Recent suicides of gay American teens have struck a chord with millions of people around the world, forcing a re-evaluation of issues surrounding high-school bullying, writes Alisha Lewis, 19, a Commonwealth Correspondent from New Zealand.
Jamey Rodemeyer was a normal, American teenage boy. He had brown hair, liked camping and loved music. The only thing that made Jamey different was that he was gay.
For many of Jamey’s classmates though, this made all the difference. From beneath a blanket of ignorance and homophobia, Jamey was attacked for the simple crime of being who he was. They called him names, posted relentless vicious comments online and, eventually, bullied him to death. For the last of his 14 years, Jamey woke up every day to a lesser life than he deserved. Yet every day he proved what a strong spirit he had.
Jamey didn’t hide his sexuality; he did not act embarrassed about it. He even reached out to other gay teens in similar situations, posting an ‘it gets better’ video on YouTube. It was a hopeful video of inspiration and kindness, the message as much a promise to himself as it was to others.
But although he kept on smiling and loving and being himself, it didn’t get better for Jamey. His last days were peppered with warnings posted on his blog and social networking accounts. “I always say how bullied I am but no one listens,” he wrote on September 9. “What do I have to do to so people will listen to me?” He also put up another post that day, letting everyone know it was national Suicide Prevention Week.
Still, no one listened. Less than 10 days later, Jamey was found dead by his parents after an apparent suicide.
Jamey’s death has struck a chord with millions of people around the world, forcing us all to re-evaluate issues surrounding high-school bullying – particularly against gay teens. Because despite how liberal and open minded we like to think society has become, the fact remains: nobody listened and a boy died.
And what’s shameful is not just that no one listened, but that no one listened even when he was shouting out for help. Despite all the Facebook comments, detailed recounts of bullying on his blog and the number of times he was called that terrible ‘F’ word by his peers, Jamey never got the help he desperately needed. Gay bullying and homophobic behaviour in schools – particularly in the United States, which clings to pillars of traditionalism and conservatism – is a devastating problem.
Although Jamey’s case has been brought forward as an example, it is by no means an isolated incident. Just over year ago, another gay student made headlines when he committed suicide under similar circumstances. Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University, jumped to his death from a bridge after his roommate secretly video streamed his sexual encounter with another man in their room.
Like Jamey Rodemeyer, 18-year-old Tyler was just like any other teenager. Although he was gay he was so many other things as well – a talented musician, a kind friend, a beloved son and an excited student only three weeks into his first year of university. Yet his sexuality was the thing that was picked up on and made to define him. It was the reason Tyler was humiliated and had his privacy violated in such a public way.
Jamey Rodemeyer’s death came just days before the anniversary of Tyler’s; two boys, two completely unnecessary losses of life. Although it’s too late to help Jamey and Tyler, it’s not too late to reach out to the millions of LGBT students who are currently at the receiving end of hatred, cruelty and misunderstanding.
Lady Gaga, Jamey’s ultimate idol and advocate for the LGBT community, dedicated a recent concert performance to the fallen 14-year-old: “Jamey, I know you’re looking down on us and you’re not a victim, you’re a lesson to all of us.” It’s true that Jamey is – and must be – a lesson to us all. But he was also a victim, he was persecuted and in the end he simply couldn’t rise above it.
Lady Gaga, who encourages fans to embrace their sexuality, has just taken her advocacy for understanding a step further by encouraging US President Barack Obama to end bullying. The Born this Way singer waived her usual fee when she attended an exclusive Obama-fundraising event last Sunday. She pleaded with the president to do something about schoolyard discrimination, referencing Jamey Rodemeyer and reading a letter from a fan about another bullying victim.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper has also been personally moved by Jamey’s death. He spoke out against gay bullying on his show AC360, calling the torment “heartbreaking to imagine” and replaying Jamey’s YouTube video submission to the ‘It Gets Better’ project. Cooper also called out Kentucky lawmaker Mike Harmon as well as other anti-gay activists who have brushed off concerns around bullying and have actually opposed anti-bullying/anti-prejudice movements. What was most pertinent though was when Cooper pointed out the fact that gay slurs seem to be “the one derogatory term that teachers still kind of accept or just ignore”.
“I mean, if someone was using the ‘N’ word, they would be hauled in front of the principal’s office or talked to, but someone calling, you know, the ‘F’ word, they get a pass,” he said.
Research has found that gay youth are more than twice as likely to be prone to suicide. Considering how little education or guidance children are given on how to treat and accept LGBT peers, these findings aren’t shocking, they’re sad. Because being gay is not what’s putting youth at higher risk, it is the victimisation of gay students that is to blame. In other words, it is the actions of others.
Anderson Cooper has created a Facebook campaign titled ‘Stop bullying – speak up’ which allows people to ‘pledge’ to speak up. It’s a start, but it’s not solving the problem. It’s going to be hard to stamp out bullying until we manage to stamp out hate. Until then, we need to become better listeners. We need to teach the next generations a better way. We need to learn from people like Jamey Rodemeyer and Tyler Clementi.
One of Jamey’s final posts on Facebook was a chilling reminder of what we all need to do, especially when we get caught up in our own lives. It was a lyric from a Lady Gaga song: “Don’t forget me when I come crying to heaven’s door.” So for Jamey, and all the others out there, let’s not forget.
“I’m a journalism student from Auckland, New Zealand. Originally from India, my family moved to New Zealand when I was four years old. I love writing – both creative and transactional – as well as reading, theatre, travelling and dancing.
“Aside from studying, I work as an intern for ONE News – at TVNZ, our national broadcaster – and as sub-editor for my university magazine. I hope to enter into journalism, ultimately working for established editorial publications within New Zealand or overseas.”
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response?
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/
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