I spent a bit of the afternoon reading The New Yorker’s account of Dharun Ravi’s trial and the account of what happened prior to Tyler Clementi’s suicide. I admittedly have mostly scanned the headlines and read some of the less factual and more sensationalized accounts of what prompted the suicide.
What did happen, in some ways, is not that exciting. Or that unusual. No videos or sex tapes were released online. Tyler was, if not advertising being gay, was not completely in the closet either. That said, it’s hard to say how comfortable anyone would be with public exposure of their private lives and this young man sounded shy.
There’s little other than speculation as to what drove this young man to finally end it. There’s certainly a lot of stress at that time of your life whether you’re gay, straight, or any shades in between. I had a friend end his life when I was in college. He was a happy-go-lucky sort of guy and when my friend came to tell me that he’d killed himself, I immediately responded with, “That’s not funny.”
Because he wasn’t a person that you’d expect would even have thoughts like that. Me, with my black hair and Cure t-shirts, sure. I won’t deny my own struggles with depression, but maybe my ability to be open (and whiny) about it was what ultimately kept me from going that far.
I, and maybe we, would prefer it if there were something bigger to point to in Tyler’s case. Obvious bullying where there are bruises and scads of “Go kill yourself,” messages are easy to point to. Some of what motivated Tyler was even his inner struggle with a roommate that he perceived was nice. Maybe someone he even liked, who so casually and callously treated him with such disrespect. Then the shared disgust with what probably felt like the world.
And, of course, the roommate. He with his own struggles to find his place. Kind of a jerk. I don’t know too many 18-year-old boys who aren’t. Or 18-year-old anyones who aren’t hopelessly self-involved. You can almost feel the desperation to be special, to be the center of attention. Regardless of his personal feelings, which may or may not have been homophobic, his actions were at best unconscionable, and illegal.
I suppose he’s got plenty of attention now.
So what of it? In projecting myself back to that age, I can see myself in both of those struggles. Scared and sensitive, feeling unanchored, as well as the occasional mean girl who used sarcasm and gutting remarks to defend her wall. And, sometimes, for selfish amusement.
When I was nearly to the end of the story, I recognized a name — the name of the man who found Tyler Clementi’s body. I went to high school and college with him and he has since moved to New York. I didn’t know him that well as I was a freshman when he was a senior, but I recalled him from debate competitions. He was older and wiser and I was quite new to the life of high school and more than a little intimidated by the world. I hadn’t moved but our high school fed from two different junior high schools, plus people who knew how to drive, who had been in high school level debates, seemed so worldly.
Not many of my friends from junior high went on to participate in high school competitions and without my debate coach, I felt very lost and too shy to make much conversation with the older students. I remember being very wide-eyed and stuttering when spoken to. And without anything in particular to say, I’d just keep quiet and watch from a distance, wishing I could just force myself to swagger in and break the ice.
In other classes, filled with familiar faces, I was fine. Gregarious, even. But that lost, scared feeling, being too intimidated to reach out, I get that.
It sounds like he was a talented, quirky kid. The world needs those.
But what sticks with me is that the problem isn’t Dharun Ravi. It isn’t even a team of Dharun Ravis. He was just a stupid kid doing stupid things. But what empowered him to do those stupid things was the shock and stigma of Tyler Clementi being with another man. It’s hard to imagine anyone being that shocked or curious if a young or even older woman showed up in the dorm room. Hell, they may have even acted like he was a stud.
The systematic humiliation of the LGBT community by allowing laws that deny equal human rights is the root of the problem and will continue to be, no matter how many “It gets better” videos are launched. Dharun Ravi was simply the socially acceptable level of homophobic and for that reason, he feels like he did nothing wrong. Or at least not enough wrong to be going to prison.
In a world where homosexual relations are compared to sex with dogs, his behavior isn’t nearly that extreme. And that’s the problem. You can’t tell high school students to play nice and tell the LGBT students that it gets better when you know damn well that it doesn’t. Not completely. It’s just not so open or so extreme.
Maybe Tyler realized that. Maybe it was an impulsive teenager thing. Maybe it was something so unrelated that we’d all be shocked. None of that matters now.
What matters now is what we do going forward.