Young lives lost, and a note on homophobia

by Rob Tiller

One of the things I like about my morning newspaper is the obituaries. I paid no attention to them in my younger days, and thought it odd that older people read them. Then, somehow, I got older, and became sort of a fan. Many are pro forma statements, but as a group, they give some clues as to how people manage grief. Every now and again, there is an account of someone who apparently lived a life that enriched the lives of those surviving, and those cheer me up.

But the obits I tend to focus on are those involving young people. Old people are supposed to die eventually, but not young people, so there’s always an element of tragedy. Every now and again, I get a sobering dose of pain, as when a death looks like it could have been a child of my own. There was one such this week — a young woman named Grace White from Cary (like use, until recently), who’d just graduated from N.C. State (like my dear Jocelyn), worked in Hemlock Bluffs Nature Center (where I’ve been many times), who died in a wakeboarding accident on Harris Lake. Apparently she hit her head hard in a fall and had a fatal brain injury. Her dad is speaking out on the dangers of wakeboarding without a helmet. I am so very sorry for his loss.

This week the suicide of Tyler Clementi, an 18-year-old violinist at Rutgers University, became a national story that also seemed close to home. Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge into the Hudson after his roommate posted a video on the internet of him kissing another male. Much of the commentary has focussed on the effects of bullying and the power of the web. But the story is surely in part about homophobia. The reluctance of the mainstream press to treat this aspect of tragedy directly is dispiriting.

I keep thinking we may have turned the corner on homophobia, but Clementi’s death is a reminder that it’s alive and well. The resistance to gay marriage has weakened, but a major segment of the population is still fearful of gays, and there are still politicians (including gay ones) who exploit this fear. One of the hardy perennial fear narratives is conflating gay sex between consenting adults with deviants who prey on children. I think such myths are gradually losing their power as more people realize that gays are normal people with normal ethics who pose no special threat. Everyone knows and gets along with gay people, whether they know it or not. But there are still minds that need to be changed. The Clementi tragedy reminds us that this is an urgent matter, because some lives are at risk.

One aspect of the story that made it more personal for me was the fact that Clementi apparently was a talented music student. In my time as music student at N.C. School of the Arts and Oberlin Conservatory, I knew many gay students, and came to understand that gays are major contributors to our artistic life. Just as gay friends have enriched my life, gays have made our society richer.

I have a theory as to why gays are so important in the arts. Artistic expression involves emotional exposure that runs counter to male stereotypes. Stereotypical American males don’t say much about their inner feelings. Art goes against this grain, since it involves exposing feelings. You don’t have to be gay to be an artist, and plainly being gay will not make you an artist. But the willingness to reject stereotypes is something gays almost have to have, and that type of courage is helpful for an artist.

I’d guess that Clementi had not worked through and accepted his sexuality, and so he was probably particularly vulnerable to cruel homophobic gibes. That sort of behavior, and homophobic thinking, has got to stop. It could help to speak up on the issue, and invite others to examine their prejudices. I’ll say it, though it probably rules out any chance of elected office: gays are good for our society. Or to put it in bumperstickerese: gay is good.