10/19/2010 10:56 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Between Earth and Heaven: Ode to Tyler Clementi

Delivered to the Connecticut College Student Body on October 13, 2010

I used to believe in happy endings -- not in the way that things end in children's fairy-tales, but the way that they end in Reese Witherspoon movies -- when the pretty-but-down-to -earth girl gets to live happily ever after with the good guy, or when the person who is judged based on her appearance gets to, at the end of the movie, kick ass and graduate as the commencement speaker from Harvard. That was always the inspiring story to me. That was what lifted me up and made me believe.

And sometimes in the middle of these victory laps that I would run in my head, the thought would suddenly cut across my mind that would leave me speechless. In my rendition, I would realize I was Reese Witherspoon. Me, 6 foot 2, 190lbs, in actuality an Ivy-League grad in real life, 2x over. I was the chick in the chick flick films. Then my hopes of having my romantic desires fulfilled; my professional hopes answered quickly diminished. This was not meant for me, I thought. This -- this stupid movie about Alabama or being legally blonde was not intended for me.

You can define homophobia when you point to the words used to condemn and ridicule gay people. You can point to homophobia when you tell the story of a young boy pinned to a fence and left there to die, or of a woman who was mulled to death by her neighbor's dogs. You can even -- without much prodding -- identify homophobia when you read of a news report of a young man, who felt that the only place he belonged was on the edge of a bridge, tumbling somewhere between earth and heaven. You can see it. You can understand it. And you may even feel it.

But do you know what it means to be robbed of an imagination? To not even have a place in the fictitious world that filmmakers make -- in the plots that novelists create; in the verses that poets conjure... can u get there? To a place that has no name. A place that can only be felt once the decision is made to take a jar fill of pills; a place where the sneaker slips and the body begins to fall off the bridge.

Because that place is where I live. Not today when the world has set their attention on us and has given us free food to eat and the administration to listen. But everyday -- all day. So you try to cope. You go to the gym; discipline your body; starve yourself; run your feet into the ground, so "you can dance, for inspiration". Because the only place you have is in a world born out of so-called liberation. A world that they tell you was made for you. For people just like you. But, I can't find my place there.

So, I come back to your world -- where for a dime and a ride on a ride on I-95, I can finally cash in on the initials that follow my name. And this is where we meet. You think you know me, so you assume you can say things that you think will bounce off this 6-foot frame. Yet, you have no idea how your words infiltrate me, wake me up in the middle of the night. You have no idea of how many times I have tried to make you feel less uncomfortable, because I can see how uncomfortable you are when you discover that I don't have a wife; I don't have children; a white picket fence or 2 cats in the yard.

As gay people, we can be angry because we do not fit in. We can even take a cue from characters, who made of fact and fiction, from across time and space, felt the only way to survive was through violence and death. You may have considered suicide because the rainbow is enuf. You may have wanted "to bomb graffiti on the tomb of Nefertiti." Get out of this place and "escape to Serengeti". You may have wanted to rip out a garden full of marigolds, but not know what brought you to your neighbor's yard in the first place. You might have thought you were a monster -- that revenge lies in taking out your vengeance on all who attempted to prey on. You may have dreams of lighting this place up, because, like Bone, the only solace you can find is if you light a torch to the place that abused you.

But you are not a Bastard out of a Carolina, you have a place. And I refuse to "stand there and watch you burn, just because you like the way it hurts." As Toni Morrison reminds us in the prelude to her gripping novel on abuse and memory, "I will call those who were not my people, 'my people', and her who was not beloved, "beloved."

So, today you can take temporary shelter in this symposium. Yet, ultimately, you need to find your place. As a historian, I found my place in the past. I have had to remember that all those people who said homophobic, hateful things to me never made me. My parents did -- daughter of immigrants; son of refugees, descendant of slaves. They made me. Surviving famine and war, destitution and scorn, I made it to this place and I have a legacy to hold onto; a past that won't let me quit. And now, as you, a new generation stand behind me, I am going to introduce you to a place. Somewhere between earth and heaven, between bridges and the deep blue sea, between the past and the present, that place is called your imagination. And no one can take that away from you.

Jim Downs is currently the Mayers Fellow at the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. He is also an assistant professor of history at Connecticut College. His books include Taking Back the Academy and Why We Write: The Politics and Practice of Writing for Social Change.