The Sept. 22 suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi horrified many people, especially because he was just one of a series of gay kids who, in a period of a few weeks, have committed suicide. Clementi jumped from New York City's George Washington Bridge after his roommate broadcast Clementi's gay romantic encounter on the Internet.
The Clementi incident was the occasion for a UW-Madison faculty panel discussion Thursday night at UW Hillel Foundation. The panel, which I moderated, was called "Feeling Queer: UW Faculty Talk About Tyler Clementi and the History, Politics and Rhetoric of Bullying."
Sponsored by the Center for the Humanities, the event brought together sociology professor Joe Elder, communication arts assistant professor Karma Chávez and educational pyschology assistant professor Erica Halverson.
Elder began the discussion by talking about the history of anti-gay bullying. He described several types of bullying, from physical violence to ruthless statements made by famous people like William Buckley and Nancy Reagan.
In speaking about the recent suicides, Chávez noted provocatively that cases involving queer kids of color have received relatively little media attention. Halverson described her research involving youth theater, and she discussed the It Gets Better Project, in which prominent and less prominent people record encouraging YouTube messages for gay youths. A lively discussion with the audience followed.
Clementi committed suicide six weeks ago, and a time span like that can resemble eons in today's hyper-caffeinated media environment. But events of recent days are reminders that anti-gay bullying remains an all too timely topic. Just this week, Arkansas school official Clint McCance resigned after he posted on Facebook that he wished gay people would commit suicide.
And, late last week, Wisconsin lieutenant governor-elect Rebecca Kleefisch made national headlines for her recent past comments about gay marriage. She perplexingly linked gay marriage to marrying a table or a clock. More insidiously, she linked gay marriage to marrying animals -- a heinous smear that was, in the 2006 election season, voiced by supporters of Wisconsin's constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.
I was energized by Thursday's panel, and judging from feedback I got, I wasn't the only one. In moderating the discussion, I sat at a table. Not once did I have the urge to marry it.