I’m taking a break from the regularly scheduled, son-of-the-old-guy message to talk a little about Tyler Clementi. Those who don’t know the name probably know the story from the news. Tyler is the Rutgers University freshman who jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York City after his roommate broadcast a live webcam feed of Tyler making out with another (male) student.
I recently turned 51. I’m taking care of an 88-year-old father (who will turn 89 in just a few months). But this story still has the power to pull me into the pit of emotion I felt as an 18-year-old college freshman. We like to think that we’ve moved forward in the years since, say, 1977, but have we? If that web feed had been of a heterosexual couple, would either involved partner felt suicide – rather than assault and battery against the perpetrators – to be the appropriate response?
I’ve been trying to think this through over the last 24 hours. How does one go from humiliation, through anger, to suicide – and not revenge? This effort has required me to put my own gay self into the state in which my denying brain was residing, back during my own freshman year. I had had a devastating few years in jr. high and high school, followed by a year and a half of almost-acceptance. At the point of college, I thought I would be able to start over again. And I was. Smartness, and a certain hyper-observant (can we say “snarky”?) sensibility, were appreciated. I got on with life. I was competent and intelligent, and those two factors, combined, helped me into my professional life. Today, though, I imagined myself as Tyler, who hadn’t yet had the chance to see broader horizons. Most importantly, he hadn’t yet proved to himself that he had worth. I think he might have begun to believe that the torment he faced in high school might be chronic, not acute. That understanding has almost led me to despair.
I feel some relief from that despair in an effort called the “It Gets Better” project, started on YouTube (http://www.youtube.com/user/itgetsbetterproject). It was begun to provide a forum for us older folks to help mentor the younger folks. It was started as a gay effort, but I think it’s important in such a venture to not think parochially. Tyler became a victim of shortened horizons. But I think it’s important to ask why would the two teens who set up this situation do what they did? What shortened horizons did they see?
I’ve been a victim of bullying. In 7th grade, I was pushed down enough times, deliberately, by a classmate in gym that my wrist broke. My life was made hellish by a small group of folks in the three years that followed. Since then, though, I’ve come to understand that the lives of those responsible were also very difficult. It was a small community in which I stood out as individual. Even today, even in the liberal Northeast – Tyler grew up and went to college in New Jersey – that can still be a dangerous situation.
All of us need help understanding that life can – even, will – get better. Bullies do their bullying for a reason. In my mind, it’s all about a need for control – if we can’t feel it about our own lives, we will try to enforce control over the lives of others. Helping all young people understand that they can own their own selves will give our future the room it needs to thrive. I’m thinking about what I might say in my “It Gets Better” video. What will you say in yours? This isn’t a a gay thing or a straight thing, or a Black or White or Asian or Hispanic thing. It’s a human thing. If our kids, who are our future, don’t believe that it can get better… well, it won’t. Our words about our own experiences can help provide the objective evidence that what some like to dismiss as that “hope-y, change-y thing” isn’t just a hypothetical concept. Indeed, hope, and the faith that it will, in fact, get better – are the two most powerful lessons that we can teach the next Tyler – and his potential tormentors.