Today marks 10 years since the passing of Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers University freshman whose death by suicide siezed the conscience of the nation. The following tribute was written by Tyler’s cousin Jen Ehrentraut whose memorable testimony helped pass NJ’s anti-bullying bill of rights.
No one knows exactly why someone else takes their own life, but Tyler chose to jump off of the George Washington Bridge on the evening of September 22, 2010. Presumably, this happened after the embarrassment of his roommate’s tweets and the shame he must have felt when his privacy was invaded and exploited.
There are often far more questions than answers surrounding suicides. An entire decade does not make any of the questions easier or more tolerable. One of the many things I wonder today is “What have we, as a society, learned from this tragedy?” Another, “How can we prevent losses like this from happening?”
For those of you that remember Tyler’s story, he was eighteen years old and only a few weeks into his freshmen year at Rutgers University when his roommate announced on Twitter that he would be livestreaming a romantic encounter of Tyler and my cousin’s male guest that was visiting his dorm room.
Freshman year in college is a clean slate for students and a new place to form and embrace your young
adult identity away from the confines of where or how you grew up. It’s a place to express yourself without the habituated judgements you’ve been accustomed to. And, no matter what age we are, one of our greatest challenges as humans is to proudly be and embody who we really are.
In our digitally driven world, we are only one click away from connecting with others via every possible social media and communications outlet imaginable. We are also just one click away from creating judgment or greater divides, harassing, intimidating or offending others. What we say and do can have unforeseen consequences. There is no way to truly measure the ripple effects of one’s words or one’s life, but in the decade long wake of our world losing Tyler, there have been some steps in a better direction, especially in New Jersey.
The ultimate heart-break is that despite same-sex marriage becoming legally recognized in 2013 (and nationally in 2015!) and New Jersey enacting one of the most thoroughly thought out Anti-Bullying Acts in our country, my cousin and countless other LGTBQ and/or bullied teens are not here to see it. They will never be able to experience these leaps of awareness, acknowledgment and equality.
It feels like only yesterday when my entire family sat in our Grandmother’s living room in complete shock and devastation. My aunt and uncle gathered us there on September 23rd to tell us of this most unimaginable loss. Friends and neighbors stopped by. It was touching to know how many people truly cared but never in a million years would I have imagined we would soon be mourning with nearly the entire world.
At the time, there was already heightened media attention surrounding the suicides of LGBTQ and bullied youth throughout our country. Seth Walsh, age 13; Billy Lucas, age 15; Asher Brown, age 13; Phoebe Prince, age 15 are some of the names we may remember reading about around the time of my cousin’s death. These are a few of the many teens that faced similar situations of cruelty and carelessness, and chose to commit suicide. Sadly, the actual stories were nothing old or new for families losing their loved ones but it was finally something that was gaining public acknowledgement.
Lady Gaga, Ellen DeGeneres, Dr. Phil, President Obama, Neil Patrick Harris, Dan Savage, Madonna and many other celebrities shed light on bullying, cyber-bullying and the pain and rejection our LGBTQ family members of humanity face every day. Attention also began to be directed towards families, adults, schools and the institutions in our society who perpetuate anti-gay prejudices and lack of equality and acceptance.
Each and every time a family member, friend, neighbor, celebrity or complete stranger takes their life, our world hurts.
We can enact all of the laws imaginable, but ultimately, true acceptance and value of life is spread in even the most typical situations of our day to day lives. We can’t legislate love and kindness, but we can embrace people for who they are, who they love and what they care about.
In the last weeks, days, and even hours of Tyler’s life, he was not alone. He crossed paths with hundreds, if not thousands, of students at Rutgers on the way to class, in dining halls, even on the final bus ride he would ever take from campus to get to the George Washington Bridge. Yet he felt so alone and judged, he ended his own life.
I often wonder if just one person smiled at him, or said hello, would everything have gone differently? Do the people we know and love, also know how much we love and care about them? Do we tell the people in our lives that we accept them for exactly who they are? These are the questions we can ask ourselves every day. These are the questions that I imagine to make a difference.
I can remember updating my Grandma on the outpouring of comments on the then “In Honor of Tyler Clementi” Facebook page. One minute someone would write from Seattle, Washington and the next minute, Sydney, Australia. How could so many people have messages of hope and love and inspiration for Tyler in the aftermath of his death? If he was able to feel even one ounce of the love that truly existed out there for him, would he have ever done what he did?
In our family, Tyler was the very talented musician and youngest of the bunch of grandchildren. He was creative, witty, charming and intelligent. He could kick all of our butts in cards or sit back and observe, then chime into any conversation without ever skipping a beat. We saw each other on holidays or when our family would get together for birthdays, graduations, BBQ’s and milestone events in all of our lives. That’s what cousins do. We were family. A relationship does not have to be defined, explained or understood by anyone else. Every person in our lives impacts us in different ways.
I’m the oldest and we were eight years apart. In high school I was a “Peer Listener” where I was selected as a student whose peers could call to talk with if they were facing struggles in their daily lives. This was before social media and an actual list of land-line phone numbers was printed and distributed. I quickly became aware of all sorts of feelings and emotions that we go through. I couldn’t believe my cousin was in such a terrible place that he did not feel he had a safe haven to reach out to. Even my tough guy father – a Marine and Union Plumber – would’ve been there in a heartbeat for his nephew.
I have always had friends who were gay, lesbian and straight. I simply never really thought of them as if their sexual preference or identity of “gay” or “lesbian” was what ultimately defined them. To me they are friends, cousins, teammates, and people to laugh with or share meals with. Perhaps it is more important to also acknowledge people for exactly who they are? If we feel someone might be uncomfortable and we have the opportunity to support them… why not go for it? Wouldn’t you rather have your loved ones here with you no matter what?!
There was a prayer service at my aunt & uncle’s (then) church right when Tyler passed, and although I was not of the same faith, I spoke there about accepting and welcoming others… about how even a smile
could go a long way. I was devastated that the youngest member of our family would no longer be at our Thanksgiving table because he killed himself. No one or no family should ever have to go through this type of heartache. It hurt me deeply that he felt so alone that his only choice was to end his life. I felt like I couldn’t escape the sadness myself. I helped my aunt & uncle in every way I could. I spent hours consoling my grandmother when she’d cry about out-living a grandchild. I couldn’t close my eyes without thinking of Tyler alone on the bridge.
In early October of 2010, I gave the eulogy at Tyler’s funeral and wanted to do whatever I possibly could to try to help make a difference to prevent such tragedies. I joined Garden State Equality and participated in various press conferences, PSA’s, events and Anti-Bullying kick-offs at schools. I testified at the NJ Assembly Judiciary Committee Meeting on behalf of the Marriage Equality Bill, taught yoga & self-acceptance classes at the annual IVYQ (Inter-Ivy League LGBTQ Conferences at Brown University & Yale), and I stood beside legislators for the kick-off of NJ’s Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights Act. I called friends and made sure to tell them what I had always loved about them.
People who wanted to “come out” and tell someone about their sexual orientation, but might not have been ready to tell their family members or Facebook followers yet, were suddenly confiding in me. I was honored to be there for them and truly felt it was a gift I could give back in remembrance of my cousin. To stand beside someone in their bravest and most courageous moments, is probably one of the coolest things I’ll ever do in my life. When a former teammate of mine asked me to come talk to her parents with her because she was afraid of their backlash, I was shocked. She wanted to tell them that she had been dating a girl from college. And she wanted to remind them of Tyler’s story, that it’s not always easy to simply be who you are. And suddenly, a kitchen table conversation felt even more important than speaking up at large scale events.
It’s the day-to-day actions of our lives that truly make a difference. There are scholarships and events held in Tyler’s name as a way to honor and remember his life, too.
All of the tears and comments and nice posts in the world aren’t going to bring my cousin back. They won’t bring anyone’s loved ones back.
I’m only his cousin but I would’ve done anything in the world to help him learn and know how loved he was, for exactly who he was. I would do that for any of your loved ones if it means you won’t lose them, too!
How did he not know this? How can we help family members, friends, co-workers, neighbors and even strangers know how valuable they are in our lives and to society? How do we let others know it’s okay to be who they are?
These are the questions that remain. These are the questions that are worth trying to figure out today.
My current job in human resources has brought me to several career fairs at Rutgers University. My heart still hurts as I approach campus every time. Aside from these events, the only other time I’ve ever been to Rutgers was to help my aunt and uncle pack up Tyler’s dorm room. It’s emotional for me. And my heightened empathy inspires me to be as welcoming and positive to every student that stops by our booth to drop off their resume and learn about career opportunities. I’m especially moved by the freshmen and those who are clearly shy and reaching out of their comfort zone to initiate a conversation. It’s a competitive business world out there, but it doesn’t mean it also can’t be kind. Obviously, there is specific criteria to be met and we can’t hire every student that stops by. But I do try to make sure that if they’ve made the effort to talk with me or learn about our company, I want them to feel comfortable and listened to. Career fairs are for students to explore. They’re learning how to promote themselves and build for their future. Why not make it the most positive experience you can for someone else? Beyond a resume and coursework, we don’t know what these candidates are going through. Could one of them feel as alone as my cousin felt?
Ten years after losing Tyler, and twenty years after me being a “Peer Listener” in high school… the mayor of my hometown established the Hawthorne Pride Alliance this year to raise awareness for rights affecting gay men, lesbians, bisexual and transgender people. I’m honored to be a straight ally and part of this initiative to educate, enlighten, motivate, appreciate, elevate and support our community. It’s been part of my mission, especially since Tyler’s passing, to help others feel loved for who they are. We often think the big stories like this don’t happen in our town or backyard, but from experience… let me tell you… an entire family can come crashing down in an instant.
I’m still amazed at the heights, width and depth that Tyler’s story has reached. To the world, he might be remembered as the “gay student from Rutgers who was cyber-bullied and jumped of the George Washington Bridge”. There is no doubt that his life and his death ignited sparks of conversation, movement and change.
To me, he is the youngest of our cousins and should still be here today.
An entire decade has gone by.
If only he knew how much his life mattered.