Being young, being gay

October 1, 2010 1:40:12 PM PDT
Thanks to all who have weighed in on our website about the tragedy at Rutgers University. The suicide of Tyler Clementi has at least sparked discussion about the torment of gay and lesbian youth who lead closeted lives, about acceptance, and about the toxicity of some "pranks."

At the Rutgers campus today, students wore black to remember Clementi, whose jump from the George Washington Bridge followed the live streaming (unknown to him at the time) of his sexual encounter with another young man. There's an ongoing vigil on campus, and we'll be there tonight at 11 to cover the reaction.

We don't know why Clementi chose to end his life, although you don't have to be a psychiatrist to assume that this public outing of his sexuality may have been a big factor. And yes it's true as many people have pointed out that the young man he was with, and who was also on tape, hasn't done himself in. But it seems to me that's not the point. The point instead is that hurtful behavior has consequences. Words matter. Actions matter.

When so-called commentators spew vile against gays and lesbians and same-sex marriages, do they ever think that what they're saying might have a consequence? That it might spur someone to violence? Or, in a horrifically tragic twist, to suicide?

This is not a sky-is-falling rant. Mr. Clementi was the fifth young gay person to commit suicide in the past three weeks, according to Wayne Besen, executive director of the group called "Truth Wins Out."

They include, according to Besen:

*A 13-year-old boy from Bakersfield, California, who died nine days after he hanged himself from a tree in his back yard after years of being bullied. Cops interviewed some of the youngsters who had taunted the boy.

"Several of the kids that we talked to broke down into tears," said the police chief. "They had never expected an outcome such as this."

*A 13-year-old boy in Houston, Texas shot himself after what his family said was constant harassment from several students. He was, said his family, "bullied to death" - picked on for his small size, his religion and because he did not wear designer clothes and shoes. Kids also accused him of being gay, some of them performing mock gay acts on him in his physical education class.

* A 15-year-old from Greensburg, Indiana, who hanged himself in a barn at his grandmother's home. Friends say that he had been tormented for years. "He was threatened to get beat up every day," said one classmate. "Sometimes in classes, kids would act like they were going to punch him and stuff and push him. Some people at school called him names," words that questioned Lucas' sexual orientation.

*And the latest was two days ago - a sophomore college student in Providence, Rhode Island, hung himself in his dorm room.

We know there's been a rise in bias and hate crimes; gay advocates suggest that it might be happening because otherwise good people are ignoring it.

Besen says he's "fed up with what amounts to anti-gay school yard muggings that are foolishly dismissed as 'boys being boys.' In reality," he says, "it is 'boys beating boys,' and these bullies receive tacit approval for their violent, homophobic behavior by teachers and certain vocal segments of society."

We have yet to hear from Mr. Clementi's family - other than a request to respect their privacy during their grief - and so we don't know all of the emotional issues he might have been dealing with, or if he had troubles that had nothing to do with the invasion of his privacy over the Internet. But it's not a stretch for people to assume that the streaming sexual encounter and the suicide are indeed connected. And it's not a stretch for people to be outraged and agonized and horrified.

We'll also have any breaking news of the night, plus Lee Goldberg's weekend AccuWeather forecast, and Scott Clark with the night's sports. I hope you can join Liz Cho and me, tonight at 11, right after a special edition of 20/20 - Diane Sawyer's look at "Islam: Questions and Answers."


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