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

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published September 30, 2010 8:01PM (EDT)

Tyler Clementi
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.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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