spacematters

Tyler Clementi and our Obsession with the Queer Body | September 30, 2010

It’s been a bad week for queer kids thinking about coming out. Bombarded with news of predatory preachers, the maniacal and paranoid fag-hating perpetrated by our own assistant attorney general, the beating of an eleven year old boy cheerleader, and four teen suicides, many of these kids are probably second-guessing themselves. They must feel like society isn’t ready for them yet, but that maybe in a few years things will be better. Some will attempt suicide. Some will succeed, like eighteen year old Tyler Clementi of Rutgers University. Two days ago Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge because two wicked students in his Rutgers dorm secretly videotaped him in an intimate moment with another man—and broadcast it live on the web.

While the acts of these sick students were unusually cruel, they are the result of a pervasive social problem:  our obsession with policing sexuality and putting non-normative sexualities and bodies on display. This policing  and publicizing of aberrant sexualities serves an important purpose for dominant straight society. By marking difference, straight people can maintain their own sexual obscurity and privilege to keep their sex lives in the bedroom. Heteronormative society displays the queer body as an aberration to validate its own status as “normal” and unmarked. By making the queer body so public, they are able to further dehumanize the queer subject to use it for their own purposes. Tyler’s death tragically reveals this public nature of the queer body/subject in American society.

Tyler’s private life was made public and displayed as aberrant to uphold some masculine and heterosexual superiority (yet, as we know, usually the most violent offenders of these acts usually wind up getting caught in homosexual activity themselves). While their decision to broadcast a private moment between Tyler and his lover was unusual, the “making public” of the queer body is something most of us experience on a daily basis. If you are a feminine boy or a masculine girl, everyone wants to know, and obsesses until you say you are, in fact, queer. Once we come out, even the well-meaning want to know not only the dirty details of our sex life, but also of our trauma. “How did your family react,” “When did you know,” and “When did you lose your virginity,” become questions that can suddenly be asked on public transit out of nowhere, online, or in large groups at the bar. We are expected to daily relive our trauma in front of large groups of people, sometimes strangers, to satisfy the curiosity and obsession of heterosexuals.

If we are visually identifiable as queer, suddenly our bodies are more dangerously public. We are subject to threatening touch, violent acts such as beatings, murder, and rape, and we are cat-called on a daily basis walking down the street. This week alone I have been mocked by contractors working on my apartment-building roof, I received a death threat by an angry driver (I was walking) who got out of his car screaming “faggot” at me, and was followed and cat-called on campus by a group of straight boys in front of Starbucks.

But I have made it through the first tough years of danger and the realization that my body, indeed my mind, are now public resources for straight people. Tyler did not. Before Tyler could find affirmative people, places, and activities, and during those tough first years, he took his own life. He had not had enough time to normalize and numb himself to the dangers of public space, of having a public body and mind. But now that his life has been destroyed by heteronormative society’s obsession with the queer subject, we must take the power away from those responsible for his death and use it for good.

The bridge Tyler jumped off of was the same bridge I used to cross into New York City for the first time in my life. For me, the George Washington Bridge represented the ultimate flight from the fear, self-loathing, and homophobia Tyler faced. Like many queer youth, I felt like if I could just get somewhere else, and got through a few more years of social progress, I could be free. The future wouldn’t be as hard, people would be different. The city wouldn’t be as hard because there were places to hide. Escape through both time and space was what kept a lot of us alive. When I was 13 I wanted to kill myself rather than come out also. But I thought that if I made it to 2010 I would be okay. A decade later I am more than okay; I am proud, actualized, and free—but not because things are so different.

It’s 2010 and one of the worst weeks in our collective history as queer folks is drawing to a close. How much has changed for us? On the same bridge to Harlem that is the ultimate symbol of freedom and route for escape for so many of us, Tyler decided to take his own life rather than be subjected to the abuse our society continues to exact against queer adults and children. My heart and my tears go out to Tyler’s family, lover, and friends; I feel for those who loved him and the others we have tragically lost this week. Let his death, and that of so many other queer brothers and sisters, not disappear in our collective memory; rather, let them be a reminder of how little ground we’ve gained.


8 Comments »

  1. Thanks for keeping the dialog going. We really do need to be talking more about these realities that continue regardless of media attention. And sadly, this is probably not the worst of it, you know how things must get worse for many of us to act. Too many have become comfortable as we well know. Yet, we must be hopeful and praise the resiliency of queer folks to endure the struggles of living.

    Comment by Kenny — September 30, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

  2. Jackson,

    Thanks for your thoughtful post. I’d like to say, “Yes, yes, BUT…”

    You’re right that much hasn’t changed, and I think it’s admirable to use the events of this terrible week to highlight the fact that the queer body is still an especially vulnerable one the world over (something that even my most supportive straight friends are often unaware of, since major media outlets tend not to report anti-LGBT violence).

    But much HAS changed, and we can look at some other recent events to keep from sinking into despair over social deadlock. Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign (http://www.youtube.com/itgetsbetterproject) is an incredible example of how contemporary technologies can be used to mitigate queer youth’s feelings of isolation and hopelessness. Of course, I don’t have any evidence that the channel has prevented any suicides yet, but with 547,761 views and counting in a little over a week, I think it’s worth mentioning. This is change, and I suspect that it’s ultimately impactful change. Further, it’s not limited to a limited, queer social network; I’ve seen a number of straight supporters publicly advertising and even celebrating this project, and I think this broad, open public support represents significant social progress since 1969. There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we shouldn’t discount how far we’ve come.

    Anyway, thanks for writing. I really appreciate that you’ve provided a space to have a conversation about this.

    Comment by Matthew Piper — September 30, 2010 @ 2:15 pm

    • Ugh, I really wish I hadn’t written “limited to a limited social network,” but that’s what I get for typing this furiously on my lunch break.

      Comment by Matthew Piper — September 30, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    • Great point, Matt. It DOES get better, and that is the tragedy of what happened to Tyler. He never got to the point where he could see that it gets better.

      Comment by spacematters — September 30, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

  3. Terrific post and very much on target. What’s especially frightening is how easily and carelessly a person’s private life can be held up and discussed in front of the “instant community” to be found online.

    One correction, though – the two kids charged in the case were not two men, but one male and one female student. Which just shows that homophobia knows no gender, and we should beware thinking that it does.

    Comment by Miranda — October 1, 2010 @ 6:23 pm

    • Thanks for the the correction, it has been made in the piece.

      Comment by spacematters — October 4, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

  4. Very, very sad that he felt there was no solution to his guilt and shame than to end his life. Unfortunately, the homosexual community is to blame as well, for telling young men exploited by the homosexual community that there is no way out of the lifestyle.

    “Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own.”

    Comment by E. L. Johnson — April 6, 2011 @ 5:45 pm

    • This is really disgusting but I approved it because I want to say something.

      I want these kids to know that for every voice telling them these sick and disgusting things (see comment above): There are so many other people who love you (actually love you, not Christian love you). There are so many people who don’t even know you and want you to stick it out, and want you to know that you are PERFECT just the way you are. It’s hard, it might feel like everyone in your life has a hateful voice, and they might, but “it gets better,” it really does. There are ways out that don’t involve praying for yourself to change, and that don’t involve hurting yourself. If you are religious there are people who share your religion who think you are perfect just the way you are and won’t ask you to change. Not every Christian is like this commenter, there are even gay churches!

      If the gay community is responsible for the deaths of these innocent, beautiful children and young adults, it is only because we didn’t make ourselves available enough. If you’re struggling, reach out to us. If you aren’t, reach out to the people who are. We gotta stick together and help our youth and show them that they don’t have to take on people like this commenter by themselves.

      Your body is a temple. Protect it. Respect it. Be safe. Be smart. But don’t listen to these motherfuckers.

      Comment by spacematters — April 6, 2011 @ 9:20 pm


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