Gay youth are four times as likely to attempt suicide as their straight counterparts, a statistic that was thrown starkly into the spotlight in the fall of 2010.
Although LGBT blogs and news sites were already buzzing with reports of at least three gay youth who took their own lives in mid-September, the issue of LGBT teen suicide finally, and deservedly, broke into mainstream discussions with the death of Rutgers University student Clementi on Sept. 22.
Despite countless numbers of LGBT youth who took their lives before Clementi, and many who’ve also done so after his death, Clementi’s tragedy in particular opened up a frank national discussion about the factors that have led to the ongoing epidemic and inspired many to take tangible actions to stymie the trend.
Clementi was an 18-year-old freshman at the New Brunswick campus of the New Jersey college. Police say his roommate, Dharun Ravi, remotely tapped into a camera on his computer in their dorm room and broadcast Clementi’s embrace with another man live on the Internet.
On Sept. 22, Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. Ravi and classmate Molly Wei were later arrested on invasion-of-privacy charges.
Clementi’s death first hit the news media Sept. 29, but in the coming days generated a firestorm of publicity, making international headlines.
All of the national news networks carried the story on their nightly broadcasts, and reporters were teeming throughout campus, interviewing gay and straight students, faculty and teachers about Clementi and the larger issue of gay bullying.
By October, newspapers throughout the world carried photos of the aspiring musician and “People” ran a cover story on the teen and the struggles that gay teens face. Ellen DeGeneres featured the case on her talk show and “The Dr. Phil Show” ran a special on antigay bullying that included interviews with friends of Clementi’s. CNN ran a special weeklong series on youth bullying, culminating in a town-hall discussion with gay teens Oct. 8.
Bob Schoenberg, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s LGBT Center, said it’s “irrefutable” that Clementi’s suicide garnered the greatest amount of media attention for LGBT youth suicide than ever before.
In addition to mobilizing the media behind the issue, Clementi’s death also spurred the LGBT community into action and enabled the expansion of the ally community.
Numerous vigils were held on Rutgers’ campus and throughout the country in the days following his death, including several in Philadelphia.
Schoenberg noted that events held on Penn’s campus also memorialized other gay victims of suicide who flew under the media’s radar.
Dozens of local LGBT youth took the stage at the Oct. 10 OutFest as the 40,000-strong crowd at the festival applauded them, an action conceived of shortly after Clementi’s suicide as a way to show youth they had the support and love of the wider LGBT community. Festival-goers chanted “It gets better” to the kids, a mantra popularized by a suicide-prevention campaign launched in September by out writer Dan Savage.
Savage started his “It Gets Better” video initiative after the Sept. 15 suicide of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, as a way for LGBTs to tell the younger generation not to give up hope for a bright future. Savage submitted the first video Sept. 21, the day before Clementi’s suicide.
It’s since generated more than 5,000 video submissions from LGBTs, allies, politicians, celebrities and even President Obama, all of which have been viewed by more than 15 million people. Since the beginning of the campaign, calls to the national LGBT suicide-prevention agency The Trevor Project’s hotline have increased 50 percent.
LGBT supporters also took to the Internet after Clementi’s death with the Spirit Day campaign, which drew pledges from more than 1.6 million people worldwide to wear purple Oct. 20 in memory of the recent gay youth suicides.
“I think it’s been encouraging,” Schoenberg said of the community response. “And it’s not just the LGBT community but other communities as well. I think more allies have paid attention to the plight of LGBT youth as a result of what happened than was previously the case. Even on our campus, I think we’re paying even more attention to students who may be at risk and encouraging students to watch for signs of trouble. We always had that attitude, but I think it’s been increased and strengthened as a result of the events over the last few months.”
Carrie Jacobs, executive director of The Attic Youth Center, said Clementi’s death communicated the pressing importance of organizing around LGBT-youth safety issues.
“This is an issue that continues to plague the LGBTQ youth community, and it really speaks to the importance and need for adults to continue to work to make the world safer for LGBTQ youth and continue to support programs and services that do that,” Jacobs said.
Clementi’s death also had ramifications for future anti-bullying and suicide-prevention efforts.
New Jersey LGBT-rights group Garden State Equality and several other agencies had been working with state lawmakers since 2009 on crafting a measure that would strengthen the state’s 2002 anti-bullying law.
The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights was introduced by State Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Sen. Loretta Weinberg on Nov. 8, and it passed 71-1 in the Assembly and 30-0 in the Senate on Nov. 22. Republican Gov. Chris Christie signed the bill into law Jan. 6.
“It’s extremely awkward to talk about good coming from tragedy, particularly when the tragedy is someone’s death, and we all have to be sensitive to Tyler Clementi’s family in that regard,” said Garden State Equality executive director Steven Goldstein. “But to be sure, Tyler’s passing had a massive public-policy impact in the state of New Jersey. New Jersey would have passed a new anti-bullying bill had there not been the loss of Tyler, but that said, there’s no way the state legislature would have passed as strong a bill or as quickly as it did.”
The measure provides for uniform standards for students and teachers, institutes training for school officials, creates school-safety teams to investigate bullying complaints and explicitly prohibits harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity among other groups.
Currently, 45 states offer anti-bullying laws, but Goldstein said most don’t provide enough tangible resources to prevent bullying.
“These laws have no teeth, and frankly I take the LGBT-rights movement a bit to task for that. The national movement has not yet said, ‘OK, you may have an anti-bullying law and it may cover sexual orientation and gender identity or expression, but is the law itself effective?’ That’s what we did in New Jersey over the past year.”
Goldstein said LGBT advocates knew a situation like Clementi’s was possible, but that the measure that was approved in the wake of his death could go a long way to preventing future tragedies.
“It’s safe to say you couldn’t come up with an anti-bullying bill that has the strongest possibility of saving lives as New Jersey’s. We really lived in fear that a tragedy like that which took Tyler’s life could happen in New Jersey and we lived with that fear as we saw students take their lives in many other states. Clearly, Tyler Clementi was in every legislator’s mind, as both houses acted with unprecedented speed and passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support. The memory of Tyler Clementi was the motivation to our legislators.”
Clementi also became the namesake of a federal measure introduced by New Jersey’s U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg and Rep. Rush Holt. The pair on Nov. 18 introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, which would require federally funded colleges to have anti-harassment policies that are LGBT-inclusive, would extend to cyberbullying and would provide funding to establish anti-bullying programs.
“In the wake of the Tyler Clementi tragedy, we should help colleges across the nation strengthen their anti-harassment programs and make campuses a more positive and safe atmosphere,” Holt said at the time of the introduction.
A spokesperson for the Clementi family commented when the measure was introduced that the family was “humbled and gratified that the loss of their son, however painful for them, has inspired nationwide discussion and awareness of the need for a renewal of values of respect for human dignity and personal privacy, particularly for young people in this time of rapidly evolving technology.”
Jen Colletta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.