The Tyler Clementi Tragedy – What Does it Mean for Christian Opposition to Homosexuality?

The Tyler Clementi Tragedy – What Does it Mean for Christian Opposition to Homosexuality? October 9, 2010

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.

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  • Nathan Smith

    Thanks for commenting on this, Tim. I think it is very important for Christians to understand the effect that intolerance has on people. I, for one, do not believe that homosexuality is a sin. But I also understand that my belief requires a nuanced interpretation of scripture (one not shared by many). Nonetheless, we can agree that Jesus Christ was constantly and thoroughly supportive of the most outcast, neglected, and “unclean” in his time. We ought to try to emulate that attitude toward homosexuals.

  • Carol A Lipsmeyer

    As always your article is thought provoking and timely. I am a gay Christian. It took me many years to get past the condemnation of church and state. In your article you seem to try and format various reasons this young man committed suicide. The final action was his choice, but why did he even feel there had to be a choice. Though many in the Christians population believe that homosexuality is a sin I am still at a loss to find out where that belief came from, except a few lines in the Old Testament’s Book of Leviticus (which from studies I have done are actually laws set down for the tribe of Levi, which if I am not mistaken were priests). There are no words in the original biblical text that equate to the word homosexual, there are interpreted inferences. If homosexuality was one of God’s major issues one would have thought with the debauchery and sin in Christ’s times that would have been specifically mentioned. Christ’s words should be what we, as Christians, should follow. To believe in Christ, follow the commandments and do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I am not a biblical scholar, though I have studied. I hope your words of tolerance and support are read by many people. It may seem odd, but the word tolerance seems too closely related to judgment. What other reason would one need to be tolerant if a judgment hadn’t already been made. Let the first without sin cast the first stone.
    Thank you again

  • dopderbeck

    Tim — good article. What many people don’t know is that Clementi attended a solid evangelical church. I once played in a worship band with him, years ago, but I didn’t know him. Like you, I don’t know even the smallest bit of his whole story. The church he attended was traditional, but not at all harsh or judgmental. I’m not sure what the lessons are, but I hope we learn something from it, even as we try to maintain a Biblical view of human sexuality.

    • Timothy Dalrymple

      You know, Scot mentioned that he had learned that (from you). I believe that his parents were unaware of his same-sex desires. I don’t wish to imply in the slightest that they deserve an iota of blame in this matter — knowing as little as I do — but I think it’s a reminder that we should cultivate relationships such that our children feel as though they can discuss such things with us. Perhaps that is one lesson we can learn.

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  • Henry

    If it weren’t for all the pressures of his Christian upbringing this young man might still be here today. Nobody should be denied the basic right to live their lives as they wish as long as they are not committing crimes outside the basic morals of humanity and society.

    I’m a proud atheist, however, I respect religion’s place in society to provide a means of checks and balances, a sense of community, comfort.

    What I do not support is the pressures religion places on people such as gay acts are a sin. There are many worse things in life that can be considered a sin.

    This young man was filled with religious falsities that made him take the easy way out. He probably believed that he would be better off in the so called “afterlife” when in reality there is no thing. The reality of it all is that there is no “God”, no creator who made us in his image (how absurd), nobody “in control” of our destiny. We live our lives by chance each and every day.

    Scientific facts are indisputable and we are all here for a split second of time in respect to the universe around us. There are greater powers that none of us will ever realize All we can ask for is compassion, love, and understanding of our fellow man. Tyler deserved this much.

    Respectfully yours,
    H. Penner

    • JPop


      So, just for clarification, what are the many worse things in life that would be considered a sin? And by what measure are those considered worse? I mean, you have to draw a line somewhere, right? But you’re saying your line is here while Christians say their line is there. Then who is right?

      I’m always saddened by any loss of life and despise any undo Tyler may have received from anyone that may have caused him to think to end his life.

      As Christians, we should demonstrate the love of God and not beat anyone down for how they live. Did Jesus ever do anything like that? Never.

      It’s been my take that if we have the opportunity to lead someone to Christ, we should handle that part, but then allow Him to convict the person’s heart to change.

  • crystals10

    I guess if you don’t want to be ashamed, then don’t do things that will bring you shame. I am sorry about his death, but I would like to know EXACTLY which Christian meant for him to die? This young man killed himself, and if being gay IS OK, then why did he do that? I find it repulsive that you want to blame anyone other than this young man. We have all been embarrassed at one time or another, but to kill yourself over it? I sense instability had already set in with him. People need to stop blaming others for THEIR own mistakes. His life should have meant more to HIM than his sexuality.