Why are so many gay teens dying?

Tyler Clementi's suicide showed the darkness of Internet bullying. But a new online project could save lives

Topics: LGBT, Internet Culture,

Why are so many gay teens dying?Tyler Clementi

On Sept. 22, Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old Rutgers freshman, reportedly posted a message on his Facebook page that read, “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.” And then he did.

But Tyler Clementi was not the only Rutgers student using social media to broadcast Tyler Clementi’s activities. Days earlier, his roommate, Dharun Ravi, tweeted, “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.” Local authorities claim he then streamed the action live online. Three days later, he apparently did it again, tweeting, “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” Clementi committed suicide the next day.

Now 18-year-old Ravi, along with classmate Molly Wei, are changed with invasion of privacy for using a camera “to view and transmit a live image” and could face up to five years in prison for their actions. And Clementi now joins a heartbreaking list of young men who were the target of antigay harassment and bullying — and who killed themselves in just the past month.

There was 15-year-old Billy Lucas of Greensburg, Ind., who was allegedly the target of slurs about his sexual orientation and hanged himself in his grandmother’s barn on Sept. 9. There was 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, Calif., the openly gay middle-schooler who died Sept. 28, several days after attempting to hang himself from a tree in his backyard. Walsh had reportedly endured years of bullying because he was gay. Though police questioned several of the kids who allegedly taunted him the day he died, none were charged. And on Sept. 23, there was 13-year-old Asher Brown of Cypresswood, Texas, who shot himself in the head with his stepfather’s 9 mm Beretta. His family, which runs the evangelical Pulse Missions, claims his school repeatedly ignored claims that the boy had been the target of anti-gay harassment.

Could there have been other factors that contributed to the deaths of these young men? Lucas reportedly had a rocky relationship with his mother, and had been suspended from school the day he died. And while Walsh’s stepfather, David Truong, says he “didn’t condemn” Asher when he came out to him, it’s certainly possible that living in a very religious household was a source of conflict for him.

Yet as different and no doubt multilayered as the individual circumstances of these four teenagers from different corners of the country were, they were all singled out for either being or giving the appearance of being gay. And while neither homophobic bullying — nor, sadly, teen suicide — were invented yesterday, the ability to turn an act of hate into an Internet-wide event gives their stories a dimension that’s unique to their generation. Humiliation can now spread as quickly — and permanently — as a widely disseminated cellphone photo, can be as invasive and relentless as a series of cruel posts on a MySpace page. And while there is evidence that the decline in adolescent empathy over the past decade is a real phenomenon, it’s also easier than ever to turn a local tragedy into a media-fueled trend about vicious teens and the nefarious uses of technology.

But everything that makes being young and vulnerable today potentially horrendous — access to a video camera, the postings on a Facebook page — can also be the very tools that can save a teenager’s life. After the death of Billy Lucas, columnist and author Dan Savage decided enough was enough and launched the It Gets Better Project, a YouTube channel of messages of encouragement and survival aimed at gay and lesbian youth. As he explained in his “Savage Love” column, “Gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay — or from ever coming out — by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models. Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.”

The YouTube channel, which should be required viewing in every middle and high school in America, has, in a just one week, become crammed with hundreds of videos from both gay and straight adults, from celebrities and regular folks, offering light at the end of tunnel of hell that can be adolescence. Perez Hilton admits, “I went through a point in my life where I was suicidal daily … But you know what got me through that? Time.” And Adrianne Curry recounts being called a “worthless dyke” in school and says, with the beautiful distance of hindsight, “These people were insignificant pricks. And I have never seen them since then.”

It’s deeply moving stuff, and a reminder that for every idiot thug with a Twitter account where a heart ought to be, there is a vast network of compassionate individuals eager to reach out to offer strength to a stranger out there who might need it. Because that’s what human beings do for each other. In his video testimonial, Savage, along with husband Terry Miller, gives the unflinching message that “you have to tough it out, and you have to live.” And he says, with all the sincerity and passion of one who’s endured and then thrived, “There really is a place for us. There really is a place for you. One day you will have friends who love and support you. You will find love. You will find a community.” And for gay kids across the country, feeling alone and picked on and different right now, a little bit of that love and community is already here, as close as a message of hope on the Internet.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "Gimme Shelter: My Three Years Searching for the American Dream." Follow her on Twitter: @embeedub.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>