"Jumping off the gb bridge, sorry." Those were the last heartbreaking words Tyler Clementi shared with the world on Facebook before jumping off the George Washington Bridge and killing himself. Tyler was the Rutgers University student who took his life after learning that his roommate had posted a video online of Tyler kissing another man. He was so stricken with horror at the prospect of the world coming to learn that he was gay that Tyler decided it was better to leap from a bridge than deal with the shame. Tyler may have driven himself to that bridge, but it is our failure as a society to combat homophobia that wound up taking that poor boy's life.
The only thing more shocking than Tyler's senseless suicide is the fact that people are shocked it happened. All over the news, images of bewildered parents and students questioning this tragedy dominated the narrative, which is puzzling. We live in a nation defended by first-rate gay soldiers, who are treated as second-rate citizens. We live in a nation married to the ideals of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, that deprives gay Americans of the freedom to marry. We live in a nation with an electorate that condones this kind of discrimination by supporting candidates who hold these discriminatory values. Despite America's exceptionalism, America remains exceptionally bigoted. The subtext of these policies is that there is something wrong with Americans who are born gay. If we are serious about preventing tragedies like that of Tyler Clementi's, we need to combat the source of this homophobic message. One easy way to do so is by supporting candidates for public office who believe in equal protection under the law for all Americans and who do not make distinctions among our people based on their sexual orientation.
But that's only one part of the problem. If homophobia is an equation equal to the sums of two parts, then government-sponsored discrimination is variable x and home-schooled bigotry is variable y. Hatred is not an innate value. It is a value that is taught at home. Children aren't born knowing words like "faggot" or "homo." They learn those words in the same environment they learn to say "mommy" and "daddy." Children aren't born with the urge to taunt other children or physically beat them. Those urges are not intrinsic; they are cultivated at home.
This is why our schools need to begin combating homophobia and teaching children to respect and accept diversity. Admittedly, there are those who have religious objections to homosexuality. Some would argue that combating homophobia is the equivalent of indoctrinating our children to embrace homosexuality. This is a gross obfuscation of the issue. Teaching children to respect others does not entail pushing a radical homosexual agenda. How parents wish to raise their child is within their purview---except, however, when their child brings hatred of others to the classroom, disrupts the learning experience of other students, and endangers the safety and well being of other children. Then it becomes all of our business. Our schools have a legal, ethical and moral obligation to create a learning environment that is free of harassment, bullying and violence.
How should our schools tackle this issue? The same way the public and private sector workplace address harassment -- with a zero tolerance policy. This is not to say that students should automatically be suspended or expelled from school. Every child deserves an opportunity to learn right from wrong; particularly when their parents have failed them. When a child bullies or harasses another child, schools must intervene. They need to immediately engage the parents, and take disciplinary action to deter the child from repeating the same behavior. A repeat violation should not be tolerated, nor should any acts of violence against another child. Besides fostering a safe learning environment for all children, schools will be preparing them by teaching them the standards of conduct expected of all Americans in the workforce.
Unless we begin to hold our elected officials accountable for their discriminatory positions on gay issues, and begin demanding that our schools serve as a barrier to protect all children from bullying, then none of us should feign shock when the next gay teenager hangs himself from a tree or throws himself from a bridge. As Erasmus Darwin once observed, "he who allows oppression, shares the crime."
Jorge A. Rey is a 2011 Mid-Career MPA candidate at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. He has been a public finance attorney for the last 13 years and is admitted to practice law in the States of New York and New Jersey. Jorge is a graduate of Rutgers Law School-Newark and Cornell University. Upon graduating from the Kennedy School, Jorge is planning to work as political consultant and continue his work with bond authorities and non-profit corporations.