Since my brother passed away, time has taken on a different form. Years have seemed to go by on fast-forward, and at other times moments have crawled by. While I can't always feel the passage of time, today marks precisely three years since Tyler's suicide on Sept. 22, 2010. In the first days and weeks after we lost him, I could not imagine that this much time would ever pass. That early period of grief was an eternity all its own. My life shattered apart. I watched my family members crack under the weight of their loss, and I couldn't even grasp what my life could be in three years. I couldn't think of the next three hours. Somehow I am still standing, my family is still going on, and here we are three years later.
After Tyler's passing, my mom and dad founded the Tyler Clementi Foundation. The organization created in Tyler's name works to create safe and inclusive environments for vulnerable youth and LGBT young people and seeks to be a resource for parents and families who may not always know the best ways to support their children. The Tyler Clementi Foundation strives toward building a culture that is respectful of differences and built on the golden rule: treating other people the way you would want them to treat you. This concept extends beyond classrooms and college campuses to include family dinner tables, workplaces and churches.
One of the most ironic things about creating a foundation and working to make changes in society alongside my family is that in presenting at high schools and colleges across the country, I've spoken with many people whom I wish I could introduce to Tyler. There are so many individuals out there whom he could have shared with, been understood by and identified with. He wasn't the only LGBTQ youth struggling with coming out, family acceptance, internalized shame and homophobia and a hostile school environment. He was never the only one, but in his last moments he must have felt totally alone. I wish I could bring Tyler with me to the high school gay-straight alliances (GSAs) I've visited, where I've met LGBTQ and allied youth who are creating supportive and embracing school environments where they can be themselves. These students have such strength and courage that it blows me away.
On one such visit this past winter, I traveled with my mom and Steven Guy, Executive Director of TCF, to South Brunswick High School in New Jersey. We met with a group of around 50 students and faculty who make up the high school's GSA. One 16-year-old sophomore told us during the Q-and-A session that she had just come out at school and to her family. She had been afraid, she informed us, but she knew it was time because she was tired of not being honest about who she is. This group was incredibly open about their experiences. We heard from a straight young man who had been perceived as gay on his school bus and was beaten by a group of his peers while they shouted homophobic slurs at him. A freshman student had transferred to the school because he had been outed at his previous institution, a Catholic school, and was subsequently ostracized and harassed for his sexuality. I heard from students who were afraid to come out to their parents. The meeting was also populated with straight students who believe in attending a school that embraces everyone. There was one student who announced that she couldn't stay for the whole presentation but really, really wanted to make sure everyone listened to Macklemore and Ryan Lewis' "Same Love" before rushing out of the classroom. "This song is about being equal, and it's beautiful!" she raved.
I was so struck by the community of support that these students have built for themselves. Being able to talk about their lives and identities with peers and teachers will give this group the strength needed to overcome life's difficulties. The bonds that these young people have built in their GSA will lift them up, in and out of the meetings. This safe space and these relationships are what will make a vital difference during a heated argument with a parent, or when a classmate writes a nasty message on Facebook.
It is so important to have open conversations before crisis hits. When someone is in crisis mode, they are not going to be able to think clearly about all the options they have around them. As parents, family members, teachers, community leaders and friends, we have an obligation to make it clear that we are there as to support and help our loved ones no matter what the situation may be.
There is nothing so bleak that it can't be overcome. If I could tell that to Tyler right now, I would. "Call me no matter what," I'd say. "I love you."
Tyler's struggles and pain were not unique; many young people, especially LGBTQ young people, experience the same feelings. I know I did at his age. But Tyler was unique. I have never met anyone who reminded me of Tyler, although I search for him. When I give presentations at schools, I am always looking for Tyler in the crowd. He is never there. I guess some irrational part of my mind can't let go and still thinks I can say the right thing to save him. Ultimately I cannot. But every time I tell the story, I meet at least one person who reminds me that there are others who need to know that they are not alone.
My family has been embraced with love by many great people who have aided us on our personal and public journeys. The late U.S. Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) reached out to us with phone calls in the early days after Tyler's death. As I came to know, Sen. Lautenberg had a deeply held sense of justice and equality. He was incredibly saddened by Tyler's story and worked tirelessly to create a federal bill that would work to protect college students from discrimination and harassment based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, disability, sexual orientation or gender identity. That bill, the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act, is the only proposed national legislation that would protect college students from harassment, intimidation and bullying. This is so important because while there is a lot of attention paid to harassment at the grade school level, Tyler's situation shows that these behaviors continue in the college years.
In February 2012 my family traveled down to D.C. to meet with Sen. Lautenberg face-to-face and thank him for his creation and sponsorship of the bill. During this time we met with other lawmakers to advocate for the bill and share Tyler's story. We were extended an invitation to the White House, where we were granted a meeting with Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President and Mrs. Obama. My mother, my father, Steven and I sat down in Ms. Jarrett's office with absolutely no idea what to expect. I was anxious as my mom and dad talked with her about my brother. They spoke about their grief and how they believed this bill could help other students who may find themselves being targeted. Ms. Jarrett shared the worries and expectations that she holds for her own daughter. She spoke with us with such deep empathy and understanding. After we left her office, my mom cried.
As my family speaks out more about our experiences, I have moments of reflection that help me put my life into a new perspective. During a recent interview with New York Times reporter Frank Bruni, my dad made a comment that I have been thinking about a lot lately. Bruni asked my parents, "If Tyler had made different choices and was here today, would you still see yourselves having taken on an activist role for the LGBT community?" My dad thought about it and answered rather honestly, "No. I guess I would have seen my sons, James and Tyler, doing this work. I would have given them my support, but until I lost a son, I never thought I would be involved in this."
More times than I can recall, I have been asked some variation of, "Why didn't you guys just go home and go back to your lives?" The answer is simple: Without Tyler here, our lives are profoundly changed. Life will never be the way it was. All we can do is move forward. This does not mean moving on or forgetting the past. I carry Tyler with me in my thoughts and in my heart every day. While the last few years of my life have been filled with the painful and the surreal, some of the most surreal moments have also been my most treasured.
One gorgeous June day four years earlier, before I was out to my mom and dad, I attended my first pride parade in New York City. I watched the parade from the sidelines with my friend. It was a powerful moment for me to see so many open, proud and beautiful people marching with pride, celebrating their true selves. It was a bittersweet moment because I wanted so badly to be a part of this vibrant community, but in my heart I knew I wasn't there yet. I wasn't out to more than a handful of people, and I wasn't ready to be a part of the parade. I was still watching from the sidelines in more than one way.
This past June I attended the parade for the second time, and my experience was one that I never imagined possible. This year I marched in the parade alongside my mom. We were surrounded by the new family that has embraced us since Tyler's death. We marched with the supporters of New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. My mind will never be able to truly grasp it, but in an ironic twist, Speaker Quinn extended her support and endorsement to the work that my family is doing. In her rallying speech Quinn expressed her commitment to preventing other children from feeling the kind of hopelessness that Tyler endured. As she made her way through the parade route and waved to tens of thousands of people, she wore one of our "Upstander" stickers. The Tyler Clementi Foundation has a pledge to turn bystanders into what we call "Upstanders." This pledge is a commitment to treating other people with respect and kindness, refraining from using derogatory language, and getting involved and speaking out when we see people harming others. You can take the pledge today at tylerclementi.org/pledge.
I have found no meaning in the death of an 18-year-old young man just beginning his journey. Tyler's death is a horror that I have had to accept in order to continue on with my own life. What I cannot accept is that any other young people need to feel such loneliness, pain or shame. I cannot accept that other families may yet suffer the loss of a loved one to suicide. This is an entirely preventable cause of death, and it is the responsibility of all of us to communicate, ask the tough questions and share our concerns in order to prevent more needless loss of life.