Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tyler Clementi: Gay martyr driven to suicide by bullies

“Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” by Louisa Bertman

Tyler Clementi (1992-2010) brought international attention to bullying-related suicide of LGBT youth by jumping to his death on this date (Sept. 22) in 2010.

Clementi’s highly publicized tragedy made him into a gay martyr whose untimely death put a public face on the problems of LGBT teenagers. His story sparked efforts to support LGBT youth, raise awareness of the harassment they face, and prevent suicide among queer young people. Another result is new legislation stiffening penalties for cyber harassment.

His parents once considered suing Rutgers over their son's death, but in February 2013 they announced that they were working with the university to form the Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers. It sponsors conferences and academic research to help students make the transition to college. They also established the Tyler Clementi Foundation to promote acceptance of LGBT youth and  more inclusive society.

Clementi was an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey when he was driven to suicide by his room mate's anti-gay cyber-bullying.

A talented violinist, Clementi came out to his parents as gay before leaving home for college. Three days before the suicide, Clementi’s room mate used a webcam to secretly record Clementi kissing another man in their dorm room and streamed the video live over the Internet. In messages posted online before he took his own life, Clementi told how he complained to authorities about the cyber-bullying and asked for a new room assignment. Then he jumped off the George Washington Bridge. It took a week to find his body.

The room mate, Dharum Ravi, also 18 at the time, was convicted on 15 counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, in connection with Clementi’s suicide. Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail; 3 years of probation; 300 hours of community service; fined $10,000; and ordered to undergo counseling on cyberbullying and alternate lifestyles. His accomplice, Molly Wei, avoided jail time by agreeing to testify against Ravi.

Anti-LGBT statements by public figures are also partly responsible for Clementi’s death. They created the hostile environment that drove Clementi to suicide. Artist Louisa Bertman emphasizes this point in her powerful ink illustration, “Tyler Clementi, JUMP!” She makes visible the hateful voices that may have been in Clementi’s mind. In her drawing, his head overflows with people urging him to jump. They are politicians as well as the actual students who bullied him. Their names are listed in a stark statement at the bottom of the drawing:

“Message brought to you by Sally Kern, Kim Meltzer, Nathan Deal, Carl Paladino, Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Tom Emmer, Jeremy Walters, Rick Perry, Bob Vander Plaats, Dharun Ravi, and Molly Wei.”

Bertman, an artist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is known for her non-traditional portraits.

Clementi helped inspire the founding of the It Gets Better Project and Spirit Day. The It Get Better Project aims to stop suicide among LGBT teens with videos of adults assuring them that “it gets better.” Spirit Day, first observed on Oct. 20, 2010, is a day when people wear purple to show support for young LGBT victims of bullying.

Unfortunately Clementi’s experience is far from rare. Openly lesbian talk show host Ellen Degeneres spoke for many in a video message that put his suicide into context shortly after he died:

“I am devastated by the death of 18-year-old Tyler Clementi….Something must be done. This month alone, there has been a shocking number of news stories about teens who have been teased and bullied and then committed suicide; like 13-year-old Seth Walsh in Tehachapi, California, Asher Brown, 13, of Cypress, Texas and 15-year-old Billy Lucas in Greensberg, Indiana. This needs to be a wake-up call to everyone: teenage bullying and teasing is an epidemic in this country, and the death rate is climbing.”

Help is available right now from the Trevor Project, a 24-hour national help line for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender and questioning teens. Contact them at 866 4U TREVOR or their website:

Related links:

Tyler Clementi Foundation

Tyler Clementi Center at Rutgers

A Brother's Pledge: Standing Up For Love by James Clementi (Believe Out Loud)

Crisis: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social, and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America” by Mitchell Gold and Mindy Drucker

Queer: The Ultimate LGBT Guide for Teens” by Kathy Belge and Marke Bieschke

It Gets Better Project video by Kittredge Cherry

Image credit: Tyler Clementi’s webcam photo of himself (Wikimedia Commons)
This post is part of the GLBT Saints series by Kittredge Cherry at the Jesus in Love Blog. Saints, martyrs, mystics, heroes, holy people, deities and religious figures of special interest to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) and queer people and our allies are covered on appropriate dates throughout the year.

Copyright © Kittredge Cherry. All rights reserved.
Jesus in Love Blog on LGBT spirituality and the arts


Trudie said...

What an extremely powerful blog. Once more, thank you for the effort you put into these incredible entries.

Sage said...

Thank you Kitt!

Kittredge Cherry said...

Tyler’s story seems even more sad when my partner Audrey and I remember how happy we felt when we were new university freshman-- even though we did face anti-lesbian hostility from others in the dorm. That’s when we met and fell in love 36 years ago.

Thanks for your comments, Trudie and Sage. Rest in peace, Tyler.

Unknown said...

That photo speak VOLUMES!