Guilt, grief and God: a gay son’s suicide

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About that high-profile claim that a political and cultural progressivism “literally bleeds through the fabric” of The New York Times: Anybody catch the story on Tyler Clementi’s parents leaving their evil, gay-bashing evangelical church?

The parental guilt and grief that drip from nearly every paragraph of this story will grip you.

A big chunk of the top of the report:

RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — When Tyler Clementi told his parents he was gay, two days before he left for Rutgers University in the fall of 2010, he said he had known since middle school.

“So he did have a side that he didn’t open up to us, obviously,” his mother, Jane Clementi, said, sitting in her kitchen here nearly two years later. “That was one of the things that hurt me the most, that he was hiding something so much. Because I thought we had a pretty open relationship.”

In her surprise, she had peppered him with questions: “How do you know? Who are you going to talk to? Who are you going to tell?” Tyler told a friend that the conversation had not gone well. His father had been “very accepting,” he wrote in a text message. “Mom has basically completely rejected me.”

Three weeks later, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his roommate had used a webcam to spy on him having sex and that he had sent out Twitter messages encouraging others to watch.

An international spotlight turned the episode into a cautionary coming-out story, of a young man struggling with his sexuality and the damage inflicted by bullying. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was tried and convicted of intimidation and invasion of privacy; he served a short jail sentence. But the trial never directly addressed the question at the heart of the story — what prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself?

What prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself? The story turns on that key question.

The obvious answer from the Times’ perspective: the young man’s evil, gay-bashing church:

At the time Tyler sat down to tell his parents he was gay, (his mother) believed that homosexuality was a sin, as her evangelical church taught. She said she was not ready to tell friends, protecting her son — and herself — from what would surely be the harsh judgments of others.

Later in the story, there’s this:

In the months after Tyler’s death, some of Ms. Clementi’s friends confided that they, too, had gay children. She blames religion for the shame surrounding it — in the conversation about coming out, Tyler told his mother he did not think he could be Christian and gay.

She decided she could no longer attend her church, because doing so would suggest she supported its teachings against homosexuality. And she took strength from reading the Bible as she reconsidered her views.

So, as any reasonable Times reader can see, the case against the evil, gay-bashing church is pretty much open and shut. But since the Times is a newspaper committed to giving a full and fair hearing to all sides on such a story, let’s see how the church responds to the charges against it.

Oh, wait. The evil, gay-bashing church isn’t identified by name. No one from the evil, gay-bashing church is asked to explain what the congregation believes or teaches concerning homosexuality. No one from the evil, gay-bashing church is asked to respond to the parents leaving the church.

The Star-Ledger in New Jersey matched the Times’ report with a similar story devoid of the church’s side of the story.

But then a strange thing happened: Religion News Service picked up the New Jersey version of the story. Except that apparently, someone at RNS made the brilliant observation that no one had bothered to contact the evil, gay-bashing church for comment. So RNS did exactly that and added four highly relevant paragraphs to the end of the story:

Rob Minor, senior pastor for Grace Church, said on Monday (Aug. 27) that his church teaches that “God’s ideal” is sexual abstinence before marriage, and monogamous heterosexual marriages. “But we also understand that we live in a world where everyone is striving to reach God’s ideal,” Minor said. Minor said he and an associate pastor relayed that message to Jane Clementi before she left the church.

“We love Jane and Joe and Jimmy and the rest of the family very much, and we respect their decision,” Minor said.

Minor added that the church does not “bash” or “judge” people, nor does it make homosexuality a priority issue.

“The fact is at least in the six years I’ve been here, I never preached on it, never talked on it,” Minor said. “It’s just not been an issue for us.”

Wow. It seems the pastor wants us to believe he’s not the evil, gay-bashing son of a gun that the Times makes him out to be. Imagine that.

Video: Tyler Clementi performing with others at Grace Church in Ridgewood, N.J.

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • The Old Bill

    Bobby, you’re not looking at it through Times colored glasses. His parents were in a church. What the pastor said in his sermons is not relevant. We know what he meant when he didn’t say what we know he was thinking. No point in interviewing him: he’d just deny his role in this tragic incident.

    This is a curious description of the mother:
    ” She blames religion for the shame surrounding it …
    “And she took strength from reading the Bible as she reconsidered her views.”

  • Passing By

    People kill themselves for lots of reasons, sometimes for multiple complex reasons. People leave churches for complex reasons, often as not. Things we do when grieving, particularly, are often irrational. Which raises the question as to whether journalists ought not to ask “the tough questions”. Shouldn’t they be considering alternative explanations, rather than the one that fits their pre-conceptions? Shouldn’t they ask whether they are simply reporting, or exploiting a tragedy to advance their own political agenda?

  • Susan

    Passing By has good points. I would add that the son’s death and his parent’s grief need the context of the greater community of S.O.S type groups that are specifically for those who have loved ones who committed suicide. People questioning their faith, looking for something/someone to blame, and drenched in guilt are common in those groups. As a parent of a son who chose suicide, I’d say the news reports focusing gays who commit suicide are exploited for an agenda and have little/no validity.

  • Darrell Turner

    The journalistic issue isn’t whether the church was evil and gay-bashing but the fact that the Times apparently didn’t try to get a comment from a significant source for the story. I’m glad that RNS took the time and enterprise to do so.
    I was on the staff of RNS in one of its previous incarnations in New York from 1972 to 1992. Like most MSM journalists, each of us had very strong opinions about the stories we covered, but we were scrupulous in giving people and groups on both sides of an issue an opportunity to express themselves.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    The journalistic issue isn’t whether the church was evil and gay-bashing but the fact that the Times apparently didn’t try to get a comment from a significant source for the story.

    Exactly.

  • sari

    While it’s good that the RNS interviewed the Clementis’ pastor, his statements would have more credibility if congregants had also been interviewed and supported the pastor’s claims. Too many clergy preach hatred towards one group or another, have congregants who act on those teachings, and then vehemently deny making such statements when confronted. I’d reserve judgment until one or the other side’s position is corroborated by witnesses.

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      I don’t disagree with your suggestion of interviewing congregants. However, as a matter of journalism, I’m more than satisfied that RNS saw the necessity of giving the other side (in this case, the pastor) an opportunity to respond. On a daily news report on deadline, I’m not sure you can ask more of a reporter/editor probably making this call while working a half-dozen other stories and projects.

  • dalea

    I suspect the story is assuming something about Evangelical Christianity as a whole, not this particular church or pastor. It would have been much better had they spelled it out rather than just letting it be assumed. That point being that for young Evangelicals who realize they are gay, there are not many supportive places within Evangelical Christianity but there are endless condemnations readily accessible. So, it appears the etiology of the situation is that Tyler looked into sources dealing directly with gay people and the EC. Places that Evangelicals use for information on a host of subjects, places like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council. I suspect that is what is assumed by the story.

  • Harris

    When I read the article I also thought it curious the church wasn’t identified, likewise there’s no mention of exactly where they have gone (if anywhere). And the fact that the Clementi’s went to an evangelical church was also new to me

    That said, I didn’t the story through the lens of what the church taught, but more for the family dynamics, and the flavor of “where are they now?” In that light, I read the anonymity of the congregation as a sort of respect, the point wasn’t the church’s teachings per se, but a painful sad, mistaken relationship; this line in particular stood out:
    ” What has troubled her most is the thought that Tyler believed she had rejected him. ”
    Tyler was the eldest, the “good” son, even religious, yet he thought of himself as pushed from home, and from his church home; he jumped because he was homeless.

    Where there is a condemnation of the Evangelical church (and thus might have benefited from another perspective) it is here: The Evangelical church (or at least the churches I am familiar with) has too often used exile as the way of dealing with its gay youth. There’s a story there, but I suspect it is larger than that of the Clementi’s, certainly it would be more polemical in nature. For now, I’m simply glad that I got to meet the parents.

    • chris

      Right

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  • Robert

    I agree with Sari in being suspicious of the minister’s version. Surely, Mrs. Clementi knows what the Church teaches and why she does not want to remain a member. I remember seeing a picture of Tyler on a bus from some church camp. I’d like to know what was taught there. If I recall correctly, this church was connected at one time with an “ex-gay ministry.”

    • Bobby Ross Jr.

      Yes, be skeptical. That’s a nice journalistic trait. But don’t ignore the church’s side of the story entirely. That was my point.

  • Robert

    Harris above is mistaken when he writes “Tyler was the eldest, the “good” son, even religious, yet he thought of himself as pushed from home, and from his church home; he jumped because he was homeless.”

    Tyler was the youngest of two sons.


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