Rash of Youth Suicides Spurs Outrage, Response
Asher Brown, aged 13. Seth Walsh, also 13. Billy Lucas and Justin Aaberg, both 15. And now 18-year-old college student Tyler Clementi, who attended Rutgers University, in Central New Jersey until his Sept. 22 jump from the the George Washington Bridge, which connects Northern New Jersey with New York City. All five killed themselves after suffering anti-gay harassment. Aaberg, Brown, Lucas, and Walsh had endured bullying at school for years; Clementi’s roommate secretly recorded him having a sexual encounter with another man, and then posted the images online.
GLBT equality groups responded with outrage, citing not only Clementi’s suicide, but also those of the others. "Today, as we heard news of the fourth apparent teenage suicide in recent weeks, following antigay bullying and harassment, we felt overwhelming grief and anger," a statement from Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director Hayley Gorenberg read. The statement was emailed to recipients on Sept. 29.
"Losing one young person because of bigotry and hate is too much," Gorenberg’s statement continued, "but two, three, four? Each person and story is unique and tragic, but taken together, they deliver a powerful and painful message: We must act urgently and do everything in our power to end the prejudice and protect our youth.
"Our hearts and sympathies are with the families and loved ones of the four young people who took their lives," added Gorenberg. "Seth Walsh, 13 years old, of Tehachapi CA, who hanged himself; Billy Lucas, 15, of Greensburg, Indiana, who also hanged himself; Asher Brown, 13, of Houston, who shot himself in the head; and Tyler Clementi, a college freshman in New Jersey who apparently jumped off the George Washington Bridge after classmates allegedly violated his privacy and web cast live images of him in a sexual encounter.
"But sympathy is not enough--we all have a responsibility to take action, and to keep working until all young people are safe and respected, no matter what their sexual orientation or gender identity," Gorenberg added. "We must push for laws on the federal level and in every state that prohibit bullying and discrimination. We must hold people accountable, and use the courts when necessary. And most importantly, we must love and teach all our children to be their best selves and to respect and support others to do the same."
Garden State Equality chair Steve Goldstein called Clementi’s suicide "one of the most unconscionable, hate-related deaths of a student in the history of the State of New Jersey." Goldstein went on to state, "There are no words sufficient to express our range of feelings today. We are outraged at the perpetrators. We are heartbroken over the tragic loss of a young man who, by all accounts, was brilliant, talented and kind. And we are sickened that anyone in our society, such as the students allegedly responsible for making the surreptitious video, might consider destroying others’ lives as a sport."
"Roommate asked for the room till midnight," a Sept. 19 tweet from Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, read. "I went into molly’s [sic] room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."
The images captured by Ravi’s web cam were sent out for all to see. Ravi later attempted to spy on Clementi once again, according to a Sept. 29 New York Times article. A Sept. 21 message from Ravi invited readers to tune in once more: "I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12," Ravi sent out. "Yes, it’s happening again."
Whether Ravi intended the violation of Clementi’s privacy as an act of anti-gay harassment or simply as a prank is beside the point to those who see the situation as evidence that GLBT youth continue to face demeaning treatment at the hands of their peers. ""Had he been in bed with a woman, this would not have happened," Lauren Felton, a fellow student at Rutgers, told the media in a Sept. 30 Associated Press article. "He wouldn’t have been outed via an online broadcast and his privacy would have been respected and he might still have his life."
"The notion that video of Tyler doing what he was doing can be considered a spectacle is just heinous," student Jordan Gochman said. "It’s intolerant, it’s upsetting, it makes it seem that being gay is something that is wrong and can be considered laughable."
Davi and another student, Molly Wei, both face charges related to invading Clementi’s privacy. Moreover, "Collecting or viewing sexual images without consent is a fourth-degree crime. Transmitting them is a third-degree crime with a maximum prison term of five years," the AP article noted.
Nationally, children as young as 11 have committed suicide in recent years, after having endured relentless bullying at school. The bullying often takes the form of anti-gay taunts and harassment, even when the children being bullied are not gay. Groups such as the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Education Network (GLSEN) seek to provide educational materials in order to promote a safe learning environment in the schools, but some schools have policies in place that deny students classroom learning about human sexual diversity.
In two separate incidents in different parts of the country, two youths, both 15 years old, hanged themselves after enduring anti-gay bullying at school. A news anchor at a CBS affiliate WCCO in Anoka, Minnesota, reported on Sept. 13 on the hanging death of 15-year old Justin Aaberg, a student in the Anoka-Hennepin school district in Minnesota, who had come out as gay two years earlier and endured anti-gay harassment at school. The anchor said that there had been "a record number of suicides" in the school district, "mostly among gay students." The article cited a teacher--who commented anonymously for fear of reprisal--who said that he thought three of the students who had killed themselves were struggling with their sexuality.
"I actually thought he had the perfect life," said Aaberg’s mother, Tammy Aaberg, who discovered her son’s dead body on July 9. "I thought out of anybody I knew that he had the perfect life. But I guess he didn’t think so." The article said that Tammy Aaberg had become an advocate of changing the school system’s policy on sex ed, which states that, "Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations."