Editors' note: Jarad Ringer is a Coordinator of Hate Violence and Police Relations Programs at the New York City Anti Violence Project.
As a Rutgers University alumnus, I was devastated to learn of the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18 year-old talented freshman with a very bright future, who jumped from the George Washington Bridge. Tyler committed suicide after learning that two other freshmen at Rutgers had allegedly videotaped Tyler having sex with another man. The suspects in this case then posted the video through social networking sites and encouraged others to view the video.
Tyler's suicide and the recently reported suicides of young male teens across the country as a result of peer bullying, harassment, and physical violence, based on actual or perceived sexual orientation has been a terrible reminder for me, personally and as a service provider and social worker at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, that incidents of hate violence incidents, can happen anywhere, including progressive and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer (LGBTQ) friendly and inclusive campuses.
My college experience was a positive one. It helped me foster pride in my identities as a gay man and activist. Rutgers University was a "this can't happen here " kind of place. Rutgers has a long positive history with the LGBTQ rights movement It was the second university in the United States to have an LGBTQ student group, the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alliance of Rutgers University (BiGLARU), formed in 1969 and which I was a member of as a Rutgers student from 1995 until I graduated in 1999. I was so thrilled to find out that I had been accepted to Rutgers in the spring of 1995. I viewed my upcoming college experience as a time when I would finally feel comfortable with who I am. I have my own war stories of what it was like to grow up and come of age in a conservative town in suburban New Jersey. I viewed Rutgers as a safe space, in which I could move forward with my coming out process.
Unfortunately, many college students, like Tyler Clement, are not having the same experiences that I had while I was in college. According to Campus Pride's National Report on LGBT Harassment at Colleges and Universities, 23% of LGBQ and 38% of transgender students, faculty, and staff have seriously considered leaving colleges due to their experiences of LGBTQ hate motivated violence. 43% of students, faculty, and staff at universities across the country feel the need to hide their sexual orientation and 63% feel the need to hide their gender identity. In addition, 43% of transgender students, faculty, and staff and 13% of LGBQ respondents feared for their physical safety. Campus Pride reports that these fears are even more pronounced for LGBTQ people of color (www.campuspride.org/research). The Gay, Lesbian, Straight, Education Network's (GLSEN) 2009 National School Climate report statistics for LGBTQ middle and high school students are even more grim. Nearly 9 out of 10 students (84.6%) of LGBT students reported being verbally harassed in school. 40.1% of LGBT students reported being physically harassed and 18.8% report being physically assaulted in school because of their sexual orientation. The 2009 National School Climate Report also discusses the negative impact of these experiences on LGBT students' attendance, academic performance, and mental health (www.glsen.org/cgi-bin/iowa/all/library/record/2624.html). These harrowing statistics are in addition to a Massachusetts Youth Risk Behavior Survey published in 2007: which reports that LGBTQ youth are up to four times more likely to attempt suicide than their heterosexual peers (http://www.thetrevorproject.org/news/national-suicide-prevention-week-points-preventable-epidemic) and to reports that from 20% to 40% of homeless youth in New York City identify as LGBTQ.
My experience at Rutgers University helped me foster great pride in being a gay man and activist. I became a part of a supportive community and was involved in LGBTQ and HIV/AIDS campus organizing. In the fall semester during my senior year Matthew Sheppard was brutally murdered. I remember it as if it were yesterday. Participating in a vigil at Rutgers in honor of Matthew, I knew from that moment that I would do everything I could to prevent another murder or suicide of an LGBTQ person. My college experiences led me to my work with Hyacinth AIDS Foundation, the Youth Enrichment Services (YES) Program at The New York City LGBT Center, and the Green Chimneys Gramercy Park Program - a group home for LGBTQ foster care youth , and eventually to The New York City Anti-Violence Project, where I am the Coordinator of the Hate Violence and Police Relations Programs.
The recent suicides that have been reported are deeply disheartening for many. However, LGBTQ communities are filled with resilient people. We, as a community, need to dedicate ourselves to being even more proactive in our efforts to prevent LGBTQ hate violence. These efforts must start at the elementary school level and true equal opportunity needs to be made available for the most marginalized LGBTQ communities. Legislation like New York State's Dignity for All Students Act (DASA) must be signed into law and pervasive institutional discrimination of LGBTQ people must be dismantled. My hope is that not another LGBTQ youth will be lost to suicide or murder. and for a time when "this can't happen here" will be true everywhere.