In a flash, Tyler Clementi’s story appears to have proven that many gay college students are vulnerable to torment and harassment, despite increasing efforts on campuses to promote tolerance and provide resources. Moreover, the Rutgers University student’s death has shed light on a continuing debate among college administrators about the best way to serve students who may be uncertain about their sexual identities or are taunted for being gay.
Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge last week, after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, allegedly streamed online video of Clementi engaged in an intimate encounter with a young man in Ravi and Clementi's dorm room. It was just three days later that Clementi, 18, informed his friends on Facebook that he was “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
“Our colleges and universities are not the welcoming places we think they are for the LGBT [Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender] community,” said Zack Ford, who writes a blog about higher education and gay issues.
In a striking coincidence, just a few days passed between Clementi’s death and the release of a troubling national report on the campus climate for gay students. The report by Campus Pride, a nonprofit network supporting gay students, found that about one quarter of gay staff, faculty and students in the U.S. said they’d experienced harassment, and nearly all – 83 percent – said it was based on sexual identity.
Given the prevalence of reports from students who feel harassed over sexual orientation, it’s disturbing to contemplate that one or two specific incidents may have triggered Clementi’s actions, Ford said.
“There are people who are experiencing tons of those moments throughout their experience at the university, but for him it [maybe] only took one. So what does it say? It shows it really is a real problem, and on so many campuses the students themselves have to be their own advocates, they have to be surrogate administrators," Ford said. "Tyler’s story speaks to just how hard it can be being out on campus and what the real consequences of that negative climate can be.”
It is unclear whether Clementi was openly gay. His roommate’s reported Tweets appeared designed to expose Clementi for “making out with a dude.” Ravi and Molly Wei, another Rutgers freshman, have both been charged with invading Clementi’s privacy in connection with the surreptitious taping.
“If the charges are true, these actions gravely violate the university’s standards of decency and humanity,” Richard L. McCormick, president of Rutgers, said in a written statement Wednesday.
While the case at Rutgers is still unfolding, it has intensified an ongoing discussion about how best to serve students who are openly gay or questioning their sexual orientations. Some students at the university have been pushing for a “safe space” on campus, specifically designated as gender-neutral or welcoming. Such a move, however, raises obvious questions about segregating students based on sexual identity.
Robert O’Brien, an assistant instructor of anthropology at Rutgers who has joined students in the safe space push, said their efforts had thus far been greeted with a lukewarm reception from administrators.
“[Students] were told things like they don’t’ understand how the world works. They were told Rutgers is all a safe space, so why would they need a safe space in their dorms,” said O’Brien, who identifies as bisexual and gender-nonconforming. “What the students are ultimately asking for is, first of all, the right to a dorm space that is going to be accepting of LGBTQ.”
The residence life coordinator at Rutgers did not respond to an e-mail inquiry Thursday, and public affairs officials did not respond to requests to arrange an interview.
While residence life officials across the country are working to protect students from harassment over sexual orientation, there’s debate about the extent to which dorm room assignment methodologies can or should fit into an overall strategy. Gender-neutral dormitories, for instance, have been established “in the best of faith” only to become targets for vandalism and harassment, said Norbert Dunkel, past president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers -- International. On the flip side, deciding not to establish housing that caters to gay students means universities are less able to start targeted programming in the dormitories, he said.
“So the question is which way do you go, and there’s not an answer to that yet. There is a struggle that housing is having,” said Dunkel, assistant vice president and director of housing and residence education at the University of Florida.
Florida has not designated housing with regard to sexual identity, opting instead to employ a Facebook application called RoomBug that allows students to pick their own roommates based on interests, lifestyle choices, identities or other factors. While students may choose one another based on interests as varied as music or study hours, the application would allow them to discuss sexual orientation if they chose.
Successfully protecting students from harassment, however, goes well beyond effective room pairings, experts say. Many colleges have implemented a host of additional support services for gay students, and Rutgers is no exception. The Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, housed under student affairs at Rutgers, was designed to provide educational, social and leadership development programs for gay students and “allies.” Additionally, the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Alliance of Rutgers University (BiGLARU) traces its roots back to the origins of gay civil rights movements on college campuses.
Rutgers's nondiscrimination policy, which is more far-reaching than that of many colleges, also covers “sexual orientation, gender identity and expression.” A Campus Pride study of individual campuses, which used universities’ own survey responses to assess campus climate, gave Rutgers four of five possible stars overall and three of five stars in the area of housing and residence life.
What Clementi's death may painfully illustrate, however, is that even students on a campus considered to be proactive don't always find the help they need. Indeed, reports indicate that Clementi may have used an anonymous message board to express doubts about how the university would respond if he actually complained.
While some campuses have made progress providing resources, most aren't doing enough, said Shane Windmeyer, founder and executive director of Campus Pride. Citing research from the group’s recent survey, Windmeyer said there’s a disconnect between what colleges say they’re doing to support students and the “institutional” resources – beyond the mere presence of student groups – that are actually in place.
“We have had this picture that colleges and universities are these progressive institutions,” he said. “Only about 7 percent of our colleges and universities across the nation actually have LGBT [institutional] support. That’s alarming.
“It’s absurd to think we haven’t done more on our college campuses in 2010.”