The epiphany that wasn’t

The recent suicide of Tyler Clementi, a first year at Rutgers University, has generated a media frenzy about young men who have recently committed suicide because of anti-gay harassment. But to call the five suicides that have now garnered national media attention a sudden trend — ABC News called it a “recent eruption” — is misleading. Note that the four other suicides — high schoolers in Indiana, California, and Texas, a college student in Rhode Island — all gained national publicity in the wake of the Rutgers tragedy, even though they all preceded Clementi’s suicide. Perhaps more tragic is the fact that the story of Clementi’s final days was picked up instead of the other four suicides because it was sexier. It had all the makings of a “Law and Order: SVU” episode and the media snatched it up. While the media may lead us to believe that they’ve had a Woodward and Bernstein moment, it is inaccurate if not irresponsible to suggest that an epidemic of gay teen suicides has recently begun. Rob O’Brien, a professor at Rutgers, told ABC that Clementi’s suicide was the second at the University this year, and that the first also centered around sexual orientation. Suicides on college campuses aren’t new. Academic studies within the past five years have found that gay young people are more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers. Among males, gay teens may be as much as seven times as likely to end their life. Despite these statistics, media organizations have shied away from the potential anti-gay motivation behind the webcast of Clementi’s sexual encounter, or the role anti-gay harassment may have played in his suicide. “Turning [Clementi’s] death into a push for gay rights is a fallacy. Homosexuality is not the only reason people kill themselves,” a staff editorial published by the Rutgers student newspaper said. It is easy to blame the two Rutgers first years, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, for going through with a stupid, heartless prank that resulted in the death of a classmate and leave it at that. But it is naive to ignore what the Rutgers incident highlights: that some people view homosexuality as funny or amusing, that it’s okay to stream a video of your roommate having a sexual encounter with another man and laugh about it. Or that, as Ellen Degeneres said, “there are messages everywhere that validate [anti-gay] bullying and taunting.” Or perhaps it sheds light on the many public middle and high schools who sponsor comprehensive anti-bullying programs that focus on race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status but fail to address sexual identity. Or does it illustrate a culture of passivity, where it is acceptable to watch silently while your classmate violates the most private of spaces by broadcasting his roommate’s bedroom, as Wei allegedly did, or say nothing as the word “fag” is carelessly tossed around? Gay young people face incredible adversity growing up that heterosexuals, including myself, could never imagine. Specifically, gay young men face a double standard that doesn’t apply to gay young women. Girls can play soccer, boys can’t cheerlead. Gay males are subject to a narrower accepted definition of masculinity that isn’t as pluralistic as femininity. It is great that news organizations are covering this issue where it has previously been invisible. But to make it seem like gay suicides have just started occurring now both ignores a decade of academic research and fails to respect or acknowledge the thousands of young people who have attempted to end their life because everything around them — including the media — was telling them it wasn’t OK to be who they were.