Define ‘The Closet’

I’ve re-read Ian Parker’s skeptical take on the death of Tyler Clementi in the New Yorker a number of times because, quite frankly, I couldn’t quite figure out how he reached the conclusions he did.  I think I get it, but it was hard to piece together.

The most interesting question I had was about Parker’s assertion that Clementi wasn’t in the closet, as suggested when Clementi killed himself.  His evidence appeared to be that Clementi’s roommate found evidence on a gay website (and then talked about it on Twitter) without confirming it with Clementi.  Parker then lays out this evidence for Clementi not being in the closet:

In high school, Clementi had not been widely regarded as gay. He had been posting messages at Justusboys since he was fourteen, but they were rarely sexual; rather, he exchanged views about television and compact cars with other affable contributors, some of whom used names like Bigpimpboy14. In one post, Clementi wrote, “Call me a prude but I honestly don’t think people are mature enough to be having sex prior to collegeish years in today’s world. . . . Sex isn’t something a 16 y/o should really need to spend much time debating. Then again, I’m practically asexual, and considered myself such until about 17 (when I started puberty), so I guess I have a lot of bias.” This post may well reflect the truth, but he wrote it when he was sixteen.

After Clementi’s death, his parents learned that he had come out to a friend in the spring of 2010, and that in the summer he had apparently met romantic or sexual partners online. Three days before starting at Rutgers, he came out to his family.

When he described that experience to Cruz, Clementi reported that his father was “very accepting” of his news, but added, “Its a good thing dad is ok w/it or I would be in serious trouble / mom has basically completely rejected me.” He later added that she had been “very dismissive.”

Jane Clementi told me recently that Tyler announced his sexuality to her in a private, late-night conversation, which “snowballed” to cover his perceived shortage of friends and the uncertainty he had about his faith. At the end of their talk, she recalled, “he cried, I cried, we hugged.” They said that they loved each other. But, Jane Clementi said, “I must admit, other than being surprised, I felt betrayed.” He had not confided in her, though he had known he was gay since middle school. She told me that she and her husband had long assumed that Tyler’s brother James was gay, and had even discussed the matter with Tyler, asking him, “Why won’t he just talk about it?” (James is now out.)

The day after Tyler’s disclosure, she said, “I guess part of me was grieving a little bit. I expected Tyler to be married one day, and be a father.” She said, “I was sad, I was quiet,” and she wonders if this is what he was reacting to when he wrote “rejected”; the word hurt her. She recalled that she spent the rest of the week with him, delivered him to college, and, throughout September, spoke to him on the phone. And she was expecting to visit Tyler for Parent and Family Weekend: “We had tickets to the football game. We had plans for the day.”

In September, Clementi attended at least one meeting of the Bisexual, Gay, and Lesbian Alliance, a Rutgers student organization. As he put it to Cruz, “I would consider myself out . . . if only there was someone for me to come out to.” Though he may have been slow to develop sexually, by the time he reached Rutgers he had found a streak of boldness. This perhaps left him exposed: once he overcame his shyness, he was not shy at all. His sexual self—born on the Internet, in the shadow of pornography—seems to have been largely divorced from his social self. After Clementi died, Gawker found what appeared to be an account that he had opened at Cam4, a site where women and men put on sexual displays, by webcam. Clementi also used a hookup Web site called Adam4adam. On September 2nd, Cruz told him, “U need to get away from the computer . . . specially adam.”

So, he has been on gay websites since he was 14. He told his parents he was gay a few weeks before his death. He was out to a friend and he’d been trying to find a boyfriend. He attended a meeting of the LGBT student group.

Does that make him closeted or out of the closet? Does it matter to the narrative of Parker’s story? To Clementi’s?


One Response

  1. The title of Parker’s article certainly is incorrect; The Story of a Suicide. If this really had been the story of a suicide, then we would have learned all about what Tyler heard while growing up from the leaders of his evangelical megachurch Willow Creek and its satellite branch near him in New Jersey. That church accepts that people say they are homosexual but considers acting out on gay sexual instincts to be a horrible, horrible “sin.” Until after Tyler’s death, the Church pushed “pray away the gay” so-called therapy. (It might still do so behind the scenes). In any event, with all that background of Church strictures against gay people actually having sex, there was a special added meaning to Tyler’s privacy having been criminally violated in the way it was. Also, had this really been the story of a suicide, we would have learned from gay survivors of Tyler’s same public schools what they had experienced in them by way of anti-gay harassment and violence. The whole point of this trial, really, is that it shouldn’t take a suicide for people like Wei and Ravi to be prosecuted for these kinds of crimes. Ravi and his family appear to be getting bad advice from their attorneys, who of course are at least as interested in collecting their hourly fees as in winning the case. (Another suspect aspect of Parker’s reporting, btw, is that he dug up all kinds of examples of Ravi loosely using anti-gay pejoratives such as “Fag” but seems to have come to the conclusion that it is an open question whether Ravi is actually a gay basher. Well guess what? When somebody frequently using gay bashing comments against gay people, they are without any question a gay basher). Ravi was responsible for knowing and obeying the Rutgers Code of Conduct. HIs violations of it happen also to be violations against the New Jersey Code of Criminal Justice. His lawyers’ statements that he is innocent should be told to the Horse Marines. Wei already admitted her guilt in a plea bargain and will be testifying against Ravi if called. Ravi’s attorneys’ puiblic excuses of his evidence tampering are absurd on their face. And the degree to which Tyler was out has nothing to do with whether he was the victim of a bias crime.

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