Legislators set the tone for bullying

Barocas, Legal Director of NJ’s ACLU, suggests our Governor look in the mirror, and our Senate President’s words ring hollow. – promoted by Rosi

It didn’t take long for my feelings of horror and sadness at the suicide of Tyler Clementi to turn into anger – anger not just at the unfeeling young students who so cruelly invaded Tyler’s privacy, but at our state’s leaders who, through their refusal to provide gay and lesbian citizens with full equality, have stigmatized gay and lesbian relationships and set the tone for tragedies like this to occur.

A line from my testimony to the New Jersey legislature during the 2009 marriage equality debate echoed hauntingly in my mind:

“When the state itself segregates people, it grants the rest of society permission to do the same. Through its example, the legislature excuses bigotry and emboldens bullies.”

keep reading below the fold

Tyler’s roommate, along with another student, apparently felt emboldened enough to broadcast Tyler’s private sexual activities for his own (and others’) amusement. According to reports, Tyler reached out to a message board of a gay website for help. But apparently the broadcast of his sexual activities was more than Tyler could bear.

During the marriage equality hearings in Trenton, a gay student and children of gay and lesbian parents described having to endure cruel, ongoing bullying, and how they were made to feel isolated from others because their sexual orientation was mocked or their parents’ “civil union” relationships were not recognized or understood.

At that moment, the legislature could have assisted in teaching tolerance, acceptance and understanding, and paved the way for acceptance of young gays and lesbians. Instead, our legislators voted for intolerance and political expediency – at the expense of the well-being of many of its citizens, particularly children.

Justice Louis Brandeis said, “Our government is the potent, the omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example.” In short, our government sets the tone for its citizens to follow.

In relegating gay and lesbian relationships to a different title and system of rights, our legislators expressed to the entire state that gay and lesbian relationships are to be compartmentalized, set aside from “normal” relationships, and not worthy of the labels we apply to everyone else. How can the state now stand up to stop bullying and promote fairness and equality when it itself literally calls people by different names?

Prior to the Civil Unions Law, our state had never before determined that all citizens are due certain rights and privileges, yet set up a separate system and label for the rights of one identified group of citizens to distinguish them from all others. If such a separate system of rights and the affixiation of a different label were done on the basis of race, religion or ethnicity, we would decry it, call it bigotry and see it as an affront to all New Jerseyans. When it is done on the basis of sexual orientation, it is no less of an affront to all New Jerseyans, and no less abhorrent and wrong.

I have no doubt that many legislators will condemn the alleged actions of Rutgers’ students who outed Tyler’s sexual activity on the web, will scream from the rooftops for there to be stronger cyber-bullying laws or privacy laws, and will try to placate the LGBT community with a call for acceptance and an end to bullying.

These actions, however sincere, will effect little change. We are stunted as a society because our leaders have failed to lead when it matters most. Every elected official in New Jersey who chose not to support marriage equality contributed to an atmosphere that led to the death of Tyler Clementi, and to the bullying and suicides of countless others.

Senate President Stephen Sweeney, who chose to abstain from the vote on marriage equality, asked the Senate to observe a moment of silence in memory of Tyler and vowed “to pass laws to protect our residents.” Yet it was Sweeney and others’ silence during the marriage equality debate that makes his words now ring hollow.

And Governor Chris Christie, who opposes marriage equality, said that he did not know how the two Rutgers students involved in the videotaping could sleep at night “knowing that they contributed to driving that young man to that alternative.” While I’ve no reason to doubt that the Governor’s condolences to the Clementi family are heartfelt, he needs to understand that “contributions” come in many forms…and some, Governor, require a look in the mirror.

Comments (23)

  1. Alex

    Thank you for putting in words the bitterness and anger many of us feel. The hypocrisy of those who decry things like this on the one hand, while relegating us to second-class citizenship on the other, is too disgusting for words.

  2. deciminyan

    The right wing hate industry has a knack for disguising their agenda by making it look like the opposite of what it is.  This ostenible anti-bullying article was pointed out to me.  Digging through the links, I discovered that it is sponsored by “Focus on the Family”, a highly powerful political quasi-religious organization that promotes intolerance through their web site truetolerance.org.

    As we educate our kids on the dangers of bullying, inappropriate use of the internet, privacy, and other issues, we need to also make them aware of these charlatans out there who are co-conspirators in some of the tragic events that we have seen recently.

  3. Jay Lassiter

    While it’s true that Tyler Clementi was still in high school when the NJ legislature — notably Steve Sweeney –legally codified his inequality with their NO(N)-Votes on Marriage, I don’t think that makes Sweeney’s sentiment ring totally hollow this time.  I heard his statement and I could be wrong but it really sounded like a guy with an instinct to protect vulnerable kids.  

    Nor do i think it’s hollow that Shirley Turner (also a NO on marriage) just sponsored a new bill, per today’s Courier Post:

    Tyler Clementi’s fatal plunge off the George Washington Bridge last week spurred the legislation, introduced by Sen. Shirley K. Turner, D-Mercer. A bipartisan bill – termed the “anti-bullying bill of rights” by Assemblywomen Valerie Vainieri, D-Bergen, and Mary Pat Angelini, R-Monmouth – is currently being written and will be introduced shortly, according to the assemblywomen.  

    That said, it’s hard to NOT remember the sad shitty sinking feeling that we all felt the day the marriage bill went down.  But if Sweeney and Turner want to try to make amends by protecting LGBT kids that’s cool with me.

  4. Winston Smith


  5. firstamend07

    What happened to Tyler Clementi was absolutely horrible. I do not care if he was gay, straight, black ,white, male ,or female. There should be no tolerance for the actions of those two adult students. I really hope that they are prosecuted under the hate crimes law.

    But to utilize this tragedy and question both the feelings of the Governor and the State Senate President based on some Marriage Equality vote is the lowest form of exploitation!

    The gut feeling of hurt and disgust that both Christie and Sweeney felt was genuine. To insinuate that they should feel some type of guilt is disgraceful .

    The following comment is probably the most asinine and foolish I have ever seen on this site,” Every elected official in New Jersey who chose not to support marriage equality contributed to an atmosphere that led to the death of Tyler Clementi, and to the bullying and suicides of countless others. ”


    How can you exploit this tragic death like that?

    To those of you who agree with this EdBarocas person I ask only that you reread that comment and then ask your self if you really believe it.

    If ME supporters are going to exploit horrible situations like this death then you deserve to lose every vote that comes up.

    SHAME ON ALL OF YOU!      

  6. firstamend07

    Where are the responsible ME supporters?

    I find it almost impossible to believe that any of you can agree with this disgraceful post.

  7. Ed Barocas (Post author)

    I was going to write a full response, but Allison Peltzman’s statement captured my sentiments perfectly.  As far as my comments re: Senate President Sweeney and Governor Christie, I do believe their comments and actions were sincere….As Allison wrote: “It’s not a charge of insincerity. It’s a charge of inconsistency.”

  8. Jersey Shore John

    “Smoke on your pipe and put that in.”

  9. Jersey Shore John

    This event happened in a vacuum. Thanks for the compartmentalizing rationalizations. It always works so well when steeping in a tea bag.

  10. leslie6042

    This is not exploitation at all. Ed Barocas’ blog post explicitly points out how the Legislature’s refusal to pass marriage equality contributed to the environment that perpetuates 2nd class citizenship for LGBT people and a permissive atmosphere for bullying like this to take place.

  11. Babs NJSD

    Legalized, institutionalized and cultural discrimination breeds ignorance, bigotry, hate, fear, indifference. The person who culturally is recognized as not equal is trivialized, perhaps regarded in contempt. “that is so gay!”

    Exploit? Gimme a break! When you a fighting for rights and respect in this society, you’d better use your first amendment rights and all your rights to protect yourselves and loved ones.

    Cut the hypocritical baloney, please!

    If I do have a problem with everything going on, it is regarding the “lack of community outrage” and action regarding the apparent hate crime murder of another member of the “queer” community. Victoria White of Newark was murdered in Maplewood. She was an apparent success story, was at peace with herself, accepted by family and friends and brutally murdered! Was there no outrage because she was transgender and African American?

    I guess “all (wo)men are created equal” … maybe not!

  12. Rosi Efthim

    Readers who may arrive at Blue Jersey for the first time because of this story may not realize that the poster firstamend07 has used most of their engagement here to defend Steve Sweeney, the NJ Senate President, on a variety of issues but especially his disappointing decision to abstain on the marriage equality vote rather than lead on it. This, to the degree that other Blue Jersey users have had to speculate who this anonymous poster really is, and how tied to Sweeney.

    That said, firstamend07’s position is still welcome here, and their opinion expressed above – though probably quite different from most of ours – is too. But firstamend07’s outrage that anyone would point a finger at Sweeney here … well, let’s say that outrage isn’t exactly a surprise.  

  13. firstamend07

    You are using this poor boys death for your own purpose.

    That is shameful.  

  14. Rosi Efthim

    Why don’t you write a diary about Victoria White here?  

  15. Rosi Efthim

    I finally clicked that link in the comment above.

    Parents beware:

    “Anti-bullying” initiatives are gay activists’ latest tools of choice for sneaking homosexuality lessons into the classrooms.

    There are so many things wrong with that sentence it’s hard to know where to begin. But I think I’d start with, wtf is a “homosexuality lesson”? Paranoid much, Focus on the Family folks? Little worried about your own straightness? Okay, just checking …

  16. firstamend07

    This is an open site and I have always enjoyed the give and take.

    However ,on this I am adamant. There are some posters who have exploited  this tragic death and used twisted logic to blame legislators and the governor.

    That is disgraceful.

    Christie,Sweeney,Turner, etc are no more responsible for his death then you or I.

    This is also NOT an ME issue.

    I appreciate your “kind” words but please do not apologize for me to our ” new ” posters.

    They are wrong and should be called out for exploitation.

    Prayers and then awareness should be the goal. Venom against Christie, Sweeney and Turner is just not right in regards to this tragic death.    

  17. Rosi Efthim

    I wasn’t apologizing. I was providing some context.  

  18. SmartyJones

    it never occured to me that your bashing of everyone who disagrees with Steve Sweeney as a “hater” was “give and take.”

    We are all responsible for Tyler Clementi’s death.  You might take on some of that responsibility by looking in the mirror.

  19. Jersey Shore John

    this tragic death and used twisted logic to blame legislators…”


  20. Babs NJSD

    If you are, or perceived to be of a separate class or caste, you will be perceived and treated as not equal.

    If it is acceptable for mainstream religions to reject and demonize you(lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender citizens) and deny your acceptance and existence, and use fear to politicize your existence and attempts at equality. If you as a public servant buy into that paradigm, that institutionalized caste system … you must accept the responsibility for those actions.

    Separate is not equal!  

  21. Allison Peltzman

    I agree that Sweeney’s silence on marriage doesn’t make his sentiment on bullying ring hollow. But it does make Sweeney’s abstention on the marriage vote seem cowardly and cynical.

    No one except the worst kinds of bigots would condone the torment that led Tyler Clementi to commit suicide. No one questions the sincerity of the grief around the world.

    Yet, it’s a cop-out for our elected leaders to speak out against only the worst possible consequences of discrimination. We’re supposed to be okay with leaders who condemn discrimination when it results in death, but who take no stance on the everyday indignities of unequal treatment? They’re not separate issues.

    It’s not a charge of insincerity. It’s a charge of inconsistency.  

    There’s a cognitive dissonance. How is the bullying that robs gay kids of their futures because they can’t see how society will ever change different from the kind of bullying that endures daily in the more subtle, yet more pervasive form of institutionalized inequality?

    If politicians are honest about the offensiveness of discrimination, they will be honest about it in all of its forms. Politicians who concede the humanity of all people only in the most dire, extreme situations perpetuate teenagers’ fears that the pain will never get better, that society will never view them as equal, and that the shame of being gay won’t lift because the state still refuses to extend equal protection.

    While our politicians don’t want kids to kill themselves, they also don’t want to do anything to alleviate the pain of discrimination while they’re actually living.

    Politicians need to speak out for the right things not just when it’s convenient, but also when there’s something at stake.  The tacit acceptance of discrimination on a quiet, everyday basis allows the situation to simmer until it boils over in crisis. It’s time to stop the messes before they begin rather than clean up the mistakes only after they’re done their damage.

    If we fall asleep after each wake-up call, we’ll never be able to prevent the next tragedy. It takes long, hard, unglamorous work to write laws that guarantee equality. Pointing the finger to the individual bullies during incidents we let ourselves see as isolated only sublimates our collective responsibility to protect society’s most vulnerable members. It gives our leaders a pass they don’t deserve when they take the easy way out.

  22. Allison Peltzman

    I’m a colleague of Ed’s at the ACLU-NJ, and I wanted to add my two cents to Jay’s post, since I thought it raised some good points in response to Ed.

  23. Jersey Shore John

    Now back to your party’s practice of exploiting the deaths of 3,000 people on 9/11 for your own purpose.

    Oh: and your adherence to the TeaParty’s practice of incorrect punctuation.


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *