Being Gay on Campus: Princeton Reacts to Clementi’s Suicide

When Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutger’s University, committed suicide last month after being bullied for his sexual orientation, it hit home for Princeton students. We typically consider ourselves a welcoming place for gay students, but in the wake of this incident, we’ve been forced to reexamine how welcoming we really are.


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Clementi, an eighteen-year-old freshman at Rutgers, jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York on September 22, after his roommate broadcast a video on the internet of Clementi’s sexual encounter with another man.

Effect on Princeton students

In the days immediately following the incident, it seemed like Clementi’s death was everywhere on Princeton’s campus.  His suicide was so close to home—Princeton is a mere 18.3 miles away from Rutgers by car—that it really scared some people, and the fact that Molly Wei was a Princeton Junction native meant that the event was constantly present in the local news.

“I think the closeness did have a definite effect on us,” said Christina Henricks, a Princeton sophomore who has been active in events at Princeton’s LGBT Center since she arrived here last fall. “It happened nearby, rather than in another state, and that makes it much more relatable.”

LGBT stands for “lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered,” and is an acronym often used to describe the community of students with sexual preferences that are not strictly heterosexual.

Our LGBT Center hosted a number of events related to Clementi’s death, starting with an informal discussion at the Center on October 2.  At the discussion, over twenty undergrads, grad students, a Public Safety officer, Resident Advsiors (R.A.s), faculty members, and other administrators took the opportunity to discuss how the tragedy had affected them.

“It affected everyone on some personal level,” said Henricks of the discussion. “Some people had lived in New Jersey, some people were active in the LGBT community on campus, and others had never been involved with the Center and just wanted to discuss the issue.”

Students also went en masse to Rutgers University’s candlelit vigil for Clementi on October 3. The Princeton contingent dressed in our school colors, orange and black, to make it clear that Rutgers had our school’s support.  Princeton also contributed money for the candles at the vigil, Henricks said.

Princeton students attend the Rutgers vigil – video by The Daily Princetonian

“As people were leaving [the vigil], a Rutgers professor actually approached me and another Princeton student and thanked us for being there,” Henricks said.  “He said he’d gone to Columbia, and that he was proud to see the kind of Ivy support that we brought by reaching out to Rutgers.”

The nationwide trend

One of the scariest things about Clementi’s death is that it’s part of an emerging national trend of teen suicides related to homophobia.  According to Debbie Bazarsky, the Director of Princeton’s LGBT Center, more than seven other teenagers in the United States and Canada have committed suicide as a response to homophobia in the past ten weeks.

“This year is an exception: if you asked me about the past ten years, I’d say incidents have definitely been on the decline, but these past months have seen a real spike, and we don’t really know what that’s about,” Bazarsky said. “I haven’t seen anyone about physical violence or anything extreme here at Princeton in a number of years, but verbal harassment can be just as hurtful.”

The news of Clementi’s suicide came in the wake of a groundbreaking national study of homophobia on American campuses, conducted by the nonprofit group College Pride. After surveying more than 5,000 students, faculty members and administrators at colleges and universities across the country, College Pride concluded that LGBT students are far more likely to experience discrimination on campus, more likely to drop out of college because of harassment, and much more likely to fear for their physical safety.

Campuses respond

Campuses nationwide have been reacting to this frightening new trend by holding vigils, setting up task forces, and closely reexamining their harassment policies.  Active Minds, a network of campus groups focused on mental health, recently hosted a national conference on suicide prevention at Montclair State University, another New Jersey college that’s about 30 miles from Rutgers. Students at Quinnipiac University organized a day of silence to honor Clementi.  At the University of Wisconsin, a panel discussion tapped faculty and students to discuss LGBT bullying.  In Washington, D.C. the city council has proposed a new bill banning bullying in public schools.

Video from DePaul University’s candlelight vigil:

The scope of the Clementi tragedy has also caused Princeton administrators, faculty and students alike to reexamine how we combat harassment on our campus, as well as how we reach out to LGBT students.

“This tragedy was absolutely a topic of discussion among Princeton administrators,” said Dr. Michael Olin, the director of student life for Wilson College, one of Princeton’s six undergraduate residential colleges.  “Unfortunately, this type of tragedy can happen on any campus, and students, staff, and faculty are affected in many ways….I find Princeton to be a very tolerant place, though as with any community, there are pockets of narrow-mindedness.”

Princeton has received national praise for its LGBT-friendly policies: it was one of only two Ivy League schools to rank in Newsweek’s Top Ten list of gay-friendly American colleges (along with the University of Pennsylvania).  It also received a perfect score from Campus Climate Index, which grades American universities for the resources they offer LGBT students.  Princeton’s LGBT Center, with its comfy couches, bright banners, and free hot drinks, is an often-visited space within our main Campus Center.  The LGBT Center also sponsors a steady stream of speakers, performances, and other events every week.

The realities of fighting discrimination

Hofstra University in New York holds a vigil to honor Clementi (Creative commons photo by Flickr user MikaelleS)
Hofstra University in New York holds a vigil to honor Clementi (Creative commons photo by Flickr user MikaelleS)

Despite all of these efforts, however, it’s hard to combat on-the-ground homophobia at any college, and Princeton is no exception.  Students I’ve spoken to, many of whom asked not to be quoted directly in this piece, have told me about how Princeton has a double standard in terms of homophobia.  Their peers are fine with them being gay in theory until they do something that is outwardly “too gay,” like kissing a same-sex partner in public.

“Oftentimes, people are okay with students being gay until they have a significant other of the same sex, or until they dance with someone of the same sex at one of the eating clubs, or until they make it a visible part of who they are,” said Bazarsky, in her introduction to a panel discussion for Coming Out Day on October 10. “Eating clubs” are the center of the university’s nightlife.  “It’s as if they can only be gay if they do not exhibit any outwardly gay characteristics, behaviors, or qualities, much like Don’t Ask Don’t Tell.”

While Princeton is a fairly liberal campus politically, “there’s a way the surface of ‘acceptance’ doesn’t filter down to daily practice,” said Professor Jill Dolan, director of Princeton’s Program for the Study of Women and Gender.  The words “tolerant” and “accepting,” while not offensive in and of themselves, can be used in ways that give straight people the moral high ground by implying that LGBT students need to seek their straight peers’ approval.

“[Straight] allies need to take responsibility and embrace all aspects of the LGBT community, not just the simple and socially acceptable ones,” wrote sophomore Luke Massa in an October column for The Daily Princetonian, our school newspaper (called The Daily Prince for short). “When allies refuse to avert their gaze when LGBT people display affection or stand up to call someone out for using an offensive slur, they help establish a culture where it’s neither acceptable nor amusing to bully people for their sexual orientation.”

Princeton alumni attend a gay dance at the university's iconic Whig Hall (Photo: Creative commons by Flickr user jsmjr)
Princeton alumni attend a gay dance at the university's iconic Whig Hall (Photo: creative commons by Flickr user jsmjr)

Then there’s the problem of internet harassment, which can be extremely difficult to regulate.  While students today are warier of posting inflammatory remarks on their Facebook pages or other places where their comments can be traced back to them, students have come to Bazarsky at the LGBT Center about anonymous homophobic remarks on The Daily Prince‘s website and posts on PrincetonFML.com, a popular site where Princeton students rant anonymously about various facets of academic and social life.  The words “gay” and “faggot” appear intermittently on both sites, though both have moderators who attempt to regulate content.

“There’s no way to know if these comments are posted by Princeton students, or people from halfway across the world,” Bazarsky explained.  “It makes the campus feel more hostile, because you don’t know who’s saying these things.”

While the comments on both sites are monitored, some of the ones that go unedited are still extremely hurtful, like this one that appeared on an article last year in The Daily Prince:  “Campus isn’t welcoming of you guys??? Are you kidding me??? Half of my tuition goes to your moronic ‘support groups’…What else do you want me to do to make you feel ‘comfortable’? French kiss my roommates? Do what you want in bed, but it’s OKAY for us to be against overt gaydom.”

Though there seems to be a disconnect between the University’s LGBT-friendly programs and the realities of being LGBT at Princeton, faculty and students who I spoke to here all agreed on one thing: they could definitely picture an instance like Clementi’s suicide happening on our campus.

“I think attacking Rutgers is missing the point because homophobia happens everywhere.  People have so many resources here, but sometimes that’s not enough if a student feels without hope,” said Bazarsky. “I’d like to believe that something like this wouldn’t happen here, but could it? Absolutely.”