Two days after live footage of Tyler Clementi’s intimate encounter with another man in a Rutgers University dorm room was streamed online, he updated his Facebook status. It read: “Jumping off the gw bridge. Sorry.” A week later the body of the 18-year-old was found floating in the Hudson River, not far from the George Washington Bridge. The footage of the encounter was broadcast on Sept. 22, without Mr. Clementi’s knowledge, by his roommate, Dharun Ravi, 18, who now faces charges of invasion of privacy along with Molly Mei, 18, who allegedly allowed Mr. Ravi to use her computer. Charges of hate crimes may be added.
Near the end of his life, Mr. Clementi felt isolated; but in his victimization and suicidal feelings, he was not alone. In fact, more than 3.2 million young people are victims of bullying each year, and one study shows that victims of cyber-bullying have higher rates of depression than those bullied in other ways. The problem seems particularly acute among gay and lesbian teens. A Harris poll in 2005 found that 90 percent of teens who self-identified as gay said they had been bullied in the past year.
While gay marriage, the adoption of children by same-sex couples and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy are hot-button issues, particularly around election time, the right of gay teens to attend school without being harrassed and to live lives without fear ought not to be up for debate. How can Catholics best respond to this timeless issue in an era when one poll states that two-thirds of Americans believe that the attitudes of churches and other places of worship contribute to suicides among people who are gay?
Most Catholics are familiar with one aspect of church teaching on homosexuality, but in the lines following the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s condemnation of same-sex activity, a less-known message can be found: Homosexual persons “must be accepted with respect, compassion, and sensitivity. Every sign of unjust discrimination in their regard should be avoided. These persons are called to fulfill God’s will in their lives…” (No. 2358).
To live out God’s will is difficult for anyone, at any age, but it can be particularly difficult for teenagers who feel isolation, rejection and the threat of violence, some of whom are struggling with their sexuality. Bullying is the last thing they need. In a recent online video, President Barack Obama said, “We’ve got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal rite of passage.”
The shoals of high school life are rocky and young people need to know where to turn for support. Web sites like those run by Pacer’s National Center for Bullying Prevention (pacerkidsagainstbullying.org) and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (www.stopbullyingnow.hrsa.gov/kids) are working to raise awareness of the problem and give support for victims of bullying. For gay and lesbian teens, there is also the “It Gets Better Campaign,” a series of videos on YouTube in which adults, many of them gay or lesbian, tell stories of having endured and survived tough times, from responding to teasing to surviving suicide attempts.
Today, 45 states have anti-bullying laws on the books, and some states are considering additional regulations. But support for teens facing bullying and cyber-bullying must move beyond legislation and into classrooms, churches and homes, if it is to truly make a difference. Catholics know well that they are called to protect human life from conception until natural death. But they cannot ignore the issues that threaten the lives of the young people struggling to exist between those two points. Suicide is a life issue, too.
At a city council meeting in Fort Worth, Tex., on Oct. 12, Councilman Joel Burns, who is gay, used part of the meeting to make sure struggling teens knew they were not alone. In a heartfelt speech he lamented that “teen bullying and suicide reached an epidemic in our country.... “Our schools must be a safe place to learn and to grow. It is never acceptable for us to be the cause of any child to feel unloved or worthless….”
Parents need to be aware of the new dangers and pressures encountered by teens. Bullying is no longer confined to the playground. Teenagers can be harassed through Facebook, Twitter, text messaging and e-mail (to name only a few venues). Digital bullying contributes to the feeling among many teens that harassment is inescapable. All religious communities must ensure that no child or adolescent experiences the isolation and hopelessness that flows from bigotry. All young people, especially those who feel rejected in any way, should know they will be accepted and cared for.