The story of Tyler Clementi is tragic and deeply saddening. A talented violinist, a sensitive, shy young man, a freshman who had just recently come to live on the Rutgers campus, his privacy was violated and he was profoundly humiliated in front of all the people he might have hoped would become his friends. When Tyler reported that his sexual encounter with another young man was captured on video and distributed to other students, early indications are that Rutgers did not respond with the alacrity and care it should. The death of in loco parentis is cause for grief yet again.
It’s right and natural to be grieved and outraged by what happened to Tyler. Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the two students who filmed and then shared Tyler’s sexual encounters, deserve to be punished and punished severely. Not for manslaughter, in my opinion — because the decision was Tyler’s (let’s not rob him of his agency), and it’s not yet clear to me whether they should have had the reasonable expectation that their actions would have led to his suicide. Did Ravi, his roommate, know that Tyler was contemplating suicide? Did Tyler tell him that he would kill himself if Ravi exposed him? We don’t yet know. But Ravi and Wei should certainly be punished for every law they broke.
The question I want to pose is this: to what extent have Christians contributed to the culture in which a young man, whose same-sex encounter is broadcast for all to see, is so filled with shame that he chooses to take his own life?
It should be noted that we don’t yet know the full story of Tyler Clementi. He did not leave a note explaining the reasons for his suicide. There may have been many. He may have been on the cusp of suicide for years. The decision to leap from the G. W. Bridge could have been for other reasons entirely. But it seems likely, very highly likely, that his public humiliation was one of the precipitating factors. It should also be noted that Ravi and Wei were not exposing Clementi out of a sense of Christian conviction that homosexuality is wrong. There is no indication that religion had anything to do with their actions.
But religion — and Christianity — have had something to do with creating a culture in which exposure of homosexual identity, at least for many people, is a deeply shameful thing. If Clementi had been exposed in a heterosexual encounter, would he have felt so humiliated? In fact, if the video had shown him having sex with a beautiful woman, it might actually have enhanced his reputation. Yet Tyler was shown with a man. Perhaps he was not ready to ‘come out’; perhaps he felt conflicted about his desires for other men. Perhaps he felt they were wrong.
This is a touchy issue. The greater number of Christians here and around the world still believe that homosexual behavior is against the will of God. Homosexual desires are one thing; homosexual acts are another. We believe, in a sense, that gays should feel guilty when they engage in same-sexual acts. But should they feel so ashamed and filled with despair that some commit suicide? After years and years in academic circles, I have many friends who are gay. What if they were the ones who killed themselves after public harassment?
Christians often point to the high suicide rate amongst homosexuals as evidence that homosexuality is unhealthy and deeply destructive psychologically. And I do believe that acting on homosexual desires is wrong. Yet we should be ashamed by that high suicide rate. That high suicide rate is a condemnation of us. It means that we do not intervene enough in the lives of distraught gays to show them love and grace and hope. It means that we have allowed, or even helped to cultivate, a culture in which many gays feel that death is the only way out.
Every Christian should make certain that every person, absolutely every person, gay or straight, knows that he or she is thoroughly loved by God. Every person, absolutely every person, gay or straight, should know that he or she is created in the image of the Most High, and that he or she has hope, ultimate and undying hope, in God’s abundant grace.