Student’s Suicide: Why Wonder Why?

Gay Student’s Suicide: Why Wonder Why?

This week will be full of candle vigils and town hall meetings in remembrance of Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who committed suicide after his roommate’s webcam broadcast of him having a sexual encounter with another man. Clementi is the fourth highly publicized gay teen to kill himself (the youngest age 13) in the past four weeks.

Clementi’s death happened the day after the release of The Campus Pride study, “The State of Higher Education for LGBT People,” which found that gay students feared physical harm and are most likely to experience discrimination and harassment on campus. The Clementi tragedy also occurred on the eve of a series of week-long events across the country in anticipation of “National Coming Out Day” on Oct. 11.

Many people have expressed shock and sympathy over Clementi’s death, which has raised questions as to why he took his own life. Someone posted online that “fat kids are picked on but don’t kill themselves so what’s the deal with gay kids?” For starters, there is a stigma associated with being gay that is rooted in hatred. You may be laughed at and humiliated for being overweight, maybe even hit. But those around you don’t hate you and all plus-size people. People don’t consider you evil because of your size. You may think that your parents are displeased with you but not ashamed of you.

As a gay youth in this society your sexual orientation is not your personal business as it ought to be. Instead it is scrutinized by your classmates, their families, their friends, your teachers, your relatives, and society in general.  You believe that all your life you constantly have to size up who accepts you, who tolerates you, and who reviles you. You believe you constantly have to deal with criticism and condemnation from politicians and religious leaders who hide behind the Bible to condone abusive behavior against you. Most people around you were taught that sex outside of marriage is a sin. But no one at school has ever had the crap beaten out of him because the other kids found out he wasn’t a virgin.

It is the type of pious bias reserved for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons that is at the heart of teen angst.  Most gay teens aren’t familiar with resources out there such as the 24/7 crisis hotline 1-866-4-U-TREVOR. They may not be aware of the YouTube channel It Gets Better, featuring role models sharing positive personal experiences about gay life. They only know of a few celebrities brave enough to come out such as TV host comedian Ellen DeGeneres, who recently created her own video message on bullying.

Hopefully justice will be served in the Clementi case. The prosecutor’s office is considering upgrading the charges from invasion of privacy to a second-degree bias crime against roommate Dhuran Ravi and his friend Molly Wei, who secretly taped Clementi and then aired it for a public chat. Gathering or viewing sexual pictures without someone’s consent is a fourth-degree crime and broadcasting them is third-degree. The New Jersey hate crimes law encompasses invasion of privacy when they are based on a victim’s sexual orientation.

Ravi and Wei could face up to five or ten years in prison. The two doing prison time may make someone else think twice about pulling a heartless prank. But I have a feeling that as the candles burn out, tears dry, prayers cease and time passes, the two Rutgers students will get a slap on the wrist—probation and community service at a LGBT center. Or they will be forced to do PSA announcements about tolerance.

The Clementi tragedy reminds me of the Megan Meier cyber bullying incident. A Missouri mom, Lori Drew, used MySPace to humiliate 13-year-old Meier who killed herself after she received derogatory messages by Drew pretending to be a boy. A judge overturned Drew’s  misdemeanor jury conviction. As a result, Missouri has since updated its existing harassment law to cover bullying via the internet.

I’ve read some posts stating what Ravi did was wrong, but questioning was it criminal? There is bias in people asking this question. I think it is unfortunate when a drunk driver, or someone texts behind the wheel, causes an accident or hits a person. Their original intent was to not harm another human being, but texting and drinking while driving is breaking the law.  So, yes what Ravi did was criminal. He invaded someone’s privacy on more than one occasion. It doesn’t matter if he intentionally meant to harm his roommate.

This case speaks to several issues among which are invasion of privacy and bias crimes. But even more it illustrates the dangers of digital abuse. Cyberspace has given every one of us the ability to disrupt other people’s lives.

Even before Clementi’s death I couldn’t help but wonder how many young people were headed back to school, dealing with digital abuse issues like forced sexting, textual harassment and cyberbullying.

About 50% of 14- to 24-year-olds have experienced some type of digital abuse, reports a study by MTV, which launched a campaign, called A Thin Line to empower youth to identify, respond to, and stop the spread of digital abuse. Athinline.com offers a guideline on digital abuse to help others identity where the line is, and how to draw it.

Sexting~sending or forwarding nude, sexually suggestive, or explicit pics on your cell or online~is no big deal for some people.  Serious problems emerge when anyone gets pressured into sexting and when sexts go viral. If the person in the photo is under the age of 18 and you get caught with it, you could end up being classified as a registered sex offender. Even if you just keep it but don’t send it to anyone else, you still face getting charged with “possession” of child pornography. Clementi was 18, so, Ravi and Wei won’t face those charges.

Spreading negative or embarrassing dirt (true, untrue, or unknown, via text, pic or video) about someone isn’t just disrespect it’s digital abuse. If you wouldn’t say it to a person’s face, don’t say it online or text it. It’s cowardly to hide behind a computer or digital device to broadcast undesirable video or hurtful messages.

Some people use digital platforms to make other people’s lives miserable, including blackmail (making demands in exchange for not revealing something embarrassing or damaging about someone else; hate-mongering (posting, forwarding, or messaging any discriminatory speech about a person’s race, religion or sexual orientation); and direct threats to harm someone. All of which fall within the realm of digital cruelty.

The reality is that haters can always find something to hate on, whether it’s someone’s sexual orientation, physical appearance, or religion. You don’t need a special pair of glasses to recognize when someone crosses the line.

Being harassed, threatened, or emotionally taunted via a computer or digital device is not harmless or fun. If you have young people in your life, help to educate them on how to empower and protect themselves against digital abuse or to own up if they are playing along before it leads to the tragic end of lives.

Practice zero tolerance. Don’t be a victim or violator of digital abuse.

~Carolyn M. Brown

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Categories: Reality Check
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