On Sept. 19, Tyler Clementi, a homosexual freshman at Rutgers University, wrote six final words as a Facebook status update and jumped off the guardrails of the George Washington Bridge. Clementi was distraught after he discovered that his new roommate had secretly filmed him engaging in a sexual act, then posted this video online.
What makes this death remarkable is not only its implications, that this publicly available video could have, should have, alerted others to Clementi’s persecution, but that, following his drastic decision, several other young gay young men took their own lives as well.
We may naïvely assume that once we have reached college we have moved beyond the petty politics of high school –– the bullying, the name-calling and, in this case, the extreme invasion of personal privacy. These deaths testify that even the most promising young individuals in the safest of spaces may still face a troubling future.
PRIDE President and senior Andrew Moran and his executive board members junior Charles Genese and senior Melanie Spider-Davidoff sat down to discuss this national news — and its impact on the UR community.
What were your initial feelings when you heard about this recent rash of suicides?
Charles Genese: My thoughts were first –– how terrible. Then second — not another one and then third, why is this still happening?
Andrew Moran: I think it’s important to note that this isn’t something that’s just suddenly happening, that young queer youth have suddenly started committing suicide. This has been ongoing. GLBTQ youth have higher risks of mental disorder and of substance abuse. They have lesser familial support and all of these negative social interactions can feed into this phenomenon. This has been happening for a long time and only now the media is taking note of it.
Why do you think this is being noticed now? (Personally, I was weighing this issue and compared this to how the deaths of attractive young white women are featured more prominently in national news than those of minority women. Do you think Tyler Clementi’s appearance affected his reception by the media?)
Melanie Spider-Davidoff: I was also thinking part of the reason these deaths are noticed now was the manner in which Clementi committed suicide. He posted that he was about to do it on Facebook, then jumped off the George Washington Bridge. It was then automatically a more public act.
AM: I also think that this wasn’t common bullying. The way in which he was bullied was more unique. The media picked up on that. It isn’t every day that you hear about some stranger being videotaped having sex without their knowledge.
MSD: It’s important to note this was a direct attack. The roommate set out to videotape and broadcast him, it wasn’t simply name-calling.
CG: It was a particularly disturbing kind of bullying, even more so because the roommate did not address him personally but set up the camera with little communication between them.
So then it becomes an issue of privacy.
CG: Which is definitely an issue that is on everyone’s mind these days, especially in the GLBTQ community.
We’ve seen from some of the tragic suicides that the Internet can be a forum for outreach but also a space for criticism and intense public scorn. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
MD: I think in a lot of ways the Internet can help. I personally had a friend who came out this summer so it was great to direct him to the Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley with resources to help him if he is having a tough time. But at the same time, it is easier now to be “outed.” If you are concerned with being out of the closet, if that is a difficult transition for you or if someone accidentally comments on your Facebook wall, you can suddenly be out to your entire family.
CG: The interconnectivity of the Internet can be great for meeting other people but it also means that you can bully from afar, without being explicit to that person’s face. The anonymity of the bully and that their criticism is made public makes bullying that much more cruel.
AM: One of the facets of moving into a cyber age is that we now have cyber-bullying. Five, ten years ago, that was unheard of. At the same time you have people using this as a new way to prevent suicides. Like having resources online or with Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” project, in which he uses YouTube as a voice to tell people at risk that this isn’t the end now.
UR President Joel Seligman recently sent out a notice regarding the student population’s use of the website College ACB. Given that Clementi was criticized in a public forum on the Internet which bears similarities to ACB, do you have any thoughts on how this specifically may affect the GLBTQ population in Rochester?
MSD: I don’t think that the Internet is inherently a space for ridicule, but I have been on the website and I’ve seen some students who say, “I feel like I’m the only lesbian on campus, can anyone tell me where the rest of this community is?” It’s nice to be able to go on there and help these people who are genuinely trying to find others with similar backgrounds. But at the same time much of it gets drained out by the list of who is hot and who’s not.
AM: I had never heard about it before today when I looked it up, but this is another issue we are facing as we move forums into public spaces. The Internet provides opportunities which weren’t available before, but it often gets out of control because it has no moderator. No one is controlling it, and in an anonymous environment you don’t have to be responsible for your behavior.
Do you feel that the undergraduate population is tolerant of the PRIDE community?
MSD: I think that, generally speaking, the administration is fairly tolerant of our organization. They are quick to work with us and to listen to our concerns and make the environment friendlier for the GLBTQ community. They may not understand our concerns sometimes, but they make an effort to listen to them.
CG: Clearly, much better than at some other places.
How will this recent publicity affect your organization’s agenda?
MSD: We are planning a vigil for the teen suicides on Oct. 20 to coincide with a Facebook campaign to wear purple on that day.
AM: We will also be passing out arm bands for students to wear acknowledge the deaths of those GLBTQ teens.
CG: Generally speaking, we are trying to take a more proactive approach in addressing the struggling community.
MSD: We are hoping to have call-in hours so students can speak to someone who is educated in these issues and has direct, personal experience in the subject.
Titus is a member of the class of 2011