Tyler Clementi's death on Sept. 22, 2010 was one of several highly publicized youth suicides that fall. In several cases, media coverage and political discourse connected these tragedies to cases of on- and offline harassment saturated in homophobic sentiment. Research among students suggests that these hostilely charged environments are the norm rather than the exception. But rallying to punish Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student standing trial for 15 criminal counts, including tampering with witnesses and evidence, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation of Tyler Clementi, does not do justice to Clementi's life, nor does it move us one step closer to preventing another young person, like him, from turning to suicide.
Since then, states and school districts have rushed to crack down on bullies. As a result, a record number of anti-bullying policies are now on the books. However, we have no concrete evidence that such top-down policies prevent or counteract bullying, particularly so-called "cyberbullying" -- harassment carried out via texting and online social networks. Worse yet, some research suggests that framing the problem as "bullying" actually works against youth reporting violence or identifying themselves as targets of it.
The politics of blame are a dead end. Instead, we need to build out an ethos of shared responsibility that could make a difference, literally, between life and death for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people.
Tracing a causal link between Ravi's homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi's suicide is a dangerous oversimplification. This formula suggests that homophobia is something "individuals have" rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate. Rather than presume homophobia vents an individual's fear of homosexuality, researchers, such as sociologist C. J. Pascoe (2009), have persuasively argued that it is a portable (I would argue concealable) weapon for policing sexuality and shoring up the fragile gender identities emblematic of tween and teen life.
The homophobia expressed in Ravi's disgust for Clementi's intimacy with another man, as much as the racism conveyed in Clementi's joking suggestions that Ravi's South Asian parents owned a Dunkin' Donuts, signal our limited capacity to celebrate difference. We need to stop telling young people what they shouldn't say or do and start teaching them -- and ourselves -- the social and emotional literacies they need to challenge the way they see themselves and each other. It's time to start having direct conversations with students (beyond the platitude that such name calling "isn't nice") about the power that words like "fag," "no homo," "bitch," and others circulate, through not only the person targeted by the slur but also the person hurling it. Only then can we hope to turn homophobia from an easy insult to a powerful analytic tool for mining our own fears, insecurities, and discomforts with difference.
Expanding Parental Support / Holding Parents Accountable
By not explicitly recognizing parents' roles, we undermine their importance as a strategy for combating LGBTQ youth bullying and suicide. One of the few things we know for sure is that parents, guardians, and adult mentors make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. A young person, for example, who lives in fear of a parent's condemnation is more likely to hurt himself or herself than a young person who feels supported and accepted at home. This is not surprising. Parents and guardians provide a measure of incomparable respite when they celebrate, rather than stand neutral or second-guess a young person's decision to question what it means to be straight. A modest expression of acceptance makes a measurable difference. But even that can be a tall order. Adults must negotiate and account for their own doubts and anxieties when a child asks such questions before they can effectively offer support. Parents shouldn't have to go it alone and, realistically, can't do it all. For LGBTQ youth contemplating suicide, parents, peers, educators, faith leaders, and LGBTQ community advocates are key "first responders" -- caring individuals on the scene, providing support -- in the wake of this ubiquitous animus. We will know we've reached our goal when every young adult imagines they'd celebrate, rather than endure or suffer through, having an LGBTQ-identifying child of their own.
Focusing on Basic Research
Educators, researchers, and policy makers need to acknowledge that we know next to nothing about the quality of young LGBTQ people's lives before we can even begin to contribute to meaningful strategies for supporting them. Waidzunas (2011) argues that the data we arm ourselves with, even the universally cited statistics on higher suicide rates among lesbian and gay youth, perpetuate a rudimentary, generic picture. But we have no idea what daily life is like for the average LGBTQ-identifying teen. Right now, there is no national instrument for measuring young people's positive experiences around sexuality and gender. Most states don't ask a single question about LGBTQ youth on their annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, effectively erasing them from the discussion at the state and district level. Indeed, Massachusetts remains the only state with a standing Commission on GLBT Youth that funds support programs in its public schools through its department of education that gather data on the effectiveness of LGBTQ-specific outreach and education. What we need is a nationally funded, coordinated effort that links programming, outreach, and research on behalf of LGBTQ youth. Harvard University's Born This Way Foundation, which launched Feb. 29, and the Massachusetts GLBT Youth Commission's Research Consortium are two good examples of what needs to be done.
Where to Go from Here
Focusing our collective outrage on prosecuting an individual, whether seeking the harshest punishment we can wring out of Ravi's case or lobbying for so called "zero-tolerance" policies that automatically expel any student implicated in bullying, implies that homophobia can be rooted out, one bad apple at a time. Turning this into a case of one individual driving Clementi over the edge moves us no closer to seeing the journey that brought Clementi to that edge. When it comes to understanding and preventing youth suicide, we must demand systems of accountability that address how we individually and collectively perpetuate homophobia in everyday ways.
Follow Mary L. Gray, Ph.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/maryLgray