Tyler Clementi had everything going for him; he graduated from one of the top public high schools in the state, and was an emerging violinist. At 18 years old, having played with the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra and Bergen Youth Orchestra, Clementi was confident he would come into his own as he entered Rutgers University.
The week he left home for college, Clementi disclosed his sexual orientation to his mother, Jane Clementi. Although it took time for her to adjust given her evangelical background, Jane accepted Tyler and the two spoke repeatedly after he relocated to the college. Not all was perfect, “There is still much more work to be done especially in allowing us to see a more subconscious bias which I feel stems from religious-based dogma. This is why we continue to try working with religious communities,” said Tyler’s Mother, Jane Clementi.
Clementi’s heartbreaking suicide off the George Washington Bridge, barely a month into his first semester at Rutgers University, brought to light campus anti-gay bullying. It also brought protective legislation and policy changes at many educational institutions. The outcome of the ongoing legal battle left many perplexed. In March 2012, Dharun Ravi was convicted of 15 counts of bias intimidation and invasion of privacy. He appealed his conviction and in September 2016 an appeals court overturned the conviction and ordered a new trial. Ultimately, the prosecutor and Ravi agreed he would plead guilty to only one count of attempted invasion of privacy for live streaming Clementi’s intimate encounters with another male in which attempted viewing parties were held.
Tyler Clementi’s legacy lives on in the successful strides the Tyler Clementi Foundation has made, and through inspirational work such as Tyler’s Suite, which was performed at Lincoln Center during June. However, in the political climate we have entered, work remains to be done, “What Tyler experienced is most prevalent today in political circles where certain faith communities are supporting extremely harsh measures. This is why we need to change the hearts and minds to create a more respectful space where we work for all people regardless of skin color, religion, orientation, gender and any differences between us. We have to learn to embrace everyone regardless of our own personal ideologies, a lesson which spreads way beyond bullying,” said Jane Clementi who, for the first time, goes beyond the headlines in this Out In Jersey conversation.
While the national and international coverage may have added to the initial trauma, do you feel as though it has been beneficial in establishing the foundation on a larger scale than it may have been had Tyler’s story gone under the radar?
Jane Clementi: Yes. That is what motivated me to move forward with establishing a foundation to begin with. Initially, I was severely traumatized, and as I was coming out of the darkest time in my life, my husband was adamant about utilizing the continuous media attention for a greater good. We felt it imperative to do whatever we could to facilitate in creating safer spaces in high schools and colleges alike. Our mission is to put an end to online and offline bullying in both schools and the workplace. Unfortunately, an overwhelming number of gay youth commit suicide each year and are never given the intensive coverage by the media, which Tyler’s story has received and continues to receive. We want to use it to be a voice for long-term change.
Compared to the time when the organization was established, how have you managed to expand?
JC: The foundation has certainly grown.We have a full board, more employees and we are getting the message out in many more avenues. We have a partnership with Rutgers University, Teachers College (Columbia University) and Senator Lautenberg who has been an adamant defender. Coming right off the tragedy, he introduced the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act which has been presented to Congress, albeit has not yet been passed due to a lack of bipartisan support. Ultimately, if successful, with this legislation we hope to create safer spaces in the college environment by means of ensuring procedures and policies are in place for all forms of bullying, resources for students are provided and protected classes are named.
Are there any specific protocols or forms of education that you feel need to be rolled out in high schools or colleges? What efforts are being done today by the Tyler Clementi Foundation that you feel are essential our readers are aware of?
JC: I was initially taken aback to learn that many witnessed what was happening to Tyler and no one spoke up about it, no one reached out to Tyler, etc. I later came to find that this is very common. We had conducted a poll in which the results showed approximately over 80% are seeing it and remain silent. It is imperative people stand up, speak out and interrupt situations at the time they are taking place without coming into harm. Report it to an adult, report it to a trusted authority figure or reach out to the target with support. Our #Day1 Campaign is a unique and innovate campaign which is intended to stop bullying before it begins. We provide scripts for community leaders, teachers, principals and authority figures which highlight what behaviors and words are acceptable and unacceptable, as well as ask for a confirmation back to ensure understanding is reached.
The program also provides responses to when one goes off kilter. The program specifically calls out positive and poor behavior, in addition to noting boundaries in hopes of creating a safer environment for everyone before anything escalates. You can pledge to become an Up Stander and kits can be found online at tylerclementi.org/day1/
What are your thoughts on the Day of Silence?
JC: I think the Day of Silence is a great way to bring the issues into the consciousness of youth at school. One of the things I learned during my state of trauma was that there were people in my life who I thought I could turn to who actually refused to hear anything about my situation. As an adult, having experienced my own personal isolation due to the outcome of my son having experienced the same; I firmly believe that remaining silent for a whole day, unable to share anything, is a great lesson for our youth to learn what it feels like for others who may be feeling like that. It teaches empathy, which is integral especially in today’s society because I feel as though teaching such is getting lost, especially in the cyber world we live in where anonymity reigns.
As brutal as it is to be bullied in school, when you go home you may be getting a break. You can never really be away from it all because bullies can now take it to the digital platforms. I firmly feel this is what led to Tyler’s suicide. Whenever he logged on to Facebook and Twitter, he would witness what was being said to and about it. His reality became twisted and distorted because he could not escape the harassment.
How have you and your family managed to overcome the loss of a son?
JC: It has been a very difficult and painful journey to pick up the pieces, to learn to live without a part of me, a part of us as a family. I think children are always a part of their parents, but certainly young children; Tyler was only 18 years old, a mere child really. He had so much life ahead for him, so much more to experience, but he made a permanent decision to a temporary situation.
Now, we must learn to live with this empty void. Our family will never be whole again and simple family time together, time that I once looked forward to with great enthusiasm and excitement, are now moments that are extremely difficult to navigate. Every holiday, every special family event is unbearable and incomplete. There is no getting over this, only learning to live through it and making sure no one else should ever have to endure what Tyler experienced. No other family should ever have to experience the pain of grief from losing a child or brother due to cruel, harsh words or actions, online or offline.
Do you feel high schools and colleges have progressed in regards to acceptance, bullying and universal equality?
JC: I do feel certain elements have improved. Unfortunately, there still is a lot of change that needs to take place. Especially in light of the political climate at hand, it is detrimental if we don’t teach one another to respect each other online and in person. We partnered with AT&T last summer to conduct a poll, which showed that 50% of all youth have experienced some form of cyber bullying. It showed 80% have either witnessed such or knew a friend who has. The study also found that most parents were completely unaware. The youth need to be taught that one’s character must be the same online and offline, and technology should be used in the manner it was intended, for good, to enhance communication, and to stay connected, and not as a weapon of sorts.
Rutgers University has a growing LGBT department. What are your thoughts on the universities efforts?
JC: We are currently working with Rutgers University and Maren Greathouse, who is the director of the Rutgers Tyler Clementi Center. They have done an exceptional job in initiating research, working across the board in collaborating with different departments and most importantly changing housing requirements in some areas. Freshmen, incoming students, have to identity whether they are LGBTQ friendly. Those who say “yes” are housed together and those who say “no” are housed together. We feel that Tyler was under the impression he was immediately entering a welcoming and supportive environment, however, you are not in that place until everyone is acclimated to that culture. These housing improvements ensure that we will get to such a place faster.
Do you feel there are certain higher education institutions that are more welcoming to LGBT students than others?
JC: Yes. This is why Campus Pride works on conducting surveys and publishing schools, which are most welcoming, embracing, etc. One of the research projects we are working on is surveying all colleges in the United States to find resources available to LGBT students. Maren Greathouse is working in collaboration with other researchers. We have proposals and projects we are in the process of undertaking at the center.
Do you feel the results of the trial were unjust especially in light of Dharun Ravi’s conviction being thrown out in September?
JC: My disappointment lies in the unexplained misunderstanding amongst the judges and prospectors. What confuses me is that the Appellate Judges stated the Prosecutor’s Office conceded on all four bias counts, while the Prosecutor’s Office stated they only conceded on the one count when the law had changed. It has been very disconcerting and stressing to witness such a difference and no real explanation.
The positive change Tyler’s story has brought about has been moving. Can you tell us about Portraits of Healing: Tyler’s Suite and the Music of Ola Gjeilo?
JC: Tyler’s Suite is a piece of music created by Dr. Timothy G. Seelig (Conductor Laureate), Stephen Schwartz (DCINY Composer-in-Residence) and Pamela Stewart (Librettist), which were brought to us by the San Fran Gay Chorus. They got co-commission choruses and are now going around the country: LA Gay Chorus, San Diego Gay Chorus, Windy City Gay Chorus, New York City Gay Chorus, Seattle Men’s Chorus, etc. Schwartz, of Wicked fame, organized this with the intention being each composer performs a different piece and in turn tells a different personal story. Tyler was much more than a headline or hot button issue. Music can touch a deep space, and this is a perfect way for us to reach different demographics, encourage empathy, and assist in creating a more caring society. This is especially meaningful due to Tyler’s great love for music, and the fact that he was a gifted violinist himself.