Mary L. Gray
Senior Researcher Microsoft Research New England, Cambridge, MA
Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, Indiana University
Tyler Clementi’s death on 22 September 2010 was one of the first in a wave of highly publicized youth suicides that fall. In several cases, media coverage and political discourse connected these tragedies to cases of on and offline harassment saturated in homophobic sentiment. Research among students suggests that these hostilely charged environments are the norm rather than the exception. For lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and questioning (LGBTQ) youth contemplating suicide, parents, peers, educators, faith leaders, and LGBTQ community advocates are key “first responders”—caring individuals on the scene, providing support—in the wake of this ubiquitous animus. Rallying to punish Dharun Ravi, the former Rutgers student standing trial for 15 criminal counts, including tampering with witnesses and evidence, invasion of privacy, and bias intimidation of Tyler Clementi, does not do justice to Clementi’s life nor does it move us one step closer to preventing another young person, like him, from turning to suicide.
Yet, for the past 2 years, anti-bullying advocates have had their collective frustration and political clout harnessed to further criminalize bullying rather than bolster the roles and resources of invaluable LGBTQ youth “first responders” on the ground. States and school districts rushed to crack down on bullies, prompted, in some cases, by their own convictions but, surely in others, by a political desire to appease constituencies without having to take an explicit stand on anything (who could be for bullying, after all). As a result, a record number of anti-bullying policies are now on the books. However, we have no concrete evidence that such top-down policies prevent or counteract bullying, particularly so-called “cyberbullying”—harassment carried out through texting and online social networks. Worse yet, some research on violent harassment among youth suggests that framing the problem as “bullying” actually works against youth reporting violence or identifying themselves as targets of it (Marwick and boyd 2011).
As we move forward, we need to shift from a dead-end politics of blame to build out the sources of support and ethos of shared responsibility that could make a difference, literally, between life and death for LGBTQ young people.
Rethinking homophobia. Tracing a causal link between Ravi’s homophobic actions and Tyler Clementi’s suicide dangerously oversimplifies homophobia. This formula suggests that homophobia is something “individuals have” rather than what our cultural norms perpetuate. Rather than presume homophobia vents an individual’s fear of homosexuality, researchers, such as sociologist CJ Pasco (2009), have persuasively argued that it is a portable (I would argue concealable) weapon for policing sexuality and shoring up the fragile gender identities emblematic of tween and teen life. Young people, like Clementi, searching for communities to reflect who they are must constantly weigh if talking about how they feel, whether it’s with parents, close friends, or complete strangers, will work for or against them. If we are serious about preventing bullying and suicide, we need a calculus that always works in a young person’s favor.
The homophobia expressed in Ravi’s disgust for Clementi’s intimacy with another man, as much as the racism conveyed in Clementi’s joking suggestions that Ravi’s South Asian parents owned aDunkin’ Donuts, signal our limited capacity to celebrate difference. We need to stop telling young people what they shouldn’t say or do and start teaching them—and ourselves—the social and emotional literacies they need to challenge the way they see themselves and each other. It’s time to start having direct conversations with students (beyond the platitude that such name calling “isn’t nice)” about the power that words like “fag,” “no homo,” “bitch,” and others circulate, not only through the person targeted by the slur, but also the person hurling it. Only then can we hope to turn homophobia from an easy insult to a powerful analytic tool for mining our own fears, insecurities, and discomforts with difference.
Expanding parental support/holding parents accountable. One of the few things we know for sure is that parents, guardians, and adult mentors make a difference in the lives of LGBTQ youth. A young person, for example, who lives in fear of a parent’s condemnation is more likely to hurt themselves than a young person who feels supported and accepted at home (Ryan 2009). This is not surprising. But by not explicitly recognizing parents’ roles, we undermine their importance as a strategy for combating LGBTQ youth bullying and suicide. Parents and guardians provide a measure of incomparable respite when they celebrate, rather than stand neutral or second-guess a young person’s decision to question what it means to be straight. A modest expression of acceptance makes a measureable difference. But even that can be a tall order. Adults must negotiate and account for their own doubts and anxieties when a child asks such questions before they can effectively offer first responder support. Parents shouldn’t have to go it alone and, realistically, can’t do it all. They need allies, from family, faith communities, and other positive social networks, to counter the violence and hostility rampant in school environments and circulating online. We will know we’ve reached our goal when every young adult imagines they’d celebrate, rather than endure or suffer through, having an LGBTQ-identifying child of their own.
Focusing on basic research. Educators, researchers, and policy makers need to acknowledge that we know next to nothing about the quality of young LGBTQ people’s lives before we can even begin to contribute to meaningful strategies for supporting them. The data we arm ourselves with, even the universally cited statistics on higher suicide rates among lesbian and gay youth perpetuate a rudimentary, generic picture (Waidzunas 2011). But we have no idea what daily life is like for the average LGBTQ-identifying teen. Right now, there is no national instrument for measuring young people’s positive experiences around sexuality and gender. Most states don’t ask a single question about LGBTQ youth on their annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey, effectively erasing them from the discussion at the state and district level. Indeed, Massachusetts remains the only state with a standing Commission on GLBT Youth that funds support programs in its public schools through its department of education that gather data on the effectiveness of LGBTQ-specific outreach and education. What we need is a nationally funded, coordinated effort that links programming, outreach, and research on behalf of LGBTQ youth. Harvard University’s Born This Way Foundation, launching February 29, and the Massachusetts GLBT Youth Commission’s Research Consortium are 2 good examples of what needs to be done.
Where to go from here. Focusing our collective outrage on prosecuting an individual, whether seeking the harshest punishment we can wring out of Ravi’s case or lobbying for so called “zero-tolerance” policies that automatically expel any student implicated in bullying, implies that homophobia can be rooted out, one bad apple at a time. Turning this into a case of one individual driving Clementi over the edge moves us no closer to seeing the journey that brought Clementi to that edge. When it comes to understanding and preventing youth suicide, our research, educational policies, and legal actions can’t stop at weeding out the presence of homophobic individuals but must demand systems of accountability that address how we individually and collectively perpetuate homophobia in everyday ways. That is why the “first responders” fighting for young people’s federal rights to an equal education and the human right to free expression must call on us to more broadly share responsibility in making those rights universal over narrowly seeking the right bully to blame and lock up.
Alice Marwick and danah boyd. (2011). “The Drama! Teen Conflict in Networked Publics.” Paper presented at the Oxford Internet Institute Decade in Internet Time Symposium, September 22. http://ssrn.com/abstract=1926349
CJ Pascoe. (2007). Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Caitlin Ryan, David Huebner, Rafael M. Diaz, and Jorge Sanchez. (2009). “Family Rejection as a Predictor of Negative Health Outcomes in White and Latino Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Young Adults.” Pediatrics January 2009; 123:1 346-352; doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3524
Tom Waidzunas. (2011). “Young, Gay, and Suicidal: Dynamic Nominalism and the Process of Defining a Social Problem with Statistics.” Science, Technology & Human Values, 0162243911402363-. doi:10.1177/0162243911402363
Mary L. Gray is Senior Researcher at Microsoft Research New England and Associate Professor of Communication and Culture, with affiliations in American Studies, Anthropology, and the Gender Studies Department at Indiana University. She draws on an interdisciplinary background in anthropology and critical media studies to study how people use digital and social media in everyday ways to shape their social identities and create spaces for themselves. Her most recent book, Out in the Country: Youth, Media, and Queer Visibility in Rural America (NYU Press, 2009) examined how youth in rural parts of the United States fashioned “queer” senses of gender and sexual identity and the role that media—particularly internet access—played in their lives and political work.