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.”
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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.