Of all the issues raised by Tyler Clementi's tragic death - bullying, a corrupt cyber etiquette, a youth culture ever more saturated in sexual imagery yet still shot through with age-old prudishness - one stands out: The nagging suspicion that, had the sexual partner allegedly filmed with Clementi been female, the 18-year-old student would still be alive. Humiliated, betrayed, but still alive.
Gay teens are four times more like to commit suicide than straight adolescents - a fact all too vividly illustrated in recent weeks. While religious extremists would like us to believe this is a result of the evils of the gay lifestyle, it is in truth the all too predictable result of bullying and persecution. Speaking to ABC News, journalist and founder of the It Gets Better campaign Dan Savage said "Things may be getting better in a Madison, or a New York, or a Seattle or Portland, Oregon, but they are getting worse in small towns and rural areas. We've had 15 years worth of aggressive campaigning by the religious right to demonize and stigmatize gay people." In short, Glee may be a hit but it doesn't pack enough of a punch to win the battle against ingrained ignorance and prejudice.
As much as I wish it wasn't true, and as much as it pains me as a native to admit this, America remains a land of fundamental inequality. From race, to class to immigration status, and, yes, to sexual preference, the USA is failing left and right (and on the left and right) to live up to its mission statement. From marriage to serving in the military, as a nation it reinforces the belief that gays are less worthy than their straight peers. It is naive to claim this underlying cultural value doesn't infect the attitudes of young people. When you pass laws that say some people are allowed a level of rights that others aren't, you create a sickness in your society that will spread and corrode.
Gay rights are not a niche issue. If we are serious about stopping young gay people from suffering disproportionate levels of depression, abuse, bullying and suicide, we need to view their rights as fundamental to our own, no matter what our sexual orientation. If American society was rooted in equality there would be no 'gay' marriage, only marriage. It would be taken as read that everyone deserves to pick their own partner (and apply for a mortgage, be seen as next of kin, adopt, receive health benefits, inherit estates, and so on).
Rep. Barney Frank, the first openly gay member of the US congress, compared this sad moment in the struggle for equality to the videos of dogs attacking protesters that are widely considered to have turned the tide in the fight for civil rights. "The police dogs helped the movement," he said to the AP. "It's when bigotry shows itself at its worst that people respond."
If we can't respond collectively and definitively when an eighteen-year-old man jumps off a bridge, allegedly because his roommate thought it was funny to broadcast a private sexual encounter over the web, or when a thirteen-year-old child shoots himself because he is being bullied at school, what will it take?
We can't let those who value hate to continue to poison generations of young people. Homophobia and bigotry have done too much damage already. It is no longer enough to privately support the gay people in our life. It's time for all of us to come out.
By: Phebe Hunnicutt
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