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.