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Homophobia: An American institution

Three weeks ago today, 18-year-old Tyler Clementi jumped 600 feet to his death from the George Washington Bridge. After his body was found floating in the Hudson River, the incident sparked a national frenzy centered on why this young man, only weeks into his freshman year at Rutgers University, had taken his own life so suddenly.

The story that emerged is one the entire nation has grown to know: Police said Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, had secretly broadcast via webcam Clementi’s encounter with another man, inviting 148 friends to partake in the show and publicly tweeting his discovery. A few days after realizing what had happened, Clementi leapt to his death.

Since then, there has been a whirl of media attention over the issue of gay suicides. Many have been shocked to discover that homophobia is in fact alive and well in parts of the United States outside small-town America. Since the summer, at least seven gay teenagers have been bullied to death. Among them was a 15 year old from Indiana who hanged himself after facing a regular barrage of vindictive insults at school. Another was a 13 year old from Houston who shot himself after coming out. And then there was Tyler, whose story of invasive bullying has catalyzed a nation in the Internet age.

Despite all the outrage and attention, should we really be so shocked?

The despair and hopelessness that has led to the deaths of numerous gay teens is not something that should surprise any of us. Not when we live in a society that perpetuates the persecution, humiliation and invalidation of homosexuality at the hands of bigots disguised as moralists. Not when we live in a country that forbids gay people from openly serving in the military for fear that straight service members would somehow be incapable of practicing tolerance. Not when gay couples cannot marry. Not when their love for another person is compared to bestiality or portrayed as a slippery slope toward incest. Not when the word “faggot” is used with the same frequency as the n-word was a century ago. And not when we have a political party whose leadership systematically rails against civil rights.

The language that breeds bullies takes many forms, but it is often subtle. Fewer than three weeks after Clementi’s death, a mere 12 miles away from the George Washington Bridge, Carl Paladino, the Republican candidate for governor of New York, delivered a speech to Orthodox Jewish leaders in which he said children had been “brainwashed” into thinking being gay is OK – a striking message to send to all those questioning teens out there looking for hope. Earlier this month, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) stated that gays shouldn’t be allowed to teach in public schools (along with unmarried pregnant women). And a few weeks before that, the Montana Republican Party adopted an official platform that supports making gay sex illegal.

These are our leaders whom the Tyler Clementis hear every day. They are the ones we give a platform from which to spew hate and to influence American opinions, launching us down a dark road of ignorance. Without our votes, these bigots would be no one. So they aren’t the ones with blood on their hands – we are.

If we are looking for the enablers of this epidemic of hatred and persecution, we need not look to the Dharun Ravis or the countless other bullies out there. Nor to their parents who plead ignorance, nor to religious leaders whose bigotry is hidden behind one holy text or another.

If we are looking for whom to blame, for the true enablers who allow the institutional hatred of a group of people because of who they love, we need only look to ourselves.

Justin Snow is a senior history major. He can be reached at snow@umdbk.com.

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