06 October 2010

Tyler Clementi, Rutgers and Me

Tyler Clementi's suicide prompted me to do something I don't do very often:  I found myself thinking about my own days at Rutgers.  I'm not going to express shock and disbelief, or murmur that what happened to him was inevitable.  However, I must say that even though I am upset, I am also not surprised.

When I attended Rutgers three decades ago, campus social life was still driven, to a very large degree, by the fraternities.  That might have been a consequence of the fact that Rutgers College (RC), the "original" school of Rutgers University (RU), was all-male for more than two hundred years and had begun to enroll women only four years before I started my freshman year.  So, by that time, there were only a handful RC alumnae, and nearly all of the college's faculty, administration and staff worked at the college when it was all-male.  

Then, as now, Douglass College (DC) was a school whose student body was entirely female.  It is to Rutgers as Barnard is to Columbia or Radcliffe to Harvard.   DC and RC students took courses on each other's campuses, though not as much as one might expect.  As a result of the small numbers of DC students, and even smaller number of female RC students, on the RC campus, women were still seen as the "other" --if they were lucky.  If they weren't, they treated as merchandise, especially if they were to go to, or even pass by, a frat house. 

I have been in environments that were even more dominated by males, at least in terms of numbers and male-to-female ratios.  But I don't think I've ever been in any situation in which as many men were as ignorant or contemptuous of women as the ones at Rutgers were in those days.  Because I was living as male in those days, male students often told me what they really thought about women, and referred to them by a few names I won't even soil my tongue by uttering.

In such an atmosphere, you can guess how gays and lesbians were seen.  (I don't think transgenders were even on the radar of most people.)   The term "hate crime" didn't exist in those days, but what we now refer to by that term happened with disturbing frequency.  I knew of a few gays who were beaten and a few more students who beat them up.  And I heard more than a few who bragged that they'd "beat the shit out of" some "gay-bird."

The gay-bashers, and more than a few who never would put a hand on anyone, made gays--whether or not they knew any--the objects of their prurient fantasies.  Some would follow gays, while pretending not to, and find out where they hung out. Still others posted placards or graffiti (We didn't have chat-rooms in those days.) on billboards, sign posts or other public places.  And, of course, speculation about some men's sexuality was scrawled inside bathroom stalls and over urinals.

From what I've heard, things haven't changed much at Rutgers, and I can say the same about the the wider world.  I know firsthand that if you don't fit into cisgender/hetero norms, people not only speculate, in ways they never would about straight people, they also think they're entitled to know, and to broadcast, the details of your actual or imagined sex life.  Why else would Dharum Ravi feel no compunction about secretly videotaping his roommate Clementi while he was having sex with another man?  And, worse, why did he think there was nothing wrong with posting that video on the Internet?

I'm glad that so many spoke up at the Rutgers rally today.  However, I'm sure that there are many more students who don't feel safe in letting their sexuality or gender identity become public knowledge.  Long before I got to Rutgers, I knew I didn't fit into any of society's notions about gender and sexuality.  However, I tried to fit into one or another of them; by the time I started my sophomore year, I was at my wit's end and thought, perhaps, that because I didn't feel the same urgency about having a sexual relationship with a woman as other males seemed to feel, I was gay.  

In fact, I "came out" to my mother and a few friends.  Ironically, those friends were in the campus Christian fellowship, which I joined (as I did so many other things) in desperation.  While some expressed disapproval, others said they "loved" me even as they "hated" my "sin," and still others told me to place my faith and trust in Jesus,  I actually felt safer there than I would have in almost any other venue in the university.  Part of that may have been a result of the esteem some of them--including the leader of the fellowship, who was my roommate for a year--felt for me personally.  It was such that, at the invitation of that leader, I was editing the fellowship's newsletter and leading a prayer and Bible study group, even though I hadn't been in the fellowship very long and, only a few months earlier, had never before read the Bible.

Although I am not religious--and, truthfully, never was--I can say that I graduated from Rutgers intact (more or less, anyway) in part because I was in that fellowship.  If nothing else, they encouraged me to study and even, at times, to stay in school. I was probably unhappier then than I've been before or since and, even though I was not reluctant to drink, I despised the frat parties and bars--and, in fact, pretty much the whole social scene, such as it was, that existed there. Even more important, I felt safer in that fellowship than I felt anywhere else in the university.  In fact, it was the only place where I felt safe at all.  The worst things I experienced there were somewhat sanctimonious or condescending lectures; elsewhere on campus, I could and did experience much worse.

Unfortunately, thirty years later, Tyler Clementi did, too--only even worse.

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