The tragic situation of Tyler Clementi has received special attention lately for several reasons, but I suspect mostly because he is one in a recent string of suicides with young gay or gay-perceived people who were bullied. I also think he has received particular attention because of the sensationalistic nature of how it happened In other words, people think: "it happened at a college!"; "it could happen to anybody!"; "sex was broadcast on the internet!" The believed sacred and protective bounds of the white tower have been violated; who among us might be the next victim? Why, this could even happen to straight people! Clearly, I am tempted to make a case that it receives attention despite the fact that it happened to a young gay man; other more overtly homophobic acts of bullying are receiving less attention than Tyler's case. A possible explanation is that media and its consumers believe that those were just some poor fags and I don't have to worry about them because I'm not one.
For those who are emphasizing the homophobia involved in the Rutger's case, I don't think most people are trying to make a martyr out of Tyler, but rather to use his case as one in a series of examples of how homophobia impacts people. From the facts that we know, I would say that we can't tell if the webcam broadcast was done because Tyler was having sex or because he was having sex with a man.
I think it's largely irrelevant. The act was a form of bullying and invasion of privacy. That needs to be addressed. Period. We need to quit making excuses for bullying ("boys will be boys" etc) and address the fundamental unacceptability of bullying. (For more on this particular point, see Kate Harding's excellent profanity-laced post.)
What needs to be understood, however, is how a pervasively homophobic society adds a crushingly oppressive element that results in some young people being unable to handle the bullying. Although suicide is not a rational choice, the conditions under which many of these kids are taking their lives are cruel and inhumane and they likely see no recourse, no hope for escape.
There was a study done on North Korean POWs that implicates the denial of “the emotional support that comes from interpersonal relationships by using “self-criticism” and the “withholding of all positive emotional support “(Rath, 2005). Those POW camps had the highest death rate in US military history despite the relatively little use of physical torture.
So, imagine if you can that you are a young gay person who is being bullied. You have people directly telling you that you are worthless: you are worth only abuse. Even if that abuse isn’t directly tied to your sexual orientation – you have a society where on a daily basis you receive negative messages about your worth. Politicians and religious leaders on a local, national, and global scale talk about your moral depravity – your assurance to go to hell – and that during your time on earth you aren’t worth basic civil rights (job protection, housing protection, protection from bullying) and they’ll actively fight to deny you those rights.
On top of that, you may not be able to tell family, friends, teachers, counselors, or ministers about your sexual orientation because those people believe - from the messages they’ve heard – that you’re sick. Your family might throw you out – it happens frequently – or they might try to “cure” you by forcing you to go through psychotherapy or worse, ex-gay ministries. Friends and trusted authorities may also reject you.
So, you’re isolated, with nobody to turn to, and few, if any, resources. You’re isolated, you’re being constantly criticized about your identity and your future prospects seem bleak. You are, in fact, a POW of a homophobic society. At this point, suicide could seem pretty fucking rational. You’re already in hell; why not take your chances with the next life? It could only get better, right?
Bullying in all forms and for any reason must be stopped. But homophobia is what contributes to making an irrational choice seem rational. We must not and cannot deny the power that homophobia exerts on young people not being able to endure the bullying.