From US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to TV celebrity Ellen Degeneres to students holding vigils on college campuses, the reaction to the suicide of Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi has been swift and widespread.
This week will see a series of town hall meetings in New Jersey related to Clementi’s death. Also scheduled is a series of nationwide events tied to "National Coming Out Day" on Monday Oct. 11. Meanwhile, lawmakers in New Jersey are drafting a law that would stiffen criminal penalties for harassment via the Internet.
Will it make any difference in the fight against cyber bullying? Will it change the way hate crime laws are interpreted – particularly as they are written and applied to threats and attacks involving sexual orientation?
His roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another student, Molly Wei, have been charged with invasion of privacy. Law enforcement officials say they used a Web cam to secretly transmit images of a sexual encounter between Clementi and another man. Officials are investigating whether the pair also should be charged with a bias crime.
Five teenagers have taken their lives
Five teenagers in the United States have taken their lives in recent weeks – all reportedly because they were openly gay or thought to be gay. Most recently, that includes Raymond Chase, a 19-year-old sophomore at Johnson and Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Mr. Chase hanged himself in his dorm room last Wednesday.
"This week, we sadly lost two young men who took their own lives for one unacceptable reason: they were being bullied and harassed because they were openly gay or believed to be gay,” Education Secretary Duncan said in a statement Friday. “These unnecessary tragedies come on the heels of at least three other young people taking their own lives because the trauma of being bullied and harassed for their actual or perceived sexual orientation was too much to bear.”
"This is a moment where every one of us – parents, teachers, students, elected officials, and all people of conscience – needs to stand up and speak out against intolerance in all its forms,” Duncan said, adding: “Whether it's students harassing other students because of ethnicity, disability or religion; or an adult, public official harassing the President of the University of Michigan student body because he is gay…”
This last reference is to a case involving Michigan Assistant Attorney General Andrew Shirvell, who may be disciplined for using his personal blog to attack student assembly president Chris Armstrong for promoting a “radical homosexual agenda.” Mr. Shirvell has been banned from the university’s campus.
A new hate-crime law applies to sexual orientation
Last October, President Obama signed a hate-crime law that covers crimes against people based on their gender identity and sexual orientation, real or perceived.
Known as the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act, the new law gives the Justice Department the ability to investigate and prosecute such crimes. It expands on a 1969 federal hate-crimes law that covered crimes motivated by race, color, religion, national origin, and disability.
Still, Daryl Presgraves, spokesman for the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, told the Monitor’s Stacy Teicher Khadaroo last week, “It appears that what has always been a crisis is that much more severe right now.”
In response, many celebrities have spoken out regarding the recent spate of suicides linked to sexual orientation.
“My heart is breaking for their families, their friends and for a society that continues to let this happen,” Ellen Degeneres says on her web site. “These kids needed us. We have an obligation to change this. There are messages everywhere that validate this kind of bullying and taunting and we have to make it stop. We can't let intolerance and ignorance take another kid's life.”