Tyler Clementi: The real crime

I grew up in the township of Piscataway, New Jersey.  It was a town of contradictions in the 1970s, where there was a large immigrant population, a large black population, a small Jewish population, and a well outspoken bigot and homophobe population.  To be fair, this was not that uncommon in America for the 1970s- we were all learning how to get along with each other, still trying to learn the lessons that Dr. Martin Luther King gave his life teaching the world.  Indeed a nearby Piscataway school was named after him, just like many were in the U.S.  Piscataway, in fact, had a birds-eye view of what happens when people are oppressed just because they are somehow different: its neighboring town of Plainfield was the site of race riots in the 1960s.

Growing up, my family and our neighbors got to know a fellow neighbor by the name of David.  David was a wonderful sensitive boy who couldn’t hurt a fly.  He took part in school activities, and he enjoyed flash.  While I didn’t understand it at the ripe old age of 7, when David expressed interest in Elton John and Bette Midler, it later became clear that he was gay.  I do not know all the dynamics within our neighbor’s family, but they were Roman Catholics, and David had a very difficult time in the house.  Outside the house, he had an even more difficult time in high school, as he tried to find ways to express his personality.  The bigots would “kick his ass”.  Between his homelife and his school life, David’s self esteem was battered, and he later chose self-destructive behaviors.  He ended up as one of the many victims of AIDS, his behavior – not really his sexual orientation – being a contributing factor.

That was a long time ago.  I miss my friend to this day, of course, but one thing I hope is that we will have learned from the tragedies of the past, in the same way they say that the regulations of submariners are written in blood.

The Washington Post story of a Rutgers Student in Piscataway killing himself last week because he was filmed having sex with another man reminds me that sometimes, when “boys will be boys” (in this case I think one of the offenders is a woman), the results are tragic.  I’m sure the two people who committed this gross invasion of privacy could not have predicted the consequences.  That’s in part because of their immaturity and in part because of their upbringing; because their parents didn’t impress on them the need to respect not only someone’s privacy, but to consider what it would be like if they were gay.

I hope we remember the name Tyler Clementi.  What a sad loss, and for what?  Why did he think what being gay and acting on those feelings was somehow wrong?  Why?  Why was it wrong?  Who did it hurt?

The worst thing about this sad situation is that there are many people today who won’t see this as a loss because they are so blinded by ideology, prejudice, shame, and ignorance.  That to me is the real crime.

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