By Najib Aminy
Just before Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi took his own life, the 18-year-old violin aficionado downloaded a Facebook app on his phone to post what would be his final status update.
“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
This came after Clementi’s roommate posted a YouTube video of Clementi kissing another guy, filmed through the webcam on his computer. This was just one of six similar suicides in as few weeks, where gay youth had taken their lives amidst mounting social pressure and anti-gay sentiments.
In mid-October, 19 year-old Zach Harrington of Oklahoma took his life after attending a City Council meeting in his hometown of Norman. While the council meeting ultimately resulted in the passage of a resolution to acknowledge October as Lesbian, Gay Bisexual Transgender and Queer History Month, the debate was filled with anti-gay rhetoric. Harrington’s family said they believe the meeting triggered his suicide.
And so formed the clouds of a media storm that has publicized Clementi’s death, and similar related deaths. The result has been thundering coverage about cyberbullying, sexting and privacy in a digital age.
And while the extreme outcome of Clementi’s situation may differ from that of others who identify themselves within the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) community, the insensitivity Clementi faced is very much the same.
The expressions of that insensitivity, like most things, begin with culture and society; one that some professionals say involves an invisible atmosphere of raging heterosexism.
“If you don’t know someone well, and you see a wedding ring, one assumes they are married to someone of the opposite gender, it’s almost a force of habit,” says Dr. Jenny Hwang, Stony Brook Associate Dean and Director of the Center for Prevention and Outreach, an office dealing with substance abuse, depression, sexual assault and gender issues. “There is a kind of privilege that people who identify as heterosexual have in that they never have to talk about it because it’s just given,” Hwang says.
For non-heterosexuals, not having that privilege creates a level of confusion that constantly challenges one’s identity. It’s the constant possibility of having to explain to someone who they are or what their sexual orientation is and defend it, fostering for many a permanent pull of uncertainty. Now combine both these levels of doubt and the clash against the established societal norms of marriage, love and culture. Thus many queers, or people who identify themselves as either lesbian, gay or transgender face compound obstacles.
“What’s sad to me in the Rutgers case is, if Tyler Clementi were getting involved with a woman, I am not so sure there would be much interest in webcasting that encounter,” said Hwang, a clinical psychologist.
“It kind of hit me like a wave. And I was like wow, my life is going to be radically different from everybody else and I decided to just sit down and take it all in,” recalls Nolan Theodore, an eighteen-year old SBU freshman from Syracuse, about coming to terms with his sexuality when he was fourteen.
At first, Theodore had told just a few close friends who were in his high school’s Gay-Straight Alliance club. But it was after experiencing peer wrath in derogatory terms thrown around in his high school halls, he resolved that he did not want to be silent about his sexuality. Specifically, he wanted to be active in letting others know the effects of hurtful language: calling people faggots, or tacking “no homo” to the end of a phrase. Because even for him, it had hurt him to the point of feeling like a leper.
It took two years after coming out to a few close friends before Theodore would come out to his divorced parents—initially his mother, who he lived with. “I think the only thing scarier that could ever happen to me is a near-death experience,” explained Theodore. “It’s no parade, it’s like a haunted house. You don’t know what’s going to pop out next.”
And while Theodore says he was fortunate that he was not kicked out of the house, his relationship with his mother had been strained at first, with his mother balling, in tears upon hearing the news. Months passed without Theodore and his mother really talking about his orientation or anything else. But that all changed earlier this summer, when Theodore had brought home his boyfriend from school.
Afraid that she would not accept his boyfriend or the relationship, Theodore was surprised when his mother became more accepting, even taking an interest in the $200 half-friendship necklaces from Hong Kong both he and his boyfriend share. “She just took an interest in it, and she’s just been great about it,” said Theodore.
Eventually Theodore would also tell his father, who works in New York City, a cosmopolitan environment, which he feels was one of the reasons why his father was much more accepting than his mother. The process of first coming out, he says, is a burden he will never forget. “Your heart is pounding very hard-so much that you can hear every beat. And when you finally say it, you can’t believe it’s finally out in the open, in the public, for anyone around the area to hear.”
It’s A Never Ending Process
But after the initial burden wears away, coming out continues to be a never-ending tale. With each new person one meets, there is that chance of having to address one’s sexual orientation, followed by the elaborate explanation or defense.
It’s a set of problems that senior philosophy major Daniel Weiss, 21, has come across, but for another reason—Weiss identifies as transgender, specifically gender queer. Weiss, who prefers the pronoun “they,” is neither attracted to either male or female and does not identify as male or female, rather is gender queer with a sexual orientation of queer.
“I use queer to mostly designate that I am not heterosexual,” said Weiss, who grew up in North River, Ill., a suburb outside Chicago. “I am attracted to people as people, not sex or orientation.” As for gender, Weiss neither identifies as male nor female. “It gets a lot more complicated regarding my relationship with my body and my interaction.”
Weiss had originally identified as gay during freshman year of high school. Like Theodore, Weiss had come out to a small group of people before telling the family—an event, which took place a few years later, during senior year of high school.
“It was very, very scary; mostly for me to acknowledge whether or not I’d lose all my friends or that the possibility of my family hating me,” Weiss said. “It’s horrifying, it’s not ok, but that’s what happens.” Weiss’ family had accepted Weiss coming out as gay, but Weiss’ mother had some difficulty in accepting that Weiss was transgender.
When Weiss came out as transgender a few months later, Weiss’ mother had suggested that Weiss go through conversion therapy because, as Weiss said, something that Weiss’ mother thought could be cured. “I was dumbstruck,” Weiss said, who associated the suggestion with notorious types of purported therapy for gays. “It’s an incredibly painful thing to go through,” said Weiss, who added that such therapy would be forcefully trying to change who one is.
And while the relationship between Weiss’ mother and Weiss has since improved, Weiss continues that coming out process, only in a less favorable way. “Everyone thinks I am a queer girl because that’s how they associate my presentation,” said Weiss, who then decides whether it is necessary to come out to a newly encountered individual. “There’s this expectation that I have to explain everything about myself as if it’s my job because I am trans[gender],” Weiss says, “[but] I want to walk around and be treated with as much respect as the next person can get.”
And it’s this sentiment that strikes true for many others within the LGBTQ community.
Just the Beginning
But coming out is just one hill in a chain of mountains that extend beyond the horizon. Despite a Gallup poll released earlier this year in which more than half the people surveyed said they supported the moral acceptability of a gay and lesbian relations, the stereotypes and social stigmas are far from extinct.
“It’s as if, now that I am gay, I have to love musicals or watch Glee,” said Theodore, who would respond nonchalantly whenever his mother asked him for fashion advice. “Many people have the label gay and I think it’s subconsciously always running through their head and it dictates whatever they do.”
It’s something Theodore says should not be the end-all be-all deciding factor of how one is perceived. “It shouldn’t dictate how people should treat you,” he said. “Everybody should be treated with respect.”
For Weiss, life becomes a little more difficult, either when having to use a gender-specific bathroom, being constantly reminded of a legal name and previous identity when using an ID card for meal points, or at the beginning of every semester. Weiss will send out emails to the professors of each registered class, and more or less “come out,” when requesting to be called Daniel, a process that makes Weiss feel sick to the stomach. That’s because the request isn’t always well received.
“I’ve had professors who have called me ‘it,’ who outed me and called me my legal name,” said Weiss. “It was very embarrassing.”
Bottom of the Totem Pole
To try and make it easier for students like Theodore and Weiss, the university has implemented a few initiatives that seek to make the Stony Brook experience both a safe and enjoyable one.
It was after a 2008 Campus Climate report, which discovered that many people within the LGBTQ community did not feel comfortable with being queer on campus, that the Safe Space program began. The program is designed to be an informal conversational training for staff, faculty and students regarding education and awareness of LGBTQ issues. The goal of this training is to create an alliance between the LGBTQ community and others on campus.
Since it was established two years ago, the program has grown to have 158 trained Safe Space volunteers, with a list of 42 people waiting to go through the program. “I think everybody realizes [LGBTQ issues and rights] are going to be a long term thing,” said Chris Tanaka, Special Project Coordinator within the Center for Prevention and Outreach. “As we see with other diversity issues, it’s one issue that will never be [resolved],” said Tanaka, who coordinates the Safe Space program.
And in light of the recent string of queer youth suicides, the question that hits some of Stony Brook’s own administrators is, could it happen at Stony Brook?
More or less, the answer to that question is “yes,” but tacked on with a growing concern, one that Christina Vargas Law, the director of the Office of Diversity and Affirmative Action, holds. “It becomes a question of whether we are making sure all of our students feel safe, letting them know that there is assistance here and to make contact with those that need help,” said Law, who graduated Stony Brook in 1990.
It is within Law’s office that discrimination and sexual harassment complaints are filed, but even there, Law says, the cases of queer discrimination are few and underreported. It ranks towards the bottom of the totem pole underneath other discrimination complaints related to sexual harassment, religion and age. “Part of the issue is, at what point do people feel comfortable reporting it and do we find out about it in time,” explains Law about the small number of queer harassment complaints filed.
Advocates say part of the solution is the implementation of vital awareness programs, and services that would cater to the needs of the LGBTQ community. Asked what the administration could do to make Stony Brook a safer and more comfortable place for LGBTQ students to live, an increase in transgender-related services tops the list, whether it’s increasing the gender-neutral housing program, from one suite in Tabler Quad to a more expansive program or providing more gender-neutral bathrooms all throughout campus.
To quell the dilemma Weiss goes through every semester regarding a preferred name, members of Stony Brook’s own Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Transgender Alliance have also requested that a name-changing service be offered through the university’s SOLAR system. This would allow students to submit, on SOLAR, the name they would prefer to be called, which would appear on the professor’s roster list and eliminate the need for emails each semester where students feel obliged to come out.
And to address the social awareness of LGBTQ issues, the LGBTA has also advocated for university administrators to include queer-related awareness programs in the freshman seminar classes, in addition to the courses for university faculty and staff. But the education, some argue, must be more than the just the appropriate way to refer to someone who is gay, it should provide an exposure to the problems at hand. “I think we would do a disservice if we try to cover true bias and hostility by just saying, ‘you can’t say that, and you have to say this,’” says Hwang. “Otherwise then it just becomes another rule to follow and people still have the feelings without ever having to reflect on them or share them with another person.”
A Ticket of Hope
The recent suicides that have come to public attention were fueled by a socially planted and deep-rooted misunderstanding about queers in general. To even call them suicides is contested by advocates. “When someone is hurt, harassed, bashed and has their privacy invaded, and doesn’t feel comfortable or safe to the extent that suicide is their only option,” said Weiss, “I would call that murder.”
While these suicides have, for the moment, caught the media’s fickle attention, the problems that surround being queer look to last much longer. For Theodore, the decision to come to Stony Brook and decline an opportunity to go into an honors program at Rochester Institute of Technology was a matter of where he would be accepted. Theodore chose Stony Brook with influence from his father, presuming that the environment would be more welcoming.
“Somebody that’s Latino shouldn’t pick a school because they are more accepting,” Theodore said. “The world shouldn’t act that way.”
If there’s one message Theodore would share with LGBTQ youth confronted with intolerance, it’s that eventually everything will work out. His anxieties melted into a positive situation as his parents will be helping him pay for a $200 round-trip ticket for him to go to Buffalo and visit his boyfriend at the end of October.
“It gets better,” Theodore said.