Lucky Assholes: Pride and The Tyler Clementi Foundation

I remember my first Vancouver Pride as a teenager, stumbling up and down Davie Street, making out with my girlfriend in public, holding hands at the pride parade. It was magical. I felt safe—like I had a community of queers cheering me on.

Fast forward 12 years and pride weekend now means back-to-back nights at the Cobalt, 3AM pepperoni pizzas we can't take back, and fleeting glances of our Prime Minister through packed audiences at the pride parade. Regardless of the shift in activities, one thing remains unchanged in Vancouver, for the most part, we are safe. We are also lucky assholes.

Safety is relative of course. Places that we assume are safe, like a familiar nightclub in Orlando, can turn unsafe quickly. It rattles us, it terrifies us, and it makes us question just how progressive, accepting and tolerant we are as North Americans. We like to think that homophobia is on it’s way out, but is it really?

Recently I had the chance to chat with Jane Clementi from Ridgewood, New Jersey. Six years ago, Jane’s youngest son Tyler came out to her as gay, moved away to college, and three weeks later jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. He was eighteen years old.

Tyler had been the victim of cyber bullying by his roommate, Ravi, who had set up a webcam in their shared room. Rav captured footage of Tyler kissing another man and invited his Twitter followers to watch. The only private, personal space that Tyler has known outside his home in New Jersey had been compromised. It was a deeply humiliating experience for him.

Tyler’s family was shattered by the loss of their son and Jane battled with depression for years following Tyler’s death. In 2011, the Clementi family created The Tyler Clementi Foundation to address cyber bullying and other challenges facing LGBTQ youth.

    “[The] foundation encourages leadership in creating safe spaces where individuals are able to stand up to bullying and embrace diversity.” 

Katie Stewart: What is your vision behind the Tyler Clementi Foundation?

Jane Clementi: Our mission is to end all online and offline bullying, in schools, workplaces and faith communities. We promote safe, inclusive social environments for all vulnerable persons especially youth, specifically LGBTQI youth (since that is such a large part of Tyler’s story) through collaboration, partnerships and promotion of; educational research and polling, legislative advocacy, and awareness programming.

KS: What is the single most important thing we can do to combat cyber bullying?

JC: I am not sure that there is one single message or voice that will work for everyone, that is why I think we must all work together to put an end to cyber bullying.

A few key thoughts are to remember your character should be the same in the electronic cyber world as it is in person.  If you would not say, do or share something in person than maybe you should not be sharing it or saying it online.  “You should only do to someone else what you would want them to do to you”.  The Golden Rule may be ancient and very simple but it is still practical even today.  And if you are on the receiving end of the cyber bullying, don’t become your worst nightmare, just shut it down and tell a trusted adult.  

KS: What role do you think parents play in the lives of their queer children?

JC: I think a parent’s role for all their children is the same; parents provide support, encouragement and love for all their children.  Parents need to be good role models and show this in their words and actions, creating a safe nurturing home environment that allows their children to thrive.

Actions parents can take specific to creating this safe space for their queer children might be, to first examine your own inner biases that might have been instilled through cultural or ethnic upbringing or religious teachings. They may even be deeply hidden within. But the fact that you love your child more than life itself trumps all that. And knowing where your biases are will help you to talk openly and honestly about your child’s LGBTQ identity, being aware of the importance of your words and making positive remarks/comments when encountering gay couples in person or on film.

Children are very perceptive, they pick up on your discomfort and will not open up to you if they think there are strings attached to your love. Support your child by being an advocate for them whenever they are mistreated because of their LGBTQ identity. Make it clear to all extended family members and friends that they must respect your child. Attend LGBTQ events or organizations with your child, if they are willing to go with you. Let them see and hear you speaking openly and lovingly about them and their identity. Welcome their friends into your home. Make sure that all the outside influences are positive and affirming, including their school environment, social gatherings/after school activities, and faith community that you attend.      

KS: Did you find there were some people, even your closest friends, who you couldn't connect with during that time? How has this changed?

JC: Absolutely, a traumatic life event affects all areas of your life. My support and encouragement has come from many different places and people over the past 70 months. Not everyone experiences grief the same way and because of that some people were not able to understand or empathize with the pain and agony that I was living.

Time and healing has allowed me to explore and better understand the fact that when my life broke into a thousand pieces and everything stopped for me, the lives of those around me continued without even missing a step.          

KS: You’ve spoken openly about having suicidal thoughts following Tyler's death. How did you work through your own depression?

JC: It is an ongoing journey but certainly I have traveled through the darkest days already and am in a much more peaceful time now, even though the sadness still rolls in to try and steal away my peace. I do have strategies to help push the darkness back. Certainly professional help is a major component. I am most grateful to have had the care, help and assistance of a professional mental health provider treating me since September 2010. I have also found writing and keeping a journal to be extremely helpful.

My daily quiet time in my safe place; praying and reading and just spending time with God, meditating on His words has helped me grow closer to God and that has helped in my healing as well. This has also helped show me how to stay in the moment, not stressing about the past or fearing the future, and if my present physical surroundings are too painful then this has given me a safe place within me to escape to, till the conversations turns or the image/surrounding changes. Also I think a large part of the healing, that has helped move me forward, has come from sharing Tyler’s story and trying to prevent future tragedies like Tyler’s.

By working through the foundation we set up to honor Tyler, we hope we will put an end to all online and offline bullying, in schools, workplaces and faith communities. Hopefully we can and are creating safe social environments for all youth with the hope of preventing anyone else from feeling humiliated, hurt or shamed as Tyler did.

KS: How has your religious life evolved since Tyler's passing?

JC: My own faith home of many years was very kind and supportive of our family in our loss. They supported us with cards, meals, visits, flowers, hugs and prayers. Much love was truly lavished on our family by our old faith family as we struggled with our loss of Tyler, as well as through the lengthy trial. But ultimately they remained steadfast in their theology that being gay was a sin, while God had moved me along and transformed me to a new understanding that my children, for that matter all children … “Were perfectly and wonderfully created in God’s image” and they were not broken, less than or separated from God because of who God created them to love.

So because of this barrier I simply moved on and left our faith home of many years. I could not remain in a faith community that continued to speak, even in a quiet subtle tone this message that to me had become very toxic. Yes one more loss, as gradually many people have left my life, but on the flip side there have been many new, supportive and encouraging people, who have come into my life as well.   

KS: What are your thoughts on the shooting at Pulse Nightclub? Do you have any words for parents who may be grieving the loss of their child?

JC: My heart is simply broken for the victims and their families. I just hope that we can learn to put an end to the misguided teachings of bias and discrimination that devalues the human spirit, and causes people to act out in such hate. Whether it is in the quick dramatic physical actions of taking another life or in the ongoing continual emotional effects of humiliation, intimidation or bullying which leaves lifelong scars and sometime causes self-harming behaviors as in the case of many young people today, including my son Tyler.

All people grieve differently and for me there were no words that comforted.  I was not able to hear the specific words, what spoke to my spirit and was most significant and meaningful to me, was the visual outpouring of support and love by physically being present with me; the cards, the visits, the hugs, the tone of their voice, the warmth behind the words, the manner and attitude as they expressed their sentiments.   

Find your resources and support.  It is essential to find a safe person to share your pain with. You are not alone and the pain does lessen, just be patient with yourself. This is your journey so do it at your own pace.  

Jane will be speaking at Voxburner's YMS NYC 2016 in Brooklyn this September. Get 20% off tickets with the promo code: SAD20  .

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