Tyler Clementi (1992-2010) brought international attention to bullying-related suicide of LGBTQ youth by jumping to his death on Sept. 22, 2010.
Clementi’s highly publicized tragedy made him into a gay martyr whose untimely death put a public face on the problems of LGBTQ teenagers. His story sparked efforts to support LGBTQ youth, raise awareness of the harassment they face, and prevent suicide among queer young people. Another result is new legislation stiffening penalties for cyber harassment.
Later his parents quit their longtime evangelical church because it condemned homosexuality as a sin. His parents once considered suing Rutgers over their son’s death, but in 2013 they announced that they were working with the university to form the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. It sponsors conferences and academic research to help students make the transition to college. They also established the Tyler Clementi Foundation to promote acceptance of LGBT youth and more inclusive society.
Clementi was an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey when he was driven to suicide by his room mate’s anti-gay cyber-bullying.
A talented violinist, Clementi came out to his parents as gay before leaving home for college. His mother, Jane Clementi, later told the Daily Beast that during the three weeks between his coming-out and his suicide, she felt she had to choose between her son and her Christian faith. She reached a new understanding in the grief after her son’s death: “That was when I could bring them all together: the LGBT issue and the faith issue. I didn’t realize you could have them both until after Tyler passed.”
Three days before the suicide, Clementi’s room mate used a webcam to secretly record Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room and streamed the video live over the Internet. In messages posted online before he took his own life, Clementi told how he complained to authorities about the cyber-bullying and asked for a new room assignment. Then he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. It took a week to find his body.
The room mate, Dharum Ravi, also 18 at the time, was convicted on 15 counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, in connection with Clementi’s suicide. Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail; 3 years of probation; 300 hours of community service; fined $10,000; and ordered to undergo counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles. His accomplice, Molly Wei, avoided jail time by agreeing to testify against Ravi.
Anti-LGBTQ statements by religious leaders and other public figures are also partly responsible for Clementi’s death. They created the hostile environment that drove Clementi to suicide. Artist Louisa Bertman emphasizes this point in her powerful ink illustration, “Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” She makes visible the hateful voices that may have been in Clementi’s mind. In her drawing, his head overflows with people urging him to jump. They are politicians as well as the actual students who bullied him. Their names are listed in a stark statement at the bottom of the drawing:
“Message brought to you by Sally Kern, Kim Meltzer, Nathan Deal, Carl Paladino, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tom Emmer, Jeremy Walters, Rick Perry, Bob Vander Plaats, Dharun Ravi, and Molly Wei.”
Bertman, an artist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for her non-traditional portraits.
Clementi helped inspire the founding of the It Gets Better Project and Spirit Day. The It Get Better Project aims to stop suicide among LGBTQ teens with videos of adults assuring them that “it gets better.” Spirit Day, first observed on Oct. 20, 2010, is a day when people wear purple to show support for young LGBTQ victims of bullying.
Responses to Clementi’s death are examined in a forthcoming book by Brett Krutzsch, visiting assistant professor of religion at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. A chapter on Clementi will be included in “Dying to be Normal: Gay Martyrs and the Quest for Equality,” which is scheduled for publication by Oxford University Press in 2018. The book examines how LGBTQ activists applied Christian traditions to prominent LGBTQ deaths to counteract Christian conservatives between 1995 and 2015.
Unfortunately Clementi’s experience is far from rare. Openly lesbian talk show host Ellen Degeneres spoke for many in a video message that put his suicide into context shortly after he died:
“I am devastated by the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi….Something must be done. This month alone, there has been a shocking number of news stories about teens who have been teased and bullied and then committed suicide; like 13-year-old Seth Walsh in Tehachapi, California, Asher Brown, 13, of Cypress, Texas and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Greensberg, Indiana. This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone: teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country, and the death rate is climbing.”
Help is available right now from the Trevor Project, a 24-hour national help line for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning young people ages 13 to 24. Contact them at 866 4U TREVOR or their website: thetrevorproject.org.
Books on ministry with LGBTQ youth
BESTSELLER AT JESUS IN LOVE / Q SPIRIT
“A Brief Guide to Ministry with LGBTQIA Youth” by Cody J. Sanders.
How can a church’s youth ministry have a positive impact on adolescents who struggle to live out their faith and their LGBTQIA orientation/identity? This guide for affirming congregations includes practical advice and a glossary. The author is pastor of Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square. Published by Westminster John Knox Press.
“Making Space for Queer-Identifying Religious Youth” by Yvette Taylor.
A scholar charts the experiences, choices and identities of LGBTQ youth in inclusive churches. Sexuality and religion are seen as mutual paths that can help youth manage marginalization, discrimination and other issues. The author is education professor at the University of Strathclyde in the United Kingdom and has held posts at universities in Australia, Canada and the United States. Published by Palgrave.
Links on Tyler Clementi and LGBTQ youth bullying and suicide
Day of Silence Prayer: Stop bullying God’s LGBTQ youth by Kittredge Cherry
A Brother’s Pledge: Standing Up For Love by James Clementi (Believe Out Loud)
It Gets Better Project video by Kittredge Cherry
Top: “Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” by Louisa Bertman
Tyler Clementi’s webcam photo of himself (Wikimedia Commons)
This post is part of the LGBTQ Saints series by Kittredge Cherry. Traditional and alternative saints, people in the Bible, LGBTQ martyrs, authors, theologians, religious leaders, artists, deities and other figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people and our allies are covered.
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