In Need of Climate Change

Homophobia, not just bullying, is to blame for recent suicides

Tyler Clementi, an 18-year old student at Rutgers University, apparently committed suicide two weeks ago after his roommate allegedly videotaped and streamed Clementi being romantically involved with another man. Less than a week later, Raymond Chase, aged 19, an openly gay sophomore at Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island reportedly hanged himself in his residence hall room. Campus Pride marked Chase as the fifth LGBT-related teenage suicide in the past three weeks. Indeed, these deaths are part of a tragic string of LGBT-related “bullycides” that have claimed the lives of several college, high school, and even elementary school students, over the past year. News reporters, lawmakers, school administrators, and politicians are rightfully alarmed over these recent tragedies. However, their emphasis on “bullying” is mistaking the proximal cause for the true root of the problem. What our nation needs is not stricter bullying laws and enforcement but a cultural climate more tolerant of LGBT youth.

The emphasis that has been placed upon cyberbullying and bullying in the classroom oversimplifies the issues at hand. It is certainly true that harassment is an important issue for our society to grapple with, publically and legally. Whether online, in the workforce, or in the classroom, bullying is an incredibly damaging and harmful phenomenon. However, the response to the recent suicides myopically ignores the true cause of these incidents: intolerance of abnormality.

The truth is, bullies are not born, but created. It is our culture, our politics, and our laws that teach bullies that alternative sexualities and lifestyles are unnatural, immoral, and worthy of stigmatization. A survey in 2009 found that 85 percent of LGBT students report experiencing harassment at school. Another study estimated that almost a quarter of queer teenagers drop out of school because of harassment. Finally, queer teen suicide rates are four times those of their straight classmates. There is a reason why individuals with or perceived as having LGBT lifestyles are more at risk for being bullied—because bullies are taught that these people are inferior.

At this time, America needs to do more than merely tighten bullying laws and move on. Instead, it is time for politicians, reporters, teachers, school administrators, and religious leaders to realize that widespread cultural intolerance of LGBT identities has tangible effects on school climates and students. These teenagers are not merely victims of a few bullies from their school but victims of a political environment polluted by hazardous, hateful, and homophobic rhetoric.

There are some concrete steps toward remedying this problem. As of this June, only 17 states (and Washington D.C) have laws that address LGBT-related bullying and discrimination in elementary, middle, or high school. As of June 2009, at least 14 states still lack any hate-crime laws that protect LGBT identities. Elected officials still refuse to legalize same-sex marriage, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” has yet to be repealed, and the Defense of Marriage Act continues to exist. Together, these homophobic laws and lack of proper legal protections send a message to the bullies and bullied of America that being gay is still not ok.

Indeed, what is really needed in response to the tragedies of the past week is climate change. We, as Harvard students and as Americans, need to create a more tolerant and welcoming climate for all students.

Ryan M. Rossner ’13, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Winthrop House.