Tyler Clementi was a freshman at Rutgers University in the fall of 2010. One day after his roommate and another Rutgers freshman secretly broadcast a live video stream of Clementi with another male student, Clementi leapt to his death from the George Washington Bridge. I cannot imagine the embarrassment of having one’s sexual activity displayed for public consumption. It’s a humiliation that would likely drive most of us into a deep depression. With the exception of the most brazen, most of us would worry that we could never again show ourselves in public. Just the thought is terrifying.
For Clementi, the shame must have been exponentially greater. Only one month into his first year of college, he may have feared the prospect of going through the next four years known on campus as “that guy.” And in an era when social networking blends one’s professional and personal existence for all the world to see, he may have worried how it would impact his future employment prospects. And then there’s the fact that Clementi was not just engaged in sex; he was having sex with another man. If Clementi was closeted, I can imagine that he saw no other way to resolve his anguish than to end his life.
I feel my heart breaking each time that I think of Clementi and the many gay youth who commit suicide each year, and the many more who attempt to end their lives. As a Christian, I feel responsible for each loss of precious life. I feel responsible for every hateful look, word, or deed that drives my LGBT brothers and sisters to such despair, especially those acts of hatred lobbed at them by people who proclaim to be followers of the merciful and loving Christ.
I feel responsible because I once threw the insults. Raised in the South in a conservative Christian family and church, I believed that homosexuality was a sin worthy of eternal of damnation. Oh yeah, I also thought it was a trick of the white man designed to annihilate the descendants of Mother Africa (look, it was the resurgence of black nationalism, okay?). Like many of the people I knew (none of whom were gay or lesbian, conveniently), I thought that homosexuality was learned behavior, a product of a sick society that was moving further and further away from God. And as long as I stayed around heterosexual, conservative Christians, there was no one to argue otherwise. I could and did join in the chorus of “God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” without witnessing the impact that the spiritual assault had upon the lives of homosexual men and women.
But living on a college campus made it impossible to keep the emotional distance necessary to maintain my ignorance. Away from the watchful eyes of their parents, same-gender-loving peers were much freer to express their affection publicly. So too were the Bible thumpers, the emotionally immature, and the sexually insecure (who often were the same people). After a few university-newspaper headline-mkaing incidents of heterosexist harassment, it dawned on me: “Who in their right minds would choose this life?”
Gradually, I became convinced that sexual orientation, at least for the overwhelming majority of the population, was not a matter of conditioning or choice. It was innate and largely out of one’s control. Still, I thought it was a deviancy, a biological mutation that could and should be cured, sort of like diabetes or nearsightedness. And while my resolve was weakening, I still thought it was sinful, just no more sinful than any other behavior that the Church doesn’t like. I was a softer, gentler heterosexist. At least, I was until Susan and Gloria happened.
Susan and Gloria were clients in the substance abuse treatment program at which I worked part-time during my second year of graduate school. The program was intensive – six months in a residential facility with limited outside contact. The women were nearly all long-time drug users who had tried and failed in other treatment programs. Our program was often their last hope.
Susan and Gloria had entered the program within less than two weeks of each other and were in the final month of treatment. During their stay, they had become close. Really close. Now close friendships among the women were common, but this one was different. And everyone noticed. Other clients openly accused them of being lovers. They were adamant in their denial, but admitted that their love for one another had grown beyond friendship. “We don’t know what we are, ” Gloria once said resignedly.
The staff was less confrontational. The general consensus seemed to be that if we ignored it, it would disappear. Maybe it was that head-in-the-sand mentality that prevailed during the women’s last few weeks of treatment, when the the administration decided to issue twelve-hour passes to both on the same day so that they could begin searching for jobs and housing in preparation of their transition back into society.
I came to work the day after they had gone out on their passes. Panic was in the air. “They didn’t come back, ” one of the women said softly. The normally boisterous group was quiet. For the entire day, they sat just outside my office, jumping expectedly every time a door opened or the phone rang. With this group, failing to show up after a day pass meant only one thing – relapse. And for women who had managed to accrue almost six months clean after decades of addiction, that was a fate akin to death.
Finally, with just two hours left on my shift, the pair returned. They explained that after registering Susan’s daughter in school and finding Gloria a new apartment, they were overcome with excitement about their impending graduation. “We couldn’t help it, ” Susan said, her eyes focused on the floor of my tiny office. “We did it.”
“You did what?”, I asked, praying that she would not say the dreaded R-word. “We were together, ” was all that she could muster. Guilt weighed heavy in her voice. “Together how?”, I queried, putting to use the clinical skills I was learning in my psychology program. I knew exactly what she meant, but I wanted her to say it. Like everyone else, I had seen the love that had grown between the two women. I wanted them to own the moment in which they had consummated their love, rather than hiding behind ambiguities. “We made love, ” one finally said. Before I could utter the cliched “And how did you feel about that?”, Susan continued, “Then we figured that since we’re going to hell anyway, we might as well go all the way.” And just like that, they went out, bought some crack, and threw away six months of hard recovery work.
As I delivered the director’s decision that they were both ejected from the program, I wept with them. And I felt responsible. I knew that it was the rhetoric of folks like me that made them believe that their lovemaking was an unforgiveable sin, as opposed to an act of beauty. I knew that Susan and Gloria had confirmed what I was beginning to suspect for many of the program’s clients – that their substance abuse was an attempt to mask their struggles over their sexual orientation. On that day, I realized that my position had to change. I made a conscious effort to get to know to stories of people who identify as gay and lesbian. As I heard their pain – the many ways that they tried to deny their sexuality, their unanswered prayers to God to “fix” them, their stories of depression, substance use, and suicidality – my heart opened up. So did my mind.
At some point, I realized that I could no longer consider homosexuality sinful. I could no more imagine God punishing someone for a sexuality that they could not change than I could imagine God sending someone to hell for being born blind or deaf. I became convinced that the real sin was the hurt inflicted by so-called “people of faith” unto our homosexual sisters and brothers.
It is a theological risk, to be sure. I am fully aware that I could be wrong. But I accept that risk, prayerful that if I am wrong, God will forgive my error as one born out of my desire to emulate Christ’s love and compassion for the “least of these.”
But it is not enough. In the fifteen years since saying goodbye to Gloria and Susan, I have been too invisible an ally, especially when revealing my stance would risk the rejection and condemnation of those who I hold most dear – my family. I have been silent too often when heterosexist comments have been made by people whom I love. And my silence may have made the Tyler Clementi’s of the world feel that they are alone. Enough.
I am heterosexual. I am Christian. I am an LGBT ally. And I will be silent no longer.