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Rev. G. Douglas Fenton Headshot

Christian Conversations About Sexuality Must Not Stop

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Sept. 22, 2010 -- It was a day that opened up a conversation that must not stop. It was the day that Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey, jumped from the George Washington Bridge in New York to the dark depths of the Hudson River below.

Tyler is one of the most recent young people in a tragic story that seems unwilling to end. Is our attention to the matter of bullying heightened momentarily with the help of the media? Ellen DeGeneres posted an emotional and compassionate YouTube video. CNN's Anderson Cooper ran a series on bullying and its consequences. The program was laden with pundits and real life students suggesting the cause, effect and helplessness friends, parents and institutions experience in what is being labeled a crisis. Every several days, local and national newspapers provide coverage of another bullying attack. Bloggers seem unable to stop discussing the issue. And the story is multi-layered including cyber-bullying, sexual orientation and the current place of social media and instant information.

So, what is it about the Tyler Clementi story that caused the hype? Like many of those who recently took their life after constant bullying and intimidation, Tyler was a well-liked student. An accomplished 18-year-old freshman music student, he was described as being quiet and shy. Yet, unlike the many others, it wasn't only that Tyler was thought to be gay -- his most intimate life was exposed on-line for all the world to see, to judge and to offer comment.

Yet, institutions of higher learning want to create environments of diversity where students from varying socioeconomic levels, race and ethnicity, foreign countries and the LGBTQ community can come together. In a recent essay, Kristy Almeida-Neveu underlines how gay students must be understood in the context of recruitment and knowing that a central question the student will have is "Will I be accepted on your campus?" (p B38, The Chronicle of Higher Education, September 24, 2010) She goes on to advise that "Well-intended staff members at risky institutions need to think of students' safety before trying to encourage them to apply or enroll." A further question might be asked: How is risk assessed?

The founding principle of colleges and universities is built on knowledge and discourse leading to new discoveries and the advancement of society. Should they not be some of the safest places to test out questions, even questions of personal identity? Campus chaplains and student counseling services can provide sanctuary for such conversation but it takes the entire academy to create a place where all can feel safe.

It's time for the media coverage to turn to prevention of cyber-bullying instead of the (sadly) countless examples of it. It's time for high schools and colleges and universities -- their faculty, staff, students, campus ministries, housing offices and all associated -- to join together and take a more pro-active and responsible position by establishing community norms where all questions can be explored including questions of sexual orientation in an open, accepting and non-judgmental environment. Let us not have anymore tragedies like Tyler Clementi.

The Rev. G. Douglas Fenton is the Young Adult & Campus Ministries Officer for The Episcopal Church. As such, he spends a lot of time with young people and college students, talking with them and recognizing the issues that group faces daily.

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