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Gay Student Suicides and the Need for Empathy

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September was a grim month. Three boys -- 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Indiana, and 13-year-olds Asher Brown in Texas and Seth Walsh in California -- took their own lives after being subjected to relentless anti-gay bullying in school.

And then, just one day before this miserable September ended, news came of another tragedy. This time, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old college student, believed it was better to jump off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River 600 feet below rather than live through being outed and humiliated at the hands of his roommate, who streamed video of Tyler's sexual encounter with a "dude" for the world to see on the Internet.

I suppose the best one could hope for is that the roommate now understands that it was a stupid, terrible impulse on which to act. And that he knows, now, that a single stupid act can have unimaginable consequences that rip a jagged tear clean through time and people's lives.

Tyler's awful death has drawn more national attention than that of Billy, Asher or Seth. Perhaps because we have been told the details of the appalling behavior that led to it. But let's be clear: That is what anti-gay bullying looks like, just with a cyber-twist. Billy, Asher and Seth, along with thousands of other students, faced this disdain for the different -- coupled with an utter disregard for a fellow human's privacy -- daily.

A few months ago, researchers at the University of Michigan issued a study reporting that today's college students display significantly less empathy than their peers from 30 years ago. Their data showed that the decline had grown precipitously in the past 10 years. They speculated that overexposure to media had desensitized an entire generation.

I did not want to believe the study. I did not want to believe that a rising generation had less empathy than those that came before. I did not want to believe that new technology, which holds such promise for forging new communities, would instead desensitize its natives to the humanity around them.

But I wonder. A colleague told me about a website popular with the students in the college class she teaches. I will not name it. It features a person who deliberately race-baits and pulls "pranks" on marginalized people. Gleefully, her students described the episode in which the protagonist, posing as a contractor, packs his truck with Latino day laborers, makes hateful remarks during the ride that they don't understand, pulls up to a federal immigration office and tells them to get out, this is where the work is. He then removes a whistle from his pocket and blows it loudly. The pay-off for viewers, the boffo moment, is the sight of the workers scurrying off in all directions.

Some will say that the audience for this sort of entertainment -- and for the illicit video filmed in a college dorm room -- are sophomoric college students who will, in time, grow up and become responsible adults.

Let's hope so.

And let's dedicate ourselves anew to the work needed to make it more than a hope. At Teaching Tolerance, we've taken action to combat persistent anti-LGBT bullying in schools by producing a new classroom documentary film -- Bullied: A Student, a School and a Case that Made History -- that will premiere in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Oct. 5. The film, which offers lessons for students and educators on the devastating impact of bullying, is available along with a teaching kit -- free of charge -- to every school in the country.