Originally published on The Huffington Post on October 1, 2010.
By now we’ve all read the headlines about Tyler Clementi. Tyler, a freshman at Rutgers, told his RA he was being bullied by his fellow students. He then posted a cry for help on Facebook, telling his friends that he planned to kill himself. And then Tyler, a shy, brilliant violinist and gay teen, ended his life on Wednesday.
Sadly, this isn’t a random tragedy. A pattern is occurring and we need to shine a light on it: Gay teens are up to four times more likely to end their lives than straight teens, according to a 2007 Massachusetts youth risk survey. Why? Partly because they are being bullied relentlessly at their schools—whether it’s middle school, high school or college. In fact, nine out of ten gay teens report being bullied, according to a survey by the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN).
This is staggering. And unacceptable.
From a communications perspective, what can we do?
First, let’s flesh out what’s going on: Anti-gay bullying has a lot of layers. Some of it comes from a place of true hatred or homophobia. But our research shows that a lot of it is unintentional: Most teens don’t realize that their words (such as “that’s so gay”) are hurtful and can escalate a situation, leading to more overt verbal and physical bullying. Our PSA campaign with GLSEN—Think Before You Speak—aims to combat the unintentional use of anti-gay language. But it has to be finessed: you can’t tell teens what to do by lecturing. The PSAs try to convey that their seemingly mindless words can make someone feel degraded or far far worse.
Teens aren’t the only problem here. We all have a role to play. We—as educators, parents, peers, co-workers and friends—need to intervene. Somehow, we have collectively created a culture where Tyler felt he had no choice but to end his life.
Suicide and bullying are incredibly complex interrelated problems and we can’t solve this overnight. But we can all make a difference by not tolerating hurtful words. By talking about it with our friends, families and yes, even strangers, the next time you hear someone say “that’s so gay.” In fact, why not take it a step further and sign the pledge or get materials to help share the message.