Friday, October 8, 2010

Thoughts in the Aftermath

Tyler Clementi, an 18 year old Rutgers University freshman, committed suicide recently because his roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Dharun's friend, Molly Wei, videotaped him having sex in his dorm room with another male and streamed it live over the Internet on a webcast. Dharun, who apparently was upset because his new roommate was gay, had also tweeted his frustration about his living situation. Tyler's death is a horrible tragedy. What was done to him was cruel and unacceptable, an invasion of privacy in its most extreme form aided by technology which is outpacing our ability to teach our children how to use it and unhindered by society's governance of how it should be employed.

It is almost impossible to imagine that Ravi and Wei could not have understood that their "prank," as I heard someone call it, would not be devastatingly hurtful and have horrible repercussions. Was their intent for Tyler to commit suicide? Probably not, but it doesn't matter. He's dead, they could possibly face expulsion from college and a good five years or so in jail. Honestly, three lives are destroyed because of youthful stupidity, selfishness and arrogance. But also because none of these people felt there was a caring adult in their world who it would be safe to turn to with their troubles. I'm sure there were people who would have supported him, his parents being the first in line, but he didn't feel like he had anyone to turn to. What if Tyler, instead of committing suicide, had reached out to his parents, dorm RA, a gay and lesbian group on campus? Someone who could have dealt with what happened and supported him through the horrible bullying he was enduring from his roommate? He needed someone who could have assured him that the embarrassment of what happened was, as awful as it felt, something that in time would pass and that others, relatives, friends, classmates, strangers, would support him against this invasion and support him for who he was as a person - not because he is gay, but because it is the right thing to do.

It bothers me a little that this is being framed as a gay rights, gay bullying issue. What was done to him could easily have happened to anyone, gay or straight. That this incident was most likely motivated by his roommate's ignorance, fear and bigotry of gays is what people are focusing on, but honestly, I can envision any young college freshman, male or female, gay or straight, having their privacy invaded like that would be humiliated and devastated on many levels. It is not only an invasion of their privacy, it is an attack on the core of who someone is as a person, something Tyler seemed not yet comfortable enough with to survive this assault. But at 18, again, gay or straight, who is really comfortable with who they are?

I was also struck by the other side of this tragedy, and again, how good parenting and support might have stopped this from happening. What if Ravi had been mature enough to express his upset at having a gay roommate by talking to his RA, going to student housing or just picking up the phone and talking to mom and dad about it, asking them to intervene on his behalf? But no, instead, in his immaturity, he turned to derisive and bullying behavior which resulted in someone dying. And I'm trying to imagine why Wei got involved in this crime rather than being the voice of reason when Ravi enlisted her help. In what universe do you think it's okay if a friend comes to you with an idea, "Hey, let's broadcast my gay roommate having sex," and you respond, "Yeah, great idea, let's do it!" I always talk to my girls about evaluating situations that they are presented with and if the situation looks like a bad idea because it will get them in trouble or be dangerous to themselves or others, to be the voice of reason or turn and go the other way and stay out of whatever mess your friends are about to get into. I tell them they can blame it on me, say, "My mom wouldn't want me to..." Lame, I know, but it works. So where was Wei's "This isn't a good idea" moment? Why did she willingly go along with something that these clearly smart, academically gifted kids should have known was both morally wrong and would get them in trouble...big trouble? I can only assume gang mentality kicked in. It was a way to get back at someone they didn't like because he was different. They thought it would be cool and funny, a joke. But it wasn't. And now, nobody's laughing.

My parents always taught me that it wasn't any of my business who someone was sleeping with. As long as they are a good and thoughtful person who cares about others and their community, that's all they should be judged by. And it sounds like that's who Tyler was. Too bad his community, and by that I mean not just the gay community, but all of us, weren't able to support him when he needed it most.

Out of this awful loss comes lessons to be learned about helping and supporting kids, teaching them how to be more mature and to think through the consequences of their actions. But what we are also left with is the question of how to deal with the rapidly changing technology and the new (and often destructive) ways that people, particularly young ones, find to use it.

For more on Tyler's story, visit:

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