The suicide of Tyler Clementi is a tragedy that has hit close to home for many Rutgers students, staff, and faculty as well as the greater university community in the country. Incidents like these are troubling and often times spark hasty reactions. While it is difficult to make any claims that Tyler’s death was the result of a hate crime, it is clear that a general environment of disrespect, cruelty, and bullying were factors (again not particularly decisive) that affected the emotions and actions of this young man.
It is unclear as to whether or not, and to what extent, we can read gender, sexuality, or any form of identity politics into such a personal and singular act. This event does, however, prompt a question of how a department like Women’s and Gender Studies can engage with this event to examine how it conceives of and educates politics of difference through its respective disciplinary lens. Women’s and Gender Studies is a department and discipline forged out of adversity that demands that perspectives of the world and the creation of knowledge need to equitably address groups historically marginalized by gender and sexuality. A most basic definition to be sure, I find the possibility of discussion about the multiple resonances of Tyler’s death can be productively mediated through the tools this field has used to speak about, interrogate, and challenge the politics of difference and the right to identities both marginal and normative.
What I would like to ask of Women’s and Gender Studies is not what greater historical and cultural causes can be mapped onto and through Tyler’s death, but rather, ‘how do we educate a new generation to create a world where his suicide could be prevented?’ In other words, my most burning question after hearing of Tyler’s passing was ‘what have we done as a society to make this young man feel as if this was an option (or solution)?’ We cannot permit ourselves to wait until these catastrophes remind us to question our own contributions to the isolation and degradation of others.
Is it within our disciplines and ideologies of self-hood and freedom from oppression to take care of and give one another methods of ascertaining self-worth as well as the ability to respect others within multiple contexts? How can we be active in our respect of difference and the burdens that come with living in a society that theoretically respects difference but not always the different. Our orientations towards freedom, respect, and equality come with responsibilities that gesture towards social actions. Ideas of a democratic notion of belonging influence the way we teach and equip our new society to construct their worlds, but they are not a given.