Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers student who notoriously spied on roommate Tyler Clementi's same-sex sexual encounters with a webcam in September 2010, was sentenced to 30 days in jail on Monday, May 21 for invasion of privacy and bias intimidation. Clementi, as is well known, committed suicide shortly after the webcam incidents. What Ravi did was clearly inappropriate, and I am glad that he is being held responsible. However, while Ravi played a role in Clementi's lack of well-being, our society as a whole also had a role. Ravi had his day in court, but we need to put our society on trial, as well.
As a researcher on LGBT mental health, I have read study after study that has found an association between anti-LGB stigma and suicidality (see Bontempo and D'Augelli, 2002; Meyer, 1995; Rivers, 2004; and Warner et al., 2004, if you're interested). Likewise, the leading model of LGB mental health, Meyer's minority stress theory, suggests that experiencing higher levels of stigma (e.g., homophobic attitudes and physical violence) generally leads to poorer mental health outcomes. I don't want to paint an overly simplistic picture, as various other factors ranging from internalized homophobia to availability of social support are also associated with mental health outcomes, but suffice to say that the existing body of mental health research suggests that experiencing anti-gay stigma helps to explain the high rates of suicide and other mental health problems in the LGBT population.
Ravi's Twitter posts, webcam spying, and homophobic attitude were stigmatizing, and it is possible, as the news media have suggested, that these pushed Clementi to a tipping point. But Clementi's suicide did not happen in a bubble with only him and Ravi; it took place in a society in which homophobia is still rampant. It occurred in a society in which 85 percent of LGBT youth are verbally harassed and 41 percent are physically harassed each year, according to GLSEN's 2009 National School Climate Survey. It occurred in a society in which many religious leaders and parents tell teenagers -- both those who are out and those who are struggling in the closet -- that being gay is a sin. It occurred in a society in which there are few role models for LGBT youth; while there has been limited progress through such shows as Modern Family (though this only shows a white, upper-middle-class version of gayness), childrens' and teens' television shows and books feature references to nuclear families but steer clear of same-sex couples.
We need to put society on trial for its role in suicides such as Clementi's. We are better at holding influential figures responsible than we used to be -- for instance, when Tracy Morgan went on a homophobic rant last year, he was widely criticized. But we haven't really had a conversation about the role the whole village played in Clementi's suicide and the countless others that have received less media attention. Every time a parent expresses disapproval of homosexuality, every time a kid calls someone a "fag" at school, and every time people in conversations say gay is just a (negative) lifestyle choice, they are contributing to the stigma of being lesbian, gay, or bisexual, regardless of who they meant to direct their comments at. The lack of public figures or role models for teenagers, and the hesitancy of schools to include same-sex sexualities in sex-ed curricula, despite these being a normal part of human sexuality, give these negative attitudes more influence by not contrasting them with the more positive reality. Given the body of mental health research that has consistently connected stigma and suicidality, and despite the progress we've made, the present state of society leaves me concerned.
We can't know exactly what led Clementi to commit suicide, but while Ravi may have contributed to matters and certainly didn't help them, it's safe to assume that his actions were not the only contributing factor. After all, had Ravi's behavior occurred in a societal context that was otherwise 100-percent supportive of LGBT people, Clementi committing suicide in response to Ravi's behavior seems unlikely. (It's also worth pointing out that factors unrelated to one's sexual orientation can contribute to depression and suicidality in LGBT people in the same way they do for the rest of the population.) With society's influence in mind, we should be evaluating how little, daily stigmatic events -- ranging from name-calling at school to homophobia from the pulpit -- accumulate, harming LGBT individuals (including those who are not out). And we should actively work to address these problems both head-on and by affirming the validity of all sexual orientations and gender identities. We're making progress. But every time a kid commits suicide at least in part because of anti-gay stigma, I remember that our society isn't making progress nearly fast enough.