The media has covered the suicide of 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi as a case of standard cyber-bullying: There are real people behind screen names, we are being sternly reminded, and even if you can't see them in the flesh, that doesn't mean they can't feel the sting of cruelty. That is something that fellow students Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, also both 18, forgot or ignored when they live-streamed video of Clementi hooking up in the room he shared with Ravi. Shortly afterward, Clementi leaped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. "Invasion of privacy" is a strangely antiseptic term for the charges that Ravi and Wei face, and it doesn't convey the cruelty of filming another person in a sexual act without his or her consent.
But we can't lose sight of a key element to this story, which is that Clementi's assignation that day was with another man. As a young person feeling out his own sexuality, Tyler Clementi was saddled with a specific burden. There is nothing quite like the shame that comes along with being ridiculed for something you know is an unchangeable part of who you are. We don't know the specific pressures Clementi faced, but we do know gay teens in general are up to four times as likely to attempt suicide. When you add that to the fact that 40 percent of all suicides on college campuses are by freshmen, it's clear this one was particularly vulnerable.
"The cyber-bullying is one thing. That's outrageous that people would take these videos," says Mitchell Gold, the editor of the book Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing The Personal, Social, And Religious Pain And Trauma Of Growing Up Gay In America. "But to me, the bigger question was: Why was he so distraught over being outed that he would kill himself? The reason I called my book Crisis is because when so many kids realize that they are gay — whether it's a day or year or five years — they go through a period of real crisis where they're just scared to death."
The Internet has done wonderful things for young gays and lesbians. In a world that can seem infinitely isolating, it can connect you with people all over the world that are just like you — safely and privately. Just Google "Gay Teen Help" and you'll find a link to The Trevor Project, which runs a 24-hour suicide-prevention line and gay social network. Search for "gay" and "Does It Get Better?" and you'll find a link to hundreds of YouTube videos of LGBT adults assuring their young counterparts that, yes, life gets easier.
Logs from an Internet chat board suggest that Clementi, or someone in a situation exactly like his, sought out the advice of other gay men online and felt comfortable discussing his problem. But the confidence that can come with acceptance on the Internet can turn out to be remarkably flimsy in the real world, where it is impossible to hide your face, or to disappear at any moment. Living away from home for the first time, in a dorm full of strangers, heightens the loneliness.
Gay students "have less protective factors than their straight peers," says Charles Robbins, the executive director of the Trevor Project. "The average age of coming out is now 14. So when you have youth who are developing their sexual orientation at an earlier age, and they're experiencing negative impacts from that from school and family, it increases the chance they'll develop mental-health issues. And that's what's happening. You're seeing that played out every school year at the beginning of the school year."
The Trevor Project receives roughly 11,000 calls from despondent youth every year, and they see a higher number coming in every August and September. In these past three months we've also heard the tragic stories of 13-year-old Seth Walsh in California and 15-year-old Justin Aaberg in Minnesota.
The Internet allowed Clementi to reach out to like-minded peers for solace and guidance, but also provided the means for his casually cruel classmates to expose him to ridicule. As cultural norms on homosexuality become ever more accepting, we can only hope the next kid in his situation is helped more than he is hurt.