In the wake of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi’s death, a freshman who died by suicide after his roommate and a friend taped his sexual encounters with an older man and broadcast them over the internet, pundits are yammering about internet privacy. I have been tormented by questions of privilege that have been unacknowledged. I grew up in Princeton Junction, New Jersey, an affluent town although relatively diverse, and share my origins here with Tyler’s two harassers, Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei.
I have always credited my upbringing in this community for my motivation to do social justice and equality work. As the daughter of an immigrant who was raised speaking my “second language” first, I grew up among an immediate group of friends in which at least six languages were spoken fluently, three or four world religions were represented, most of us were people of color and many of us were immigrants ourselves or the children of diaspora. I have a profound love for these friends with whom I weathered the trials of middle school, high school, college and now life-after-graduation. I was honored to be standing shoulder to shoulder with these amazing people as we encountered the various challenges of immigration status or queer identity, our struggles with mental health, violence, illness and the myriad forms of alienation that arise in young adult life. I was and still am infinitely lucky for these friends: in my home community, I learned the beauty and freedom of fully living out our complex identities.
As a feminist and queer activist in college, I thought I learned not to be surprised by hate. Now, as I reflect on the events of the past month and on the sheer number of suicides by LGBTQ youth, I am stunned. In the wake of these deaths, while the mainstream media panics about young people’s lack of boundaries in the digital age or the vast power of the internet being so unknowingly manipulated, I wonder at the unrecognized power of privilege. The published yearbook photographs of Dharun Rhavi and Molly Wei are like any number of faces I know from senior portraits in my own high school yearbook years ago. Their familiarity is haunting. Our local paper reflects this same astonishment: here were two typical West Windsor Plainsboro students, as the article says, “smart, well-liked, on the threshold of promising futures,” (as were we all.) They are the younger versions of the friends I grew up with, we would have taken AP classes and participated in music ensembles together, we left behind the same vapidly optimistic yearbook quotes.
I am asking the question that goes unspoken: what does it mean that our hometown – our happy, high-achieving hometown – has produced Ravi and Wei? How have we collectively precipitated lethal homophobia? How complicit are we? (Are we?)
I am deeply sorry that I never realized the malice and the suffering that could be at work under the surface of my own beloved community. Here is unrecognized privilege: why are we reluctant to see homophobia when it screams at us in the face?
Blaming some combination of youth and the internet for Tyler Clementi’s death is just as naively privileged. Instead, let us discuss education access and the impact of homophobic educational environments that prevent students from meeting their full potential. As a result of intense harassment from their classmates, queer students are over four times more likely to skip school and three times as likely to drop out of high school than their non-queer-identified peers. Let us discuss the disproportionate rates of homelessness among queer youth, realizing that between 20 and 40 percent of all homeless youth identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, recognizing those for whom home is not a safe place. Above all, let us realize how these hostile environments contribute to the overwhelming rate of suicide faced by queer youth: over one third of LGB youth and one quarter of transgender youth have reported a suicide attempt, rates that quadruple that of cis-gendered heterosexual young people.
Let us observe in the identities of Wei and Ravi as people of color the possibility for members of various oppressed communities to work together rather than to tear each other apart. Oppression is a life-or-death reality for all of us, despite the exact nature of our difference. If we forget this, if we couch these realities with words like “diversity” or “civility,” or if we substitute a “kids-these-days” quandary about the internet for a discussion of violence and privilege, we do so at our own peril. Following Tyler’s death, demonstrators at Rutger’s University challenged the impulse to create a “teachable moment” out of a very real body count:
At the end of the inaugural event for the university’s “Project Civility” campaign on Wednesday, nearly 100 demonstrators gathered outside the student center, where the president spoke. They chanted, “Civility without safety — over our queer bodies!”
For me, this is a moment to be reminded of Mother Jones’ advice to “Mourn for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.” (A quote, incidentally, that was hung prominently in my college’s Queer Resource Center.)