This story was originally published on September 22, 2011.
In death, it seems, Tyler Clementi gained a voice.
Much has been said and done in Clementi’s name since he jumped from the George Washington Bridge a year ago, after his roommate at Rutgers University secretly video-streamed images of him in a gay liaison.
New Jersey enacted one of the country’s toughest anti-bullying laws, and a nationwide conversation has ensued on the issues of cyberbullying, privacy, teen suicide and gay rights.
“Very few events in my lifetime of civic involvement have had the impact that the tragic death of Tyler Clementi has had,” said Steven Goldstein, head of Garden State Equality, a leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group in the state.
The name of the unassuming violinist from Ridgewood has barely left the news as laws and initiatives were promoted, his roommate was charged criminally and his parents filed a civil suit against Rutgers.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper is set to come to campus for a town hall meeting on bullying, and the university will host a “conversation about suicide, healing and beyond” tonight. Neither Rutgers nor CNN would say when and where the anti-bullying town-hall session would take place.
Anti-homophobia and anti-bullying seminars are planned for next week, and in November Rutgers will convene a symposium to look at the use, misuse and cultural implications of social media.
But some activists caution that the flurry of programs and initiatives doesn’t necessarily signal real social change. After all, Clementi’s suicide came just as Rutgers launched Project Civility last fall, a series of programs and discussions to promote courtesy and compassion.
“I think we’ve created awareness and visibility,” said Shane Windmeyer, head of Campus Pride, an advocacy group for LGBT students. “But I don’t think we’ve had a shift in the paradigm of how we treat gay people.”
Clementi, 18, had been a student at Rutgers for less than a month when he jumped to his death a year ago today; his body was recovered in the Hudson River a week later. His former roommate, Dharun Ravi, has been charged with invasion of privacy, bias intimidation and tampering with evidence. He could face up to 10 years in prison.
“It was shocking; it put a light on something that is overlooked a lot, like the issues of gay mental health,” said Joe Monteleone, a sophomore who is part of the new gender-neutral housing at Rutgers, a pilot program that enables students to choose roommates of the opposite sex.
The housing option, now at 60 universities nationwide, is designed to create a more comfortable living environment for LGBT students.
Rutgers had been discussing the option for about three years; Clementi’s death sped its implementation, a university spokesman said. Monteleone and others also are involved in a learning community called Rainbow Perspectives in the dorm that will focus on LGBT issues.
The highly public death brought together the sometimes splintered LGBT groups at Rutgers, those on campus said.
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“Last year was a very difficult year,” said Jenny Kurtz, referencing the Clementi suicide at a recent LGBT welcome back gathering at the student center in New Brunswick. “A year later, our community continues to reflect on lessons learned, and continues to heal. But last year was also a year of tremendous strength,” she said, noting the solidarity of the community and its allies.
“There was the initial shock and then everyone realized that we had to try to make something positive,” said Spencer Fader, a senior who belongs to Delta Lambda Phi, a gay fraternity. The university said it has seen a fourfold increase in the past three years in the number of LGBT programs it offers.
Clementi’s death was one of a rash of at least a half dozen gay-teen suicides around this time last year.
“It Gets Better,” a YouTube video campaign aimed at gay youth who are bullied, was launched the day before Clementi died. A year later, 25,000 videos — by media and political personalities and the public — have gotten more than 40 million views.
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Campus Pride re-released its annual report following Clementi’s death. It got media coverage then; it hadn’t before.
And at campuses around the region and around the country, there was some reexamination of the policies, procedures and support in place for the LGBT community and others who might feel uncomfortable in their dorms.
“If there are tragedies, in some ways it energizes groups to say ‘we don’t want that here,'” said John Martone, vice president for student development at William Paterson University in Wayne.
“It made us look at what we do and how we do it,” said Kevin Schafer, assistant director for housing at Montclair State University. Montclair offers counseling, mediation, support groups and, like Rutgers, gender-neutral housing.
College is a time of young adults coming into their own, sexually and otherwise. It can be liberating for some and extremely stressful for others, campus leaders say. In court papers, a picture has emerged of tension between Clementi and Ravi — each sending texts to friends indicating they were wary of their differences.
“There’s always that awkward coming-out stage when you’re dealing with a heterosexual roommate,” said Rebecca Pero, who is part of the new gender-neutral housing at Rutgers. Pero eschews identifying as either male or female. “Everyone should be able to feel comfortable and safe in their living environment.”
We may never know the combination of factors that drove Clementi to take his own life, said Windmeyer, the head of Campus Pride. But his death surely has sparked conversation. “I think the story has yet to be told as to what Tyler’s legacy will be,” he said.