In late September of 2010, while walking my dog with a friend along the banks of the Harlem River in Manhattan's Inwood Hill Park, my life was changed forever. In a shocking moment right out of 'Law and Order', I came upon a dead body floating face-down in the water. That experience alone was quite traumatic, without a doubt. But little did I know just how traumatic and life-altering it would turn out to be.
You see, that lifeless body in the water turned out to be young Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who took his own life by leaping off the George Washington Bridge. Learning the identity of that man’s body hit me like a thunderbolt. It was as though the universe itself was trying to send me a message, telling me that there was a role I needed to play in this tragedy. Since then, I have felt it my duty as a gay man to do anything and everything I can possibly do to raise awareness for the serious problem of, not just anti-LGBT bullying and its repercussions, but the insidious homophobia behind it.
On the eve of a tribute walk just a few weeks later across that bridge from which Tyler Clementi ended his life, I came to a realization that I still find fascinating and frightening. I’ve tweeted; posted on Facebook; written blog posts; wrote to Rutgers University’s president; been interviewed by media, including a journalist for a French TV documentary and quoted in The New Yorker magazine’s recent about Tyler Clementi in my little crusade against homophobia and the toll it's taking on all of us, but mostly LGBT youth. Throughout all of that and in turn the incredible show of support I've received from friends, family and total strangers alike, there has been one group of people who seem to be “sitting this one out”.
Though I’ve talked to a few who are genuinely troubled, men —specifically, straight men — don’t seem to want to speak very loudly, if at all, on this issue. Now, I’m not trying to over-generalize; I’ve gotten some wonderfully supportive messages from a few straight guys. Most certainly from Led Black, the editor of The Uptown Collective, an online magazine covering news and issues in my local neighborhood of Upper Manhattan. He wrote a great piece that I would love for you to in which he speaks passionately to this issue. But, just ONE straight man out of hundreds in my social network and circle of friends feels as strongly about changing this awful condition? I simply refuse to believe that's the case.
This is an observation, not judgment. And I’m not subconsciously seeking approval from straight men either. Trust me: I have ranted, cried, screamed, and spoken about this issue and will continue to do so whether any straight people like it or not. I have to wonder though: are these men feeling guilty? Do they fear possibly being labeled as gay themselves for speaking up? Why do I not see more of them upset and concerned, or hear them talking about all of this? To me, this seems to be the clearest indication of just how deeply homophobia is entrenched in our culture. Personally, I know a lot of really wonderful, caring straight men, so I feel certain that they DO hurt for kids like Tyler who've lost all hope that "It Gets Better".
So...why do I all this? Why, after more than a year am I still talking about Tyler Clementi and my experience?
Because I will try anything -- EVERYTHING -- to be heard by straight people (especially the men) and make them understand: You simply MUST get involved. I know you don’t want to see kids in pain like this. Homophobia isn’t a gay problem, nor is it a straight problem — it’s a HUMAN problem. That being said, I truly believe the change in how it affects kids lies with you, straight people. Kids will continue dying — YOUR kids. I’ve taken on this crusade to fight for LGBT youth because I was personally affected by one young man's senseless, tragic death but, frankly, it’s not mine to fight.
No, this fight is really yours, straight men. You are the key. I don’t know exactly what’s stopping you from joining the battle, but I’m here to tell you: it is never seen as weak or “gay” to save kids' lives. It’s seen as compassion, as caring, and as love…love that comes from Fathers, Brothers, Grandsons, Uncles, Sons.
This article first appeared on Swish, the blog of a gay-straight alliance fighting for the equality of LGBT families, co-workers and loved ones.
Jim Swimm is a forty-year-old Texan transplant in New York City: Gay, HIV+ and simply trying to make the world a better place... “ ‘cause I’m a superhero like that”. You can follow him on Twitter @Jims_Whim