The entire community of the Straight Spouse Network is deeply saddened and troubled by the death of Tyler Clementi at Rutgers University. Our condolences, thoughts, and prayers are with his family and friends.
Tyler’s suicide is deeply troubling to us, the heterosexual spouses and ex spouses of gay people, because it goes to the heart of the experience of many of our families. Our spouses come out, and we and our children are driven into a closet of shame and ridicule. Our children discover that suddenly their playmates are not allowed to visit them at the gay parent’s house. Or they are called names because their parent is found out to be gay.
Many of us are raising gay and lesbian children and teens. We are called as parents to love them for who they are. Many of us are resolved to not pressure them into making the same mistake of marrying a straight person to deny who they are.
Many of us are raising heterosexual children and teens who struggle to accept a gay parent and the sudden change in their family, or who struggle with a complicated relationship with a closeted gay parent in denial. If they are college freshmen with unresolved feelings of shock, shame, and anger paired with a gay roommate the result can be disasterous. When they ask for a room change, they are lectured about homophobia. They aren’t “full of hate” but they need time to regain their own equilibrium. Given time, they can accept gay students, be friends with them – but not live with them just yet in the close quarters of a college dorm room. Without acknowledgement of their needs and experience, they disengage from the college experience, just like their gay counterparts.
Gay students also ask for room changes, and the results in many colleges are equally devastating. They are ignored, or worse, ridiculed. One Rutgers senior told ABC news that when he came out to his RA as transgender during freshman year, she outed him to the entire building. Rutgers gay students petitioned housing to create “safe zones” for LGBT students, and according to ABC news “were given a flat out no”.
We’re not advocating “segregation” of LGBT students, but we believe that residence life college personnel need a thorough education about the total reality of young people’s experiences with homosexuality.
“Transitions are inherently stressful times, and there’s been a lot of research done on how to help college students deal with this stress,” says George J. Hill, an Academic Advisor in the Health Careers and Retention Center at Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn, NY. “Being an 18 year old male entering college is tough. Not only are you dealing with being independent from your parents for the first time, but there are also social pressures. Many teenagers are still wrestling with their sexual identities, and struggling to find who they are”. A married heterosexual, Hill is a member of Safe Zone, a organization comprised of over 60 faculty and staff, who have undergone special training to be sensitive to LGBTQ students. “If a student is to develop and grow, the student must be provided with just the right amount of challenge”, Hill continues. “If a student has too little challenge, they will not grow and become independent, but if they have too much, they will disengage. Therefore, a college must provide just the right amount of support, to ensure that while the student is challenged, they also do not disengage.” Hill concludes that most disengaged students fail or drop out, and that suicide is the ultimate “disengagement”.
If there is a perception that coming out, reporting harassment, or requesting a room change will lead to further persecution, then the “zone” is not safe. Yes, “respect” is important, and certainly the prank played on Tyler could have been played on a heterosexual couple. But “respect” is not enough if “gay” is not specifically mentioned, or if all the voices and perspectives are not heard and acknowledged.
We also find it disturbing that in many comment sections to news stories, Tyler’s family is accused of being homophobic and unsupportive. Many families of gay teens are loving and supportive, but find in the aftermath of a tragedy such as this that they are accused of “hate” by those who project their own experiences on the grieving family. Such judgment and condemnation by strangers only adds to the pain and grief of an unimaginable loss.
Society has made great strides in recent years in accepting families like ours, which include people who are gay, straight, and unsure. But clearly, not enough progress has been made so that gay people and their families are safe from harm.
We love this video statement by Ellen Degeneres.
It will get better. It has to.