What seems most befuddling about the suicide of Tyler Clementi, the gay teen whose roommate broadcast him having sex, is how this one incident lead to his death. It's because being a gay teen can be akin to prolonged torture.
Yes, high school—and often college—sucks for everyone. That's because teens are total assholes. They're just like normal people, but amped up on a combination of hormones and self-doubt that makes them particularly awful. And mean! Teens are cruel, especially to other teens and especially to other teens who are perceived as different.
Imagine your worst high school memory and multiply it by ten and that is how bad it is for many gay teenagers every day. The ones that have it the worst are those that are bullied repeatedly by their peers until they become suicidal, drop out of school, or are robbed of their education because they can't focus on learning the Pythagorean theorem or the amendments to the Constitution because they're thinking about how they're going to physically survive the day. In many cases, parents, teachers, principals and other grown-ups don't care about about the gay student's problems and condone the bullying behavior, either explicitly or with their own inaction.
Sure, there are places where there is real acceptance among peers, teachers, and parents, and not everyone with the strength to come out ends up suffering from bullying. But you'd be hard pressed to find one gay person who hasn't felt the sting of a slur at one time or another. And while some parts of the country are making their schools safer for all children, other areas don't seem that interested in protecting gay students.
Just yesterday, 13-year-old Seth Walsh died after hanging himself in a tree in his backyard because he couldn't escape the bullies. Kids like Seth are legally obligated to go to school, but there is no legal obligation to keep teens from behaving like anything less than savages. His parents couldn't help him and with no assistance available at school, he felt like he was left with only one tragic option. And he's not the only one. This month alone gay teens Justin Aaberg, Billy Lucas, and Asher Brown all killed themselves because they were harassed, belittled, humiliated—or worse.
It's hard to tell him that it's going to get better. That's what columnist and activist Dan Savage is doing with his YouTube channel. He's enlisting adult gay men and lesbians to record videos for gay youth telling them to hold on because life will improve. Well, yes, it will, but that's little solace when you're being harassed every time you go to your locker to get a notebook. Just when will it get better? Would Seth Walsh have to endure five more years of abuse before making it out of high school and into a more nurturing environment?
That's the saddest part about Tyler Clementi's story. I don't know if he was out to his parents or if he was out in high school or how he was treated before landing at Rutgers, but I know from personal experience that graduating high school and going to college is the one thing many gay teens have to look forward to. Many are just waiting for their parents to drive away with an empty minivan, so that they can go into the dorm and come out for the first time in their lives. They imagine college as this magical place where everyone will love and accept them and they might even have the chance to meet people like them, or go on a date with a cute boy (or girl) and do all the silly, mundane things that college kids do the world over.
We still don't know much about what happened at Rutgers, but based on Clementi's roommate Dharun Ravi's Tweets and Facebook page and Clementi's posts on a gay message board, the environment at school doesn't seem very supportive. In fact, it was so unsupportive that Ravi and his friends rallied around to broadcast Clementi's most intimate moments on the internet and mocked him for them. How hard it must be to find out that the kids at college are just as cruel as the kids in high school.
I wish I could go back and tell Tyler that things would get better and make him believe it. I really wish I was there for him—for all these kids—in those moments before they made their final decision. To tell them that it's not their fault and that we would make it through this together. I wish I was there to tell their attackers to stop because they are literally committing murder. I wish I could bring each of them back, as silly as it sounds, because we failed them. We all failed them by pretending like it's easier to be a gay teen now, that there still aren't people in the world that are happy that gay teens are killing themselves.
For each one of us survivors—gay men and women who made it through the torture alive—we feel the blow of Tyler Clementi's shame. Having to relive the indignity of what happened to him makes it feel for all of us like it will never get better, like there is no escape. If we can't save these kids' lives, then all of our struggles for civil rights and marriage equality aren't worth anything. Naturally it will get better. Each time a gay kid is voted class president, it gets better. Each time a Gay Straight Alliance is formed at a high school, it gets better. Each time a parent hugs their gay teen it gets better and better until one day, it's completely fine and all of our struggles will feel like they meant something. Yes, it will definitely get better. But on days like this, it's a little hard to believe.
[Image via Rebell's Flickr]