Still some shame in homosexuality
Among the thousands of students who have sat in my classes over the years, I've seen dozens of young men like Tyler Clementi. To describe them is to risk generalization and stereotype, but let's say that they're often quiet, pleasant and polite. ...
Among the thousands of students who have sat in my classes over the years, I've seen dozens of young men like Tyler Clementi. To describe them is to risk generalization and stereotype, but let's say that they're often quiet, pleasant and polite. Sometimes they're talented writers and often, like Clementi, they're interested in music and the arts. But in class they're shy and withdrawn. No one gets to know them very well and they keep to themselves, as if they have a secret to keep.
And like Clementi, they do have a secret: They're gay men trying to live in a society that, in spite of its progress otherwise, still largely sees homosexuality as an embarrassing disgrace.
Clementi's secret caught up with him on Sept. 22. He's the Rutgers University student whose roommate allegedly webcammed him having sex with another male and then streamed the images onto the Internet. The shame was too much for Clementi, who posted a concise goodbye on his Facebook page and jumped off a bridge.
The word "tragedy" is overused these days, but it seems to fit this pathetic tale. Clementi was an intelligent young man and a talented violinist. Apparently, he was a quiet, gentle soul, without many friends. More than one of his acquaintances said that he kept to himself. But he was a nice kid who shouldn't have been driven to kill himself.
Nevertheless, it's not hard to feel a little sympathy for the roommate, Dharun Ravi, who is accused in the execution of this malicious prank. If he is, indeed, deemed responsible for the webcam incident -- and if he has any conscience at all -- he will spend a lifetime trying to free himself of the consequences of his seriously faulty 18-year-old judgment.
In fact, one of Ravi's former classmates reportedly said: "I think he's a good person ... I don't think he's a homophobe. It would've been no different if it was a girl in the room."
But, of course, it would have been much different if Clementi had been with a girl. For evidence, we can look to Duke University, where a recent graduate produced a facetious senior thesis describing in considerable graphic detail her sexual encounters with 13 athletes.
Of course, her "thesis" went viral in no time. Still, while this episode might be tacky and slightly embarrassing, it's unlikely that anyone, even the poorest "performers" on her list, will commit suicide over this soon-to-be-forgotten incident.
No, in our culture we still reserve a special kind of shame for homosexuality that exceeds the mere embarrassment produced by nearly all heterosexual indiscretions. Unwed parenthood used to be the sort of disgrace that sometimes resulted in suicide. We've largely gotten over that, but some gays are still preferring death to the humiliation and bullying that they face.
The jury is still out on the rate of homosexual suicide in our culture; some studies indicate that it is three to six times more common than in the general population, while others indicate much less. Still, anecdote speaks loudly: In California, Seth Walsh hanged himself after extensive bullying at school; in Texas, Asher Brown shot himself after anti-gay harassment; and in Indiana, Billy Lucas hanged himself after being bullied over his perceived sexual orientation. All of this occurred in September. Walsh and Brown were 13 years old; Lucas was 15.
And Tyler Clementi was 18.
Crisp teaches at Del Mar College in Corpus Christi, Texas. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org .