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.”

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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.

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.”


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