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In suicide's wake, a message to gay teens: Hang on; you are not alone

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — "Things will get easier; people's minds will change," Ellen DeGeneres pleads in an Internet video, staring into the camera, her voice breaking. "And you should be alive to see it."

Just as the murder of Matthew Shepard galvanized the gay community around hate-crime legislation more than a decade ago, the suicide of a Rutgers University student whose sex life was splashed on the Internet has prompted a call to stop bullying of all kinds and a shared response to tormented gay teens: Hang on. You are not alone.

Prosecutors say Tyler Clementi's roommate and another student used a webcam to broadcast live images of the 18-year-old freshman having an intimate encounter with another man. Clementi jumped off the George Washington Bridge three days later. His body was identified Thursday.

"To this poor kid, it's better to be dead than to have people know he's gay," said Jean-Marie Navetta, a spokeswoman for Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays. "Therein lies the real tragedy here."

Clementi's death was part of a string of suicides last month involving youngsters who were believed to have been victims of anti-gay bullying. Fifteen-year-old Billy Lucas hanged himself in a barn in Greensburg, Ind. Asher Brown, 13, shot himself in the head in Houston. And 13-year-old Seth Walsh of Tehachapi, Calif., hanged himself from a tree in his back yard.

Walsh died on Tuesday, he had been in a coma since he was found Sept. 19. His family said he had been tormented by classmates.

Tehachapi police Chief Jeff Kermode says investigators interviewed teenagers who allegedly taunted Seth for being gay and concluded no crime was committed; several of the taunters broke down in tears while being questioned and said they wished they had tried to stop the bullying.

Gregory Jantz, founder of A Place of Hope, a Seattle mental health care center, said young people who use the Internet to spread something damaging about others often don't realize how hurtful it can be because many of them have grown up in a world that has blurred the line between public and private.

"Our kids are in a different zone now," Jantz said.

Aftab said young people who would never bully someone face to face do it online in part because of the often-false sense of anonymity that the Internet provides.

The outpouring of emotion over Clementi's death recalls the reaction to the killing of Shepard, a gay, 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming. He was found beaten and tied to a fence in 1998. Two men were convicted in the slaying; several states passed hate-crime laws in the aftermath.

DeGeneres, one of the first Hollywood celebrities to come out of the closet, posted her video in response to Clementi's suicide.

"My heart is breaking for their families, their friends and for our society that continues to let this happen," the talk show host says in the video. "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."

Last month, before Clementi's suicide became known, syndicated sex columnist Dan Savage launched the It Gets Better Project, a series of online videos delivered by adult gays and lesbians designed to tell young people that they can survive harassment and have happy lives.

"When a gay teenager commits suicide, it's because he can't picture a life for himself that's filled with joy and family and pleasure and is worth sticking around for," Savage told MTV. "So I felt it was really important that, as gay adults, we show them that our lives are good and happy and healthy and that there's a life worth sticking around for after high school."

In Clementi's case, prosecutors said that his roommate, Dharun Ravi of Plainsboro, N.J., and Molly Wei of Princeton, N.J., both 18-year-old freshmen, transmitted a live image of Clementi having sex on Sept. 19 and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi's suicide.

Ravi posted a message on his now-closed Twitter account on Sept. 19: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay."

Two New Jersey lawmakers said they would introduce legislation to strengthen the state's anti-bullying law, and another legislator called for stiffer penalties for invasion of privacy.

"We understand that our family's personal tragedy presents important legal issues for the country as well as for us," Clementi's family said in a statement on Friday. "Our hope is that our family's personal tragedy will serve as a call for compassion, empathy and human dignity."

A lawyer for Ravi and one believed to be representing Wei have not returned messages. But friends of both have said that they didn't have a bias against gay people.

Mark Lin, 17, who lives across the street from Ravi's family home in New Jersey, described him as a generous person.

"I don't think he would intentionally harm someone," he said. "He's not that kind of guy. He likes to make people laugh, but not at their expense."

At Rutgers, students wrestled with the tragedy and its implications.

The Rutgers football team plans a moment of silence for Clementi before its game today against Tulane. The university will hold a vigil on Sunday. And the Rutgers Glee club decided during a Friday afternoon rehearsal to march down to a campus memorial to Clementi and sing the Rutgers Prayer a capella in tribute. It is traditionally sung when an important member of the Rutgers community dies or a tragedy happens at the university.

"Everyone is pretty devastated," club member Jonathan Ramteke said.

The Associated Press, New York Times and The Record (Hackensack, N.J.) contributed to this report.

In suicide's wake, a message to gay teens: Hang on; you are not alone 10/01/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 1, 2010 11:02pm]
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