A year ago, tragedy struck the nation as it became apparent that we were in the midst of an epidemic as the rate of teen LGBT suicide made major headlines. A year ago today, tragedy also struck New York when a young man, Tyler Clementi, took his own life by jumping off the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson River. Although the reason why Tyler chose to take his own life is uncertain because he is not here to tell us, it still is unfortunate that he took his own life at all.
I’m on the board of Swish, a gay straight alliance that provides opportunities for people to get involved in LGBT advocacy in a way that is most comfortable for them. I oversee the organization’s social media strategies. It was through my work with Swish that I met Jim Swimm. I didn’t know who he was when I met him. All I knew was that he was an insightful and thoughtful voice on Twitter. He tweeted me once asking me to check out his guest post on Bilerico. This was the beginning of a new friendship for us. I asked Jim if he would be willing to contribute a piece for Swish Voices, an online campaign section that we have on the site to highlight different voices in the community. He agreed and wrote this piece.
My heart ached after reading his piece. Jim Swimm was the one who found Tyler Clementi floating face down in the Hudson. A year after his death, I asked Jim if it would be okay to interview him about it and how his life has changed because of it.
Describe what it was like finding Tyler?
While walking my dog in Inwood Hill Park with a friend, something caught my eye down by the river’s edge. I quickly glanced, couldn’t see what it was exactly, and made a joking reference to my friend; “Oh, look! A dead body.” Without missing a beat, we continued on our walk. About 10 minutes later, we were close enough to the riverbank to see that it was, indeed, a dead body. It had been floating alongside us, pacing us on our walk, that entire time. My friend said, “Oh, man. I think that really is a body,” and we began following it with the few other people who were nearby (including a park ranger) as it floated on the river’s current. It was surreal. One of those scenes that you’ve only encountered in movies or on TV, so you’re not exactly sure how to deal with it or what you’re supposed to do. Thankfully, the park ranger was calling the authorities so we weren’t having to actually get in and pull the body from the water. We were left to just be observers, to witness this rather macabre scene.
How did that moment change your view of life?
The ‘moment’ itself, of actually seeing his body? I’m not sure. Seeing a dead body in that sort of unexpected setting is a traumatic experience in and of itself. But the real life-changing moment was receiving confirmation two days later that it was Tyler Clementi. That’s what changed me. In those two short days, I was reading everything I could about him, finding out more details, learning what had caused him to lose all hope in life, then connected all of that to the images in my mind — the body, bloated from being in the water for so long, in a light-colored long-sleeved shirt & what looked to be khaki pants, the color of his hair, how his shoulder shifted when his body bumped up against a rock — and everything went from surreal to hyper-real. I had gotten a close-up view at the end result of his despair and I knew that I had to do more to prevent anyone else from ending up like that.
When you and I met for lunch months and months ago, you told me that finding Tyler had motivated your activism. Can you tell us how this experience has changed you and pushed you to do more?
I’ve said many times that I feel Tyler Clementi spoke to me that day. I’m not religious, nor am I a ‘spiritual’ person who gives concepts like destiny or fate much merit, but there’s a reason why I was there in the park that day at that precise moment in time. Upon hearing about my experience, a friend (Clinton Leupp aka Ms. Coco Peru) wrote to me: “In some way, it is…I can’t find the words, but to know that at least one of Tyler’s kind was there to witness him feels… perhaps a little right in a situation that is so wrong.” It’s my bearing witness, as a Gay man, that has instilled the sense of obligation in me to do more. I feel a duty to do as much as I can to prevent this from being anyone else’s experience and to be a reminder that we must pay more attention to these young people.
How do you see organizations like Swish, It Gets Better, Make It Better, and GLSEN making a difference for young people like Tyler?
I’m assuming you’re asking how I see these organizations making a difference for young people going forward, yes? In my mind, the key to making a difference for these kids that are confronted with homophobia and so much anti-LGBT bullying in their lives isn’t to be found in reassurances of things one day getting better. Not that things getting better isn’t a hopeful message to send or that I disagree with it in any way, but what these kids really need to know, what I think they’re desperately trying to tell us they want to hear is: they matter. My personal experience has been, you lose hope when you start feeling like no one gives a damn. I think the priority of any organization that wants to help LGBT youth should be to stand up for them and make it abundantly clear that the world is worse without them.
What do you see as the straight community’s role in the movement for equality?
As with any other struggle for equal rights, the ‘role’ of the straight community should be that of any other — accept us, respect us as they would any other human being, and ensure that our differences have no bearing on how we’re treated. But, in relation to LGBT youth, the straight community plays a more vital role, and that’s as parents. Coping with being ‘different’ as a kid, in any way, is complex & difficult enough without layering on the derogatory names and all the other external homophobia. But, unlike…say, a Jewish kid…who’s in a classroom with only Christian children all day coping with his/her uniqueness, an LGBT kid typically has no parents or relatives to mirror that experience. With no parents to identify with, who see the world in a similar way, an LGBT kid’s sense of self just gets weaker and weaker until it’s too much and they lose hope. It’s that empathic role that straight parents, if not all straight people, need to realize they’re playing. And currently not playing very well, quite frankly.
Any thoughts on why you think straight men are not necessarily as vocal about this subject?
It’s really difficult for me to comment on that. I fear that I’ll come of as judgmental or reproaching, and I know that inevitably helps no one get to a better understanding. Also, I think it’s time we stop asking LGBT people that question, and I say that as someone of whom it’s been asked a LOT in the past year. In all that asking and my own pondering, I’ve decided we need to start asking straight men the question. Personally, I’m a little afraid to hear the answer and that’s why I so rarely ask it. I think the best thing I can do is just remind straight men that people will continue to get hurt, kids will continue to kill themselves, until there’s a change and homophobia ends. And whether any of us likes it or not, that change lies with them.
What do you wish someone would have told you as a young gay man?
What?! Wait a minute…are you telling me that I’m no longer a young Gay man?! Kidding aside…there are any number of things I would wish someone had told me when I was younger. I could go on for days listing them all, just as I’m sure anyone — Gay or Straight — could do. Well, anyone as advanced in years as myself, that is. I think what I would wish for now is that young Gay people stop being told there’s something wrong with them because they’re Gay, stop being told that it’s something that can be repaired by praying hard enough, stop being told that it’s something that makes them undeserving of equal rights, stop being told that it’s something that makes them intolerable to others, stop being told that it’s a sin. I know it’s a big one, but that would be my wish.
Reprinted with permission from Kraus Notes.