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Tyler Clementi's Death: We're All Part of the Problem

On the basis of what we know thus far, I think we can guess this: Tyler Clementi died as a direct result of a culture of sexual shame in which institutionalized religion is the major investor.
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Of course I never knew Tyler Clementi, the young Rutgers student who took his own life last month in a tragedy so unfathomably horrific that it doesn't permit adequate attempts at description. The story that has emerged so far is that Tyler was enjoying a romantic moment with another guy, while his roommate secretly streamed the encounter live on the internet. Shortly after Tyler found out, he jumped off a bridge.

Of course I never knew him, but his story demands a deeper listening than has yet been promoted or presented by our culture's spokespeople. This is not just a story about one man and two acquaintances whose idiotic prank appears to have caused such fear of exposure that Tyler felt he had to kill himself. It's a story about all of us. And we all need to listen to it.

On the basis of what we know thus far, I think we can guess this: Tyler Clementi died as a direct result of a culture of sexual shame in which institutionalized religion is the major investor. I am angry, and I am going to say something harsh and direct, but I am willing to take responsibility for it. Please feel free to respond if you wish.

If you have ever affirmed homophobia by not intervening to challenge the snide remarks that all of us have heard, you may be part of the reason that Tyler Clementi is dead. And most of the time, I myself have not intervened.

If you have ever used us-and-them language to divide sets of people into "normative" heterosexual cultures and "others," you may be part of the reason Tyler Clementi is dead. I spoke of "us" and "them" for most of my life until a friend challenged me; I still find myself slipping into old rhetorical habits, for our culture is so deeply wedded to the myth that our identities depend on dividing and conquering.

If you have ever disrespected, dehumanized, or belittled a person because of his or her sexuality, you may be part of the reason Tyler Clementi is dead.

I think I am part of the reason that Tyler Clementi is dead.

We often say in "progressive" religious circles that we want to ensure that we have a "conversation" about sexuality, that we want to create a situation where everyone feels "included"; and sure, this is a noble endeavor. But too often the premise is that those of us who are straight are merely opening a space for those of us who are gay (or LBTQQI, but more of that later) to be told that "they" are just as good as "we" are. This is not enough. It does not allow for people who identify as LGBTQQI people to be seen as good in their (and our) own right; it does not permit a true exchange of gifts between different people; it suggests that LGBTQQI people are welcome despite their (and our) differences, not that they (and we) are just as much alive with gift, made in the image of God, and legitimate as the rest of us (and them). At its best, this kind of conversation may lead to a better one; at worst, it is just another way of dressing up homophobia as reconciliation.

It emerges also in the context of a culture with a split persona: a religious one that almost always problematizes sex, and a secular one that almost always celebrates hedonism. Churches often talk about sex and sexuality as challenges to be overcome, while the wider culture doesn't seem to know what to do with sex except put it on TMZ.

Well, I am tired of the excuses we make for our prejudice and the disguises we put on our repression.

I am tired of saying, "We need to have a conversation," and then not having it.

I am tired of sexuality being reduced in religious practice to shibboleths about homosexuality and adultery.

I am tired of pretending that our bodies are not part of the selves we talk about when we seek to become more human through opening to God.

I am tired of the misplaced shame I feel sometimes when I think about my own sexuality, my desires, my mistakes, my brokenness, the memories I have of humiliation in adolescence and beyond.

I am tired of not feeling free to discuss sexuality in church as anything other than a problem. I want to celebrate it for what it has become for me: an astonishing gift from God, the space in which love between human beings, made a little lower than the angels, has the potential to find its most elegant and connected expression. The space where we may come closest to mirroring the divine relationship with the human. The space that can produce such profound happiness and is so powerful that it leaves you feeling as if you've been ripped apart.

The story of Tyler Clementi is not just about a young man and his roommate's stupid prank. It is a story about cruelty, and dehumanization, and fear, and the lack of an understanding of how human relationships can promote the common good instead of individualistic gratification.

It is a story about the role that bad religion -- most of it Christian -- has played in creating a culture of shame around sex and sexual identity in America, and the distortions of human happiness that pass for healthy religious practice.

It is a story about our complicity in this bad religion, and in these distortions.

It's a story about the end of privacy in the internet age, which could be a good thing, because we may now finally be compelled to tell the truth about ourselves: that we are broken and beautiful at the same time, and that none of us is fully who we claim to be. We are stumbling pilgrims trying to figure out what it means to be human. And if I tell you the truth about me, then maybe you might feel safer to tell me the truth about you.

And so, what will we do with the story of Tyler Clementi?

I'd suggest a handful of signposts.

1) Focus Your Judgment in the Right Direction

We should recognize that desire is confusing at the best of times, perhaps especially during the transition from adolescence into adulthood. The same goes for learning how to behave with maturity in relation to others. So while what Tyler's roommate is alleged to have done was stupid and cruel, we should not direct our anger only at the person or people who apparently put the video of Tyler online. They are a symptom of a dehumanizing and childish culture. They are not its cause. And if we only concentrate on them, we will repeat the typical mistake of scapegoating and never face the issues within ourselves that contributed to them thinking nothing of their actions.

2) It Gets Better

If you find personal resonance with the fear of sexual humiliation, check out Dan Savage's "It Gets Better" campaign here.

3) Come Out, Whoever You Are

The semantic gymnastics that have been one of the gifts of the sexual rights movement are so changeable that I'm never quite sure how many letters I need to type to be sure I'm not excluding anyone.

L(esbian)G(ay)B(isexual)T(rans)Q(ueer)Q(uestioning)I(ntersex) is a pretty good start, but another category has been privileged to join: A(lly), which, although its status is ambiguous in the cohort to which it wishes to orient itself, to my mind means anyone who cares enough to commit themselves to be educated about the structures of injustice faced by people whom the dominant culture defines as sexual minorities. "Ally" can be a patronizing concept, of course, but I think that the more people who don't identity themselves (or ourselves) as LGBTQQI consider the A label, the sooner we will experience conversation about sexuality as something that is good for us all rather than merely stigmatizing socially constructed minorities.

Beyond that, I'd like to suggest a new category: after A comes E, because E(veryone) is affected by our sex-negative culture. We may all have been stigmatized because of our sexuality, especially those of us raised in the church. We are not sure how to make sexuality "fit" with spirituality. And so we live in a constant state of struggle or denial. Those of us who are straight could learn from those of us who are gay. Those of us who are straight might indeed yearn to be invited into a world where sexuality has been such a source of struggle that its stewards have had to learn to transform it from an invitation to suffering into a source of strength. E(veryone) belongs here.

Like I said, I am angry today, and so I apologize if I have gone too far. Or, actually, perhaps I'm not sorry at all. Maybe I'm going to get angrier. Maybe I need to. I certainly need not to forget Tyler Clementi, a young man who died because our culture made him ashamed.

I'm sorry, Tyler. I wish I'd known you. I'm sorry that I have been part of the reason you were humiliated. I am sorry that I have been so divided within myself that even though I know what it's like to experience sexual humiliation, I held onto my own homophobia because it felt safer and more known. I owe something to you. I owe it to you to be honest about myself, to stop dehumanizing others, and to do everything I can to make sure that your place in history is simple and clear: that you would be the last.