On Sept. 22, 2010, an accomplished young violinist and freshman at Rutgers University killed himself. Tyler Clementi, 18, was by all accounts an incredibly talented musician who had a promising future awaiting him. Tyler Clementi was also gay and was the subject of harassment because of his sexuality, leading directly to his suicide.
From what is known of the incident, Clementi’s roommate set up a secret web camera in their shared dorm room at Rutgers and streamed video images live on the Internet of Clementi having sex with another man. When Clementi found out that his sexual encounter was streamed live to the world, he reported the incident, attended orchestra rehearsal, and used the very technology that may be responsible for his death to say his final goodbye.
In a moment of despair, Tyler Clementi changed his Facebook status to “jumping off gw bridge sorry.” Clementi then went to the top of the George Washington Bridge in nearby New York City and jumped to his death.
Clementi’s suicide garnered national attention in part because of the distinct technological dimensions to the harassment he faced. While his death was unique, as a young gay man considering suicide—and succeeding—Tyler Clementi was not alone.
Unlike previous suicides within the gay community, this tragedy seemed to find a certain resonance throughout the country. In a statement released by Clementi’s parents, Joe and Jane Clementi wrote that the “outpouring of emotion and support from our friends, community and family—and from people across the country—has been humbling and deeply moving.”
The family’s greatest hope was that their son’s death would not be in vain. Their statement read, that “regardless of legal outcomes, our hope is that our family’s personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity.”
The response has been overwhelming. Across college campuses throughout the nation, the tragic death of Tyler Clementi became an opportunity to reflect on the effects of anti-gay harassment, both in society and on the Web.
UWF professor Gregory Tomso said that he spent “most of the day in a state of disbelief” after learning about the circumstances surrounding Clementi’s death. Professor Tomso, who teaches courses on gender and sexuality, said that his shock soon “gave way to a deep sadness, followed by anger.”
In his outrage over the incident, Tomso was not alone.
Brent Cox, a gay rights activist from Pensacola, said that he was “shocked and saddened” by the news of Clementi’s death. Cox said, “When I was 18, which was Clementi’s age, I was profoundly afraid of how my life would be destroyed should people discover I was gay.”
Cox, a 43-year-old former student at the University of West Florida, said he previously viewed his own sexuality through this fear of being discovered.
“I don’t recall ever thinking that I could come out and it would be empowering,” Cox continued. “I only thought of how people would discover that I was secretly this thing people hated. I mention this because I can only imagine with horror how humiliating Clementi’s outing must have been.”
For many, the circumstances surrounding Clementi’s death added a new element to this tragedy that only helped to heighten the attention it received.
Dr. Kevin Bailey, the Vice President of Student Affairs at UWF said that when he first heard of Clementi’s death, “the word I would use to describe my feelings was ‘appalled.’”
In a message to the student body concerning the suicide of Clementi—as well as another student, Raymond Chase of Johnson and Wales University—and the issue of anti-gay harassment, Bailey issued a statement.
“This abhorrent behavior exhibited by one college student against another college student is unacceptable and should not be tolerated by anyone who believes in human dignity and the inherent worth of others,” read Bailey’s letter to the student body.
Although the sexual act broadcast live on the Web was not believed to have been recorded or seen by many people, the public nature of Clementi’s “outing” has added a new dimension to the phenomenon of what has become known as “cyberbullying.”
“When we think of cyberbullying, we think of playground stuff,” said Bailey, “but when we add (social media and technology) it takes bullying to a whole new level.”
Although bullying has nearly always been an unfortunate component of the movement from childhood to adulthood, the advent of social media websites has only made the problem worse, especially for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth.
“Just think about the typical high school environment and all the kids that don’t fit into this narrow box of what is (perceived to be) ‘normal’ or ‘ok,’” said Bailey. “Then, add the LGBT component—whether you meet stereotypes, whether you are out of the closet, or whether people simply think you are gay—then that comes with a whole new set of issues.”
There are several reasons why cyberbullying is different, and in many ways more psychologically damaging than traditional schoolyard bullying. Unlike bullying that takes place at school, a cyberbully can follow a target virtually anywhere in the world. Since the harassment is often posted on a social media website, the offending remark is potentially available for the entire world to see.
This viral effect becomes increasingly damaging to the victim as there is a perception that everyone has seen the remark. While young women are generally at a slightly higher risk of cyberbullying than young men, those perceived to be gay are frequent targets of bullies.
According to the Cyberbullying Research Center, approximately one in five young adults has been the victim of bullying over the Internet.
While technology has been blamed for the perception of an increase in anti-gay harassment, some argue that new technologies have only changed the medium by making it “very easy to violate people’s privacy,” said Professor Tomso.
“But I don’t know if (the Internet has) really changed anything. LGBT people have long been the targets of violence, and they remain so today,” said Tomso.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) reported that nearly nine out of 10 LGBT high school students experienced some type of harassment related to their sexual orientation in 2009. According to GLSEN, of all LGBT youth, transgender teens appear to suffer the worst harassment in school with nine out of 10 transgender students reporting harassment. A quarter of transgender students reported being physically attacked because of their gender identity status; some have even been killed.
Though social media sites such as Facebook and MySpace have been blamed for giving a new medium to bullies, others see potentially positive aspects to this same technology.
“In one sense, (harassment has) increased because technology provides an open forum for anonymous criticism,” says Brent Cox. “This same technology, however, has also greatly empowered more LGBT youth than anything else I can imagine—even more than Stonewall.”
“Today, almost any kid in rural Mississippi ‘knows’ someone gay if (she or he is) also on Facebook. The gay person is a friend of a friend, or (the young person) stumbles across some gay-positive Facebook page,” said Cox, who currently resides in Mississippi.
“Just (a few) years ago, that same kid may never have even heard the word ‘gay’ except as a slur…(this) medium has provided unprecedented information and support that counters and weakens the bullying.”
“It Gets Better”
One of the major online forces in the fight to counter anti-gay harassment is the Web-based project “It Gets Better.”
The It Gets Better Project was started by syndicated columnist Dan Savage in response to a string of high-profile suicides by LGBT youths just prior to Tyler Clementi’s suicide. Before Clementi’s death, the project started with Savage and his partner making a YouTube video that related the couple’s individual experiences growing up, coming out, and the harassment they both received in school.
The overriding message, however, is not the harassment and despair awaiting some gay youth, but what they say is a message of hope: “Life gets better.”
After Clementi’s dramatic suicide and the media attention his death garnered, support for the It Gets Better Project (itgetsbetter.org) increased much more than Savage could have predicted. Within a month of Clementi’s death, video postings for the It Gets Better Project received over 10 million views on YouTube. Hundreds of people, ranging from internationally-known celebrities to several students at the University of West Florida, posted personal videos of encouragement to LGBT youth facing anti-gay harassment.
“That website is great,” said Steven Walker, a student at the University of West Florida and member of the Gay-Straight Alliance.
Several politicians, mostly Democrats, also posted videos. The most famous politician to post a video to the website was President Barack Obama.
“(I am) saddened by the deaths of several young people who were bullied and taunted for being gay, and who ultimately took their own lives,” says President Obama in his video for the It Gets Better Project.
“As a parent of two daughters, it breaks my heart. It’s something that just shouldn’t happen in this country.”
President Obama adds that it is important to “dispel the myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage,” going on to state the importance of ensuring the nation’s schools are safe places for LGBT youth. The president then strikes a personal tone with his message.
“I don’t know what it’s like to be picked on for being gay,” explains President Obama, “but I do know what it’s like to grow up feeling that sometimes you don’t belong. It’s tough. And for a lot of kids, the sense of being alone or apart—I know can just wear on you…but what I want to say is this: you are not alone.”
Similar messages were posted by Vice President Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, and numerous members of the president’s cabinet and party. As a response to the suicides, the White House even launched its own website (whitehouse.gov/itgetsbetter) where the president’s video is posted, along with various other videos and links to suicide prevention hotlines and resources for LGBT youth, family, and friends.
“Dan Savage’s ‘It Gets Better’ campaign is one example of how the perception of anti-gay bullying and gay suicide has improved,” said Brent Cox. “I’m not overstating when I say my life would have radically changed if, as a teenager, I could have watched the videos in that series. Countless kids today are watching those videos and their lives are changing.”
In one of the most popular videos on the website, comedian Sarah Silverman offers her thoughts on the string of suicides. The popular comedian and television star sees the issue as very political and uses her video to address the nation.
“Dear America,” Silverman begins, “when you tell gay Americans that they can’t serve their country openly or marry the person that they love, you’re telling that to kids, too.”
Silverman continues, “So don’t be (expletive) shocked and wonder where these bullies are coming from that are torturing young kids and driving them to kill themselves because they’re different. They learned it from watching you.”
It Gets Better Project founder Dan Savage agrees. As the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” the military’s law barring openly gay service members, appeared to be stalling, Savage urged supporters to take action. In a post dated Dec. 8, 2010, Savage asked readers, “Does the ban on gays and lesbians serving openly in the military impact LGBT youth?”
His answer was emphatic. “Yes, it does.”
The 17-year-old policy “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” prohibits those in the LGBT community from serving their country. According to Savage, this “government-sanctioned discrimination (policy) against LGBT people—adults and youth—legitimizes anti-gay attitudes and empowers the bullies.”
After a contentious debate in the U.S. Senate, the repeal of this long-standing policy came to a vote. On Dec. 18, 2010, the ban on gays serving openly in the military was lifted. The vote was 63-33, with eight Republicans siding with the Democratic majority.
Upon hearing news of the Senate’s repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” President Obama issued a statement. “Gay and lesbian service members—brave Americans who enable our freedoms—will no longer have to hide who they are. The fight for civil rights, a struggle that continues, will no longer include this one.”
PROTESTS AND COUNTER-PROTESTS
As the Department of Defense now prepares to allow for the admission of openly gay service members, the potential for a more robust conversation on the issue of equal rights for LGBT people emerges. “Just because we are making great strides nationwide in the area of LGBT civil rights, that doesn’t mean that homophobia, bigotry and prejudice have been eliminated,” said UWF professor Greg Tomso.
“Sometimes people fail to understand how difficult it is to be lesbian or gay in a society that still views those sexualities as evil or perverse.”
For LGBT students in the Pensacola region, it would not be hard to find those opposed to civil rights for the LGBT community. Congressman Jeff Miller (R-FL), who represents Northwest Florida in the U.S. Congress, has consistently stood in opposition to both gay marriage and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” Miller has also been a vocal opponent of the inclusion of sexuality as a category to be covered under current hate crime laws, stating that inclusion of sexuality or gender identity is simply unnecessary. Congressman Miller remained consistent in his opposition to all of these measures throughout his terms in the U.S. Congress and has voted accordingly.
Outside the halls of Congress, another common sight of anti-gay sentiment that can be seen throughout the city, especially downtown across from local gay bars, is that of Christians protesting the very presence of homosexuals. This is especially common during the Memorial Day weekend, a traditionally gay-friendly holiday in the Pensacola area where thousands of LGBT tourists flock to the region’s beaches. Christian-led protests against the patrons of Emerald City, Pensacola’s largest gay bar, often escalate to screaming matches outside the bar among protesters, patrons, and counter-protesters.
Even on UWF’s main campus, street preachers occasionally take to the Free Speech Zone to preach what they perceive as the ills of homosexuality. On Oct. 20, a national day of remembrance for the recent LGBT victims of suicide, the campus Free Speech Zone was the scene of a small, but vocal Christian demonstration condemning homosexuality.
This demonstration, however, was met with a larger counter-demonstration. Interestingly, many of the counter-demonstrators present at this protest also professed to be Christians. In what could be seen as part of Pensacola’s regional flair, gay-friendly Christian counter-protests are also a fairly common scene at the larger anti-gay protests, even the ones in front of Emerald City.
Though the opposition to LGBT civil rights is vocal, it is not universal. Neither is anti-gay harassment, especially on campus.
In an Oct. 29, 2009 article from the UWF campus newspaper The Voyager, Stephen Loveless, former president of the UWF Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), said that he had never felt discrimination for the organization by any faculty or staff at the university. “As a whole, UWF is a gay-friendly campus,” said Loveless. While Loveless mentioned minor instances of harassment on campus and acknowledged the conservative power structure in the Pensacola region, he still maintained that UWF was a positive place for gay students.
Steven Walker agrees. A graduate student studying psychology at UWF, Walker said, “I think most people in the GSA would agree that, overall, UWF is pretty gay-friendly.”
Walker points to the successful addition of gender identity as a category covered under the university’s discrimination category as proof of the politically progressive leanings on campus, as well as the very existence of the GSA.
“When we started out, (the GSA) used to meet in a small room in the back of the school. Now, we’re very large and have a pretty strong presence on campus,” explained Walker.
The Gay-Straight Alliance has been one of the most active student groups on campus for a number of years, most recently spearheading a campaign to have gender identity listed under UWF’s discrimination code.
After thousands of signatures were collected by the GSA for a petition to include transgender students in the university’s discrimination policy, the petition was presented to the Student Government Association. The university’s SGA approved the measure and sent it to the administration for approval. Though initially opposed by the administration claiming that a change in the university’s policy was unnecessary, the initiative was eventually approved after successful protest actions by the GSA and the SGA.
However, full equality for UWF’s LGBT community has not yet arrived.
To date, the University of West Florida has continued to deny domestic partner benefits to its students and faculty. This move runs counter to the policies of several major universities throughout Florida, including the University of Florida, the University of North Florida, and the University of South Florida.
“We’re definitely behind the times on this issue (and) I know it hurts us when it comes to recruiting talented students and faculty,” Tomso remarked. “My own partner isn’t even allowed to share my gym membership, whereas legally married couples can have joint memberships. It’s never easy being a second class citizen on campus.”
Though Professor Tomso said he has been dealing with this type of discrimination for over two decades and has learned to adapt, he added that it has not been without difficulty. Considering the message these policies send to LGBT youth, Tomso said, “Imagine how a student who is just coming out must feel.”
How young people internalize official discrimination against LGBT citizens is often cited as a point of interest for those concerned about the rash of anti-gay bullying and the suicide problem amongst gay youth.
“The longer we continue to deny equal rights on campus to LGBT people, we contribute to the cultural bias against them,” said Tomso. “I’m not saying that this is the same as committing violence, but our failure to address issues like health insurance and other benefits does suggest that LGBT people are not as valuable as others. Who’s to say that this doesn’t contribute in some way to the overall devaluation of LGBT people that led to the Rutgers incident?”
While the harassment of LGBT youth appears to be on the rise, there are options available now that have never been available before. Ironically, the very technology that is often blamed for the problems related to anti-gay harassment may also hold some of the solutions.
Thinking back to a feeling of isolation from his youth, Brent Cox explained, “I do envy the younger LGBT community…[if I] were a teen today, I’d know that, yes, I’m gay, and when a bully called me a ‘faggot’ in school, I’d know that I have a legal right to be free from such harassment in a school setting, and how to contact the ACLU or Lambda Legal should my school fail to intervene.”
“More importantly,” Cox added, “I’d know the importance of coming out and standing up for my right to equality.”
Cox, who helped launch the first Gay-Straight Alliance at UWF in the early 1990s, said that he first came out while he was in college at UWF and has been an activist ever since. After volunteering and working for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in Pensacola, Cox relocated to Mississippi to work for that state’s main office of the ACLU in Jackson.
Though Cox has been out of the closet for over two decades, he admits that life is not easy for gay men and women living in the South.
“The truth is, I’m a strapping 6-feet-1-inch, 200-pound, 43-year-old man who’s completely out and eager to remind people that I’m gay,” said Cox.
“Coming out in Mississippi is still a little radical, and I make a point of being vocal because I know it defies prejudice. And I speak up for people who can’t (or think they can’t).” Cox added, “Gays and lesbians don’t want to be tolerated, we want our equality respected. Love us or hate us, but don’t let it infringe on my right to equal treatment under the law and equal opportunity for happiness.”
Though many rights have been won for LGBT people throughout the nation, some in the local community have resisted these social changes. Though the University of West Florida may be seen as a somewhat liberal outpost in a sea of conservatives, the two communities are not that far apart and both have the potential to influence each other, and often do.
Conscious of the conservative sociopolitical dynamic within the area and its influence on campus, Dr. Kevin Bailey still says that the university needs to be proactive in its attention to potential anti-gay harassment, both online and on campus. One of the university’s strongest voices after the string of tragic suicides by gay youth, Dr. Bailey said that no matter what the political situation is off campus, the university still has a responsibility to support its students no matter how they identify themselves.
“If LGBT students are not getting the support they need (in the larger community), we need to be the ones to offer them that support.”
-Scott Satterwhite is a graduate student at the University of West Florida and teaches writing at Pensacola State College.