Friday, October 8, 2010

Choosing kindness and a vigil for Tyler Clementi and other gay students who have committed suicide

I hope by now you have heard the story of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at Rutgers University in New Jersey who committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His roommate had secretly videotaped him having relations with another man in their dorm room, and then broadcast it on the internet.

Tyler Clementi was a talented violinist. His suicide left many across the land in shock and tears. We still live in a society where homophobia is accepted in many quarters, and where young gay and lesbian people often feel isolated and alone. We also live in a society where the internet and social media sites like Facebook have become new weapons of cruelty.

Last night I attended a meeting at the University of Virginia to do something about this. The room was filled mostly with students. They want to hold a vigil in Charlottesville on Oct. 20 to remember Tyler and other young gay/lesbian/transgender people who have committed suicide, and I will keep you posted about the details of the vigil as it unfolds.

At the table where I sat, I heard a great deal of commitment to changing the world where we live. As one student said, the vigil must be about "more than tears." It must be about changing hearts, minds and laws.

Sadly, I also heard about how religious leaders have reinforced homophobic bigotry. I heard from gay students who are afraid to walk into a church for fear of being shunned, scorned or worse.

All that is true. All that can change. All that must change. That's why I went last night.

My friend Barbara Crafton, who is an Episcopal priest from New Jersey, wrote this about Tyler Clementi and sent it to her friends from her "Geranium Farm." I share it with you:
By Barbara Crafton

Here is Tyler, playing his violin. And here he is, smiling at someone off camera. And here is a picture he probably took of himself, holding his cell phone at arm's length, the way people do on Facebook. That he loved music and was an extremely gifted performer. That he went to orchestra rehearsal the day he died, rehearsal for a concert of which he would not be part -- I guess he had not quite gotten to the point of no return then. That he would reach it later in the day. These are some things that even people who didn't know him, know about him. Plus some other things that were his and his alone to share, and were none of our business until he was ready to share them.

There is his ashen father, standing behind the screen door of their house, an haggard older version of Tyler himself. And there is the family's quiet message to the world: "Tyler was a fine young man, and a distinguished musician. The family is heartbroken beyond words. They respectfully request that they be given time to grieve."

Someone opened a memorial page for Tyler on Facebook and more than 124,000 people have "liked" it, which is what you do on Facebook if you want to signal approval of something you see there. Someone else has opened one about the two other students whose cruel prank began the sorry chain of events leading to his suicide last week. Many of those who have posted comments there are young, and some of their comments about the pair are intemperate. So are a couple of posts by people old enough to know better.

It's too easy to press "send" nowadays. Dash something off in the heat of the moment, press a key and it's out there forever. You can never take it back. People you don't know may see it. Your boss may see it, or your next boss, or your fiancee's grandma. This may happen years from now, long after you've forgotten all about whatever it was that caused you to fire a string of epithets into the ether. It's so easy and so fast -- much easier and faster than stopping to consider what is likely to happen as a result of it. We always thought the world would be a gentler place if we could just all communicate better. Now I am not so sure -- we can communicate instantly in several ways, with more waiting in the wings, and all it seems to have gotten us is new ways in which to misunderstand and bully one another.

No, of course that's not all. There is much about it that's good. eLife is real life, too, and virtual community is community -- not the same kind as face-to-face, but not nothing, either. If you're reading this, you're part of a virtual community. All forms of human interaction carry the potential for evil. Cruelty can speak any language.

But so can love. Infinitely elastic and infinitely responsive to its surroundings, whatever they are, love can find its way through the darkest places hate can devise. It shows up uninvited and gets quickly and quietly to work, stirring in the honey of its presence teaspoon by teaspoon, patient and persistent. It cannot undo evil, but it sets up housekeeping right there on evil's front porch, and it refuses to be shooed away. In the end, evil is no match for the sweet stubbornness of love.
Everyone at the Geranium Farm sends deepest sympathy to the family of Tyler Clementi, with prayers that this tragic event will help us all remember always, always to choose kindness.

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