Tyler Clementi’s suicide in late September this year, after being outed by his roommate, (and the tragic slew of suicides of gay teenagers that followed) generated the ‘it gets better’movement, in what has now become an overwhelming demonstration of support and encouragement for LGBT youth; to make it through the ‘tough’ years when they are finding themselves, and as the movement’s official website puts it, ‘show them what the future may hold in store for them.’
At the time there was significant discussion around what Dharun Ravi (his roommate) and Molly Wei had done: whether it constituted a hate-crime; what was the potential maximum punishment they could receive for invasion of privacy; how could they be punished appropriately; or whether their actions were really malicious?
I can’t speak for their internal motivations, but I have a hard time believing that Ravi and Wei’s actions constituted a direct intent to harm. While it may have been a case of bullying based on difference, their actions ironically point out some fundamental contradictions in society’s (very) slowly emerging acceptance of queer people.As I observed at the time, their actions while still an act of discrimination against Tyler’s difference at a more basic level, demonstrate a fundamental acceptance of LGBT rights more broadly. Yes, while bullying is mean, and may demonstrate a lack of compassion, it does not necessarily reflect an underlying malicious hatred. At least from my perspective, their actions seem to say, ‘while we don’t like you because you’re different, generally it’s ok to be gay, so us outing you is not that big a deal!’ (I think they probably thought no real harm would come of it, beyond a bruised ego as with many other freshman pranks)
Clearly they were wrong. However from this perspective, the incident highlights an odd disjuncture in the mainstreaming of an acceptance of gender and sexual difference in society. If ‘even being gay’s ok’, or more, a-la-mode ‘it gets better’, then why is coming out still an issue? Have we essentialized the LGBT person as different, but O.K.? The obvious answer is that there’s a conflict between the community that accepts, and the community that does not, with queer youth at the intersection of the two paths.
What we need to be aware of, is that the language of acceptance, the language of ‘it gets better’, aquiesces to the existence of an alternate truth, or a different path (the non-tolerating one), and in that light, we accept you can sound a lot like ‘we tolerate you’. In order to dislodge the disjuncture queer people face in ‘coming out’, we need to reframe the issue; we aren’t the better path, we are the only path! To be truly accepted, difference cannot be ‘accepted’ it just has to BE.
This video about ‘reteaching gender and sexuality’ by Put This On The Map – highlights my feelings on the issue: