Last week a boy, Tyler Clementi, barely old enough to be a man, took his own life by jumping off of the George Washington bridge. The details are something most readers are familiar with: his roommate broadcast several homosexual encounters over the internet via webcam. When Tyler learned of this, he sought the help of the online gay community, and the help of his resident advisor. While neither avenue could have imagined he would take his own life, it was clear that the people he reached out to were unable to help him sufficiently. The rest is history… but today, I want to write about suicide.
Tyler is possibly the most prominent gay youth suicide in recent memory. And while the situation surrounding his death is extraordinarily awful, he is by no means alone. Suicide is an epidemic, and while I will be focusing on gay youth in this post, it is by no means limited to gay youth.
Gay youth on average are four times more likely to attempt suicide than straight youth. Unfortunately, too many of them succeed. The reasons for this are largely attributed to the problem of bullying in school, such as what happened with Tyler. Most people can relate to being bullied. In gradeschool, I was never physically harmed, but I was called every name in the book, I was laughed at, and humiliated. Many others have experienced the same thing.
The problem is that bullying starts at an early age, when children are still being formed. For gay youth, the notion that being gay is awful is instilled in their precious minds from their earliest interactions with other children. Children of course pick up these feelings from their parents, as do gay youth. But its the other children which hurt the most at that age.
I wish I could say that it gets better as the years pass in school. But as so many know, the teen years are often crazy, emotional, and brutal. For many youth, names turn into violence. Earlier this year, a number of girls allegedly tried to throw a young lesbian off of a cliff. But even if violence never materializes, the fear is always there. Many gay youth internalize their feelings and do everything they can to look like they fit in. While that rarely fools anyone around them, it provides a temporary feeling of safety.
Some try to fit in, pretending to date the opposite sex, get into sports, or whatever else they can do to fit in. Others embrace their “weirdness” and get tossed into the outskirts of the teenage society. Some turn to drugs and alcohol. Some turn to obsessive hobbies such as computer games. Just as long as its a way to escape from the reality of the lives they are faced with. Yet a subset of both groups (the fit-ins and the outcasts) turn towards a more permanent solution.
The heartbreaking part is that in today’s society, parents who are supposed to be there to cover their children, to protect them, are often oblivious to what a child is experiencing. Many parents, regardless of how open minded they are, can’t stand the thought of his or her child being gay. Children know this. Their impressionable minds are very sensitive to what parents think of them.
How many nights do those teens have to fall asleep in tears, wishing to just be held by their father or mother and told that they are loved? Told that they are not weird, that they are perfectly normal. They long to be comforted, made to feel like they belong. But our society prevents that from happening. It pits children against children, children against parents, so that in the end the child feels absolutely alone. They feel like they have no future, nothing worth moving forward for.
I can only imagine how Tyler felt, when he realized what had been done. It must have been like childhood, but far worse. It wasn’t the kids in the cafeteria making fun of him, laughing at him for acting gay. It was many more than that, on the internet, laughing at him for being gay. He probably felt like every person who looked at him was seeing that video, since he had no idea who all saw it. He probably couldn’t understand how to go on with life feeling like every person who saw him was thinking of that video. He clearly felt like he couldn’t.
What makes me so angry, is that this situation like so many others is so preventable. All it would have taken was one person to stand up for him. One person to talk to him, to break through and help him. One person to buy time.
As a society, we must become more aware of what these children are facing. We must combat it with unconditional love for our children. We must tell them that whether they are gay, straight, male, female, fat, skinny, white, black, or whatever bucket they end up getting labeled as, that they are loved. We must go to bat for our children. We must educate people on bullying and how to deal with it. We need to pass better anti-bullying laws
As individuals, we must talk about suicide. As hard as it is. We have to tell our children, siblings, and friends, how it would break our hearts if we ever lost them. We have to tell them that we don’t know how we would move on with life if we were separated by the great divide of life and death. If they feel like their life means something, they are far less likely to commit suicide.
But that’s not enough. We have to show these children that life does get better. For millions of us who were bullied in schools, we’ve gone on to live successful, happy lives. Recently, columnist Dan Savage created the “It Gets Better” project. Its aim is to help prevent gay youth from committing suicide by showing them that life does get better. That their lives are precious.
This was our childhoods. This was our past. Maybe we can help our children. They are our future.
If I haven’t convinced you, here is an emotional message from Ellen Degeneres on the subject.