Special Edition – After Gay Son’s Suicide, Mother Finds Blame in Herself and in Her Church

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In the months after Tyler’s death, some of Ms. Clementi’s friends confided that they, too, had gay children. She blames religion for the shame surrounding it — in the conversation about coming out, Tyler told his mother he did not think he could be Christian and gay.

“I think some people think that sexual orientation can be changed or prayed over,” she said now, in her kitchen. “But I know sexual orientation is not up for negotiation. I don’t think my children need to be changed. I think that what needed changing is attitudes, or myself, or maybe some other people I know.”

After Gay Son’s Suicide, Mother Finds Blame in Herself and in Her Church

RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — When Tyler Clementi told his parents he was gay, two days before he left for Rutgers University in the fall of 2010, he said he had known since middle school.

By KATE ZERNIKE

The New York Times

Published: August 24, 2012

An international spotlight turned the episode into a cautionary coming-out story, of a young man struggling with his sexuality and the damage inflicted by bullying. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was tried and convicted of intimidation and invasion of privacy; he served a short jail sentence. But the trial never directly addressed the question at the heart of the story — what prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself?

But their son’s suicide has also forced changes, and new honesty, upon them. They have left the church that made Ms. Clementi so resistant to her son’s declaration. Their middle son, James, acknowledged what the family had long suspected and said that he, too, was gay. The family is devoting itself to a foundation promoting acceptance with the hope of preventing the suicides of gay teenagers.

Most of all, Ms. Clementi has had to grapple with her own role in Tyler’s death.

“People talk about coming out of the closet — it’s parents coming out of the closet, too,” she said. “I wasn’t really ready for that.”

At the time Tyler sat down to tell his parents he was gay, she believed that homosexuality was a sin, as her evangelical church taught. She said she was not ready to tell friends, protecting her son — and herself — from what would surely be the harsh judgments of others.

In the months after Tyler’s death, some of Ms. Clementi’s friends confided that they, too, had gay children. She blames religion for the shame surrounding it — in the conversation about coming out, Tyler told his mother he did not think he could be Christian and gay.

“I think some people think that sexual orientation can be changed or prayed over,” she said now, in her kitchen. “But I know sexual orientation is not up for negotiation. I don’t think my children need to be changed. I think that what needed changing is attitudes, or myself, or maybe some other people I know.”

She decided she could no longer attend her church, because doing so would suggest she supported its teachings against homosexuality. And she took strength from reading the Bible as she reconsidered her views.

What has troubled her most is the thought that Tyler believed she had rejected him.

She thinks often about her last phone call with Tyler, hours before he went to the bridge.

“I was sitting right over there,” she said, pointing to a corner of the kitchen. They had what seemed like an innocuous discussion about whether his parents should take Tyler’s bike to Rutgers for him. It was expensive and beloved, and he had not wanted it stolen.

“He got very teary and wistful — ‘Oh, my bike, I forgot about my bike,’ ” she recalled. “After the fact I think about it in different terms, but at the time, I didn’t. He said, ‘No, keep it at home.’ ”

She cannot recall how they said goodbye.

“It was probably the way we said goodbye all the time,” she said. “ ‘Goodbye, I love you,’ ‘I love you more.’ That was the way we usually ended it. I’m sure that’s how we ended it that time, too.”

 

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After Tyler Clementi’s Suicide, His Parents Make Painful Changes in the Search for