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Joseph Erbentraut

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Closer Than I'd Like to Admit

Posted: 02/10/2012 3:04 pm

In a moment of journalistic synchronicity, Rolling Stone and The New Yorker recently published in-depth stories digging deep into a handful of the spate of suicides of LGBT youth that, in the fall of 2010, served as a stern reminder of a very serious problem that persists in the shadows of the queer community -- a problem that, for many, persists on a daily basis via our own personal shadows.

Reading both stories, I felt almost instantly jolted from my 26-year-old self back in time to a decade before when, at 16, I was in the midst of growing up in the rural Midwest, going to school and coming to terms with a secret I considered at the time to be very dark -- that I couldn't much longer deny my budding gayness.

As I read Sabrina Rubin Erdely's piece -- "One Town's War On Gay Teens" -- it was almost as though I could again smell the refuge of my childhood bedroom where I spent hours upon hours wondering if a happy life as an adult gay man would ever be a possibility. And while I can't say I was very often bullied, as so many other queer youth struggle with, that fear of an unknown future was almost debilitatingly terrifying. Every social interaction felt veiled by fear and self-deprecation as I felt the pangs of future sadnesses and explicated them in my angsty attempts at poetry.

But, as they now say, thanks in large part to Dan Savage and Terry Miller, it got better. I got an after-school job, made close friends, got more active in school and began to leave the confines of my bedroom more often.

I also came out to close friends and began to meet and date. As the prospective of college approached, I awaited my move to Madison, Wis. -- the liberal jewel in the Republican rough of the Badger State -- impatiently. When I met G., a fellow gay, incoming freshman on a gay teen-centric social networking site a few weeks before I was to move into the dorms, I was ecstatic. He played music, I loved music! He wore sweatshirts, I did too! I was convinced my next big life trauma, beyond acclimating to campus life in a new zip code, would be contemplating just how I'd introduce my new friend/boyfriend/homosexual life partner to my family come Thanksgiving.

Reading Ian Parker's excellent piece -- "The Story of a Suicide" -- resonated deeply with this time in my young life.

Tyler Clementi, Parker reports in devastating detail, appeared to be a witty but shy, sweet if jaded young gay man who, like me, went into college with little romantic experience under his belt. Hell, it reads as though he had little interpersonal experience under his belt and only counted a few close friends located off-campus among his confidants.

Reading details of the intimate interactions Clementi shared with a male visitor to his dorm (and were recorded by his roommate Dharun Ravi, who will stand on trial later this month for charges relating to the incident), I couldn't help but draw a parallel to the first night I spent in the dorm.

Enter my fellow sweatshirt lover/"future husband" G. We had exchanged phone numbers over the Internet prior to arriving on campus and made a plan to meet at an off-campus party near Camp Randall, about a mile's walk from the dorm. I remember G. and I walking past the massive stadium as I felt so, so small, unimportant and anonymous in a way not possible in the population-of-2,000 town where I grew up.

When we arrived at the party, I remember meeting a neon pink-haired girl, an older friend of G.'s from his hometown, wearing neon green-rimmed sunglasses. She lived at the house currently occupied by dozens of screaming teens, likely many fellow freshmen also experiencing their first night of parentless freedom.

She handed us neon yellow-hued drinks.

"Drink up! Welcome to college," she proclaimed as she flung her arm into the air. I probably threw back at least four of those orange juice/pineapple rum concoctions that night.

The next thing I clearly remember was waking up on my stomach, wearing only underwear in a bed in a bedroom I had never been before.

"Come on. Keep going," G. said from behind me. I hadn't realized we started anything.

As I turned around to face G.'s only slightly familiar face, I saw blurry figures of at least a half-dozen others standing around the bed. Weeks later I admitted to myself that I'd been raped. That day was August 24, 2004.

They shuffled out when I screamed "No."

And then G. hit me.

I collected my clothes while G. struggled to keep me in the room, pushing me to the bedroom floor at one point.

I finally broke away and ran out of the bedroom. Out of the house and onto the sidewalk. And then I ran.

As I fell asleep in my stiff dorm bed that night, I felt empty, betrayed and invaded. I also felt as though I had nowhere to turn -- that no one would believe my story, a story that (until now) I've never recounted in much detail to anyone -- except for G., whose only rationale for that night was that he'd been intoxicated.

It was a feeling the permeated every romantic involvement and friendship I entered into from that night forward. It made me question whether I deserved love -- or even kindness or compassion, for that matter. It's an experience that I, like many survivors, will probably continue to struggle with for the rest of my life.

I wonder if that's how Tyler felt after he realized his roommate has spied on him and spoke mockingly of his intimate encounters publicly, via Twitter and instant messages. I also wonder, though no one except Tyler's guest would ever truly know, what truly happened between the time when Ravi turned off his camera and his guest left the room. I wonder if Tyler said "No" before he ended his life by jumping from the George Washington Bridge.

Again, we will never know exactly why Tyler Clementi chose to jump from that bridge.

But as I read Parker's feature, which tells a very different story than that of what the mainstream media reported in the headline firestorm that followed his death, I was startled by my overwhelmingly feeling of closeness to Tyler. His is an experience incredibly common for so many LGBT teens who suddenly find themselves as a precipice between oppression and freedom, between loneliness and love.

Tyler chose to jump.

As a Facebook friend wrote in his reaction to the feature, Clementi was not a "naïve victimized helpless waif" and no one involved in the incident was a "raging murderous monster." The matter was not as simple as the mass media made it out to be in the midst of the spate of tragic suicides in the fall of 2010. These incidents are not isolated and those involved must not serve as poster children for the political cause du jour. They are human beings within a culture that tends to isolate victims of "active" violence from the rest of the "passive" world through over-simplified, oft-sensationalized caricatures.

But this is an issue we should no longer keep at a safe distance. As a culture, we have no choice but to face our demons. As individuals working toward recovery, we are instructed to do just that, so why are we not, as a collective, urged to do the same? The onus remains, instead, on the victims of prejudice and abuse.

Maybe Tyler felt he'd be more free somewhere else than he did while alive, walking on this earth. And if that is the case, we, as a human race, have so, so much work ahead of us to ensure no one ever feels that way again.

In the case of gay teens, full, federal marriage equality may help, but it's only one tiny piece of a much bigger puzzle.

RAINN operates the National Sexual Assault Hotline, which can be accessed online and at 1-800-656-HOPE.

 

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