Finally, the girls are both asleep and I can finish this post. I started it days ago but just haven’t been satisfied with it. Fair warning: it’s sentimental.
Tyler Clementi’s story, as much as we can know about his thoughts, feelings, and actions, has been in the news this week and I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around it. What I’ve decided is, discussions like this miss the point. The internet was just a hyper-public forum for his roommate’s homophobia (despite friends’ claims to the contrary). I really don’t think it’s about bullying either. This kid’s story is tragic and, as Ellen Degeneres points out, Clementi was just one of many young people who have killed themselves after intense emotional torment from their peers. I actually agree with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who said he didn’t know how the kids who streamed the video could sleep at night. Yes, these were just kids who did this- kids who thought it was perfectly acceptable to humiliate someone over such intimate matters.
But, as a parent, something else about this bothers me because this is about something much larger than “bullying”- the term seems inadequate given the consequences. Clementi was one of too many young people in the U.S. who have to grapple with their sexuality. As far as we think we’ve come in this country (and rightwing nuts think there’s some sort of homosexual agenda out there), Clementi’s torment and hopelessness should clue us in to the cost of our fascination with sex and who we do it (or don’t do it) with.
And then, I realized, this was someone’s kid. He was someone’s child. Someone was supposed to love him, unconditionally. As Eric commented this morning after we listened to NPR’s story on Clementi, it seems the poor boy’s family played a role in this. Apparently, he was driven to suicide by the thought of his family finding out about his homosexuality.
This is what breaks my heart. The thought that a child could feel unable to go to their family when he or she needed them most must be devastating. Sadly, I know a number of people who would probably reject their children if they came home and announced they were gay. I know a number of people who back legislation in this country that dehumanizes homosexuals and then think nothing of the disrespect they pay to our friends they have that are homosexual as a result of their beliefs. I am mystified by this disconnect, lack of self-reflexivity, and moral blindness. I hope some of you read this, because I know you do. But I hope someday they also see the straight line between the hatred underlying their beliefs and the path that drove Clementi to his death.
Because it was an open acceptance of the hatred of non-heterosexual lifestyles that kept his roommate from thinking twice about broadcasting Tyler’s encounter. Tyler was different (and quiet, and talented, and smart, and shy), and his difference, in our society, justifies outing him, humiliating him, denying him privacy, dignity, and respect. It justifies denying him any humanity. It justifies driving him to his death.
But what’s worse, it seemed Tyler learned that lesson at home, the one place he should have felt safe and loved, completely and entirely, for exactly who he was. He did not feel safe to go home as himself. I try to imagine my girls in a similar situation…and I hope they never are. I hope that they never for an instance think their mother and father would reject them for anything at all, much less something as arbitrary and unimportant as their sexuality.
I just wonder, what would happen to the world if parents (or any caretaker) had the emotional capability to make sure their children felt loved unconditionally? The greatest thing we can give to our kids is a sense of security in our love for them so that they feel secure in themselves as they navigate the world. Most importantly, I want my kids to always, always, always know that we’re here for them and that we always love them, no matter what. For us personally, that means we always tell Katie that we love her, even when she’s in trouble, and then…just let it go. I hope, as our girls grow up, that translates into women who are self-assured enough to face adversity with grace and in turn, to treat themselves and others with kindness.
Tyler was just a kid. When you teach college undergraduates, you realize that it’s only summer vacation, and not any innate wisdom or maturity, separating 18 year-olds from childhood stepping out of their high school graduations and the expectations that comes with adulthood. He was just a kid- someone’s child. And he was like so many- too many- other kids out there. I wish he had been able to find an accepting community to love him so that he could love himself. Maybe he could have shrugged off what happened and just gone on with his life.
It might be too late for him, but it’s not for the rest of us.