Portland responds to gay teen suicides

This Monday was National Coming Out Day, and at 7 p.m., a crowd gathered at Pioneer Courthouse Square to hold a candlelight vigil.

This Monday was National Coming Out Day, and at 7 p.m., a crowd gathered at Pioneer Courthouse Square to hold a candlelight vigil. Lieutenant Sara Westbrook was driving around the block on her usual policing rounds when she saw the flickering lights. She stopped to look closer, and then she stayed to watch the entire event honoring the death of Tyler Clementi, a gay Rutgers University freshman who jumped off of a bridge on Sept. 22 after his roommate secretly videotaped him with a webcam as he was having sex in their dorm room.

Though Westbrook stayed to provide police presence, she also stayed as a lesbian woman.

“What happened was horrific,” Westbrook said.

While at the vigil, Westbrook listened to the speeches of Portland State student Amelia Wolf and other members of the community, from high school students to Mayor Sam Adams and Senator Ron Wyden. All 400 of the candles supplied by Pride Northwest were distributed, representing the volume of Portland’s response to the suicide.

Clementi was only 18 when he leapt from the George Washington bridge on the Rutgers campus in New Jersey, and the community there and across the nation is responding to a spate of suicides among teenagers who were harassed by their peers for being or seeming gay. In September, a total of six young men—including Clementi—committed suicide.

At PSU, the students who hosted the Open House on Coming Out Day at the Queer Resource Center were saddened by Clementi’s story, as well as the other suicides.

“It cast a darker edge to Coming Out week than I was looking forward to,” said Cody LaRue, a PSU junior and the QRC’s education and outreach coordinator.

At the open house, QRC Coordinator Cathryn McGraw said she is optimistic about the services that the center offers to students in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex and ally [LGBTQQIA] community.

“When I came [to PSU], students and faculty were so excited to see somebody dedicated full-time to my work,” McGraw said.

The QRC recently became a part of the Student Affairs cluster at PSU; before, it was a student group. Its new status means that McGraw and her team can offer crisis management services to students, hopefully in prevention of tragedies like Clementi’s.

Addressing the needs of the two or three students that come into McGraw’s office each month with suicidal thoughts or intentions is an effort that involves the Center for Student Health and Counseling. Though clinical social worker Tim Hagge is part of the SHAC staff, he has office hours at the QRC hosting a consultation service called Let’s Talk.

“It’s for students who don’t feel comfortable coming into SHAC,” Hagge said. Hagge is available at the QRC every Wednesday between 11 a.m. and 1 p.m.

At SHAC, a team of 16 senior mental health staff is ready to help students of all orientations. SHAC Director Dr. Dana Tasson works with the QRC to sustain and improve programs like Let’s Talk.

“As a gay man, I certainly understand the issues of dealing with sexuality,” Tasson said. “We’re in contact with the QRC; we have a definite administrative relationship.”

McGraw has been strengthening ties with departments across campus since she began her job at the QRC in July. For example, she and Dr. Sally McWilliams, director of women’s studies, are planning on developing joint-programming on campus. However, since the Rutgers tragedy, they’ve been more urgent in their planning efforts. They hope to stage some initiatives around activism and empowerment in February.

The suicide rate among gay teenagers has always been high. Students who identify themselves as gay are four times more likely to kill themselves than their straight peers, according to Carla Riedlinger, a clinical social worker at SHAC. However, many experts are focusing on the trend of Internet harassment, such as in Clementi’s case.

According to Grant Kirby, the IT program director at the Oregon Institute of Technology, young people today who have been socialized online have no concept of concrete consequences.

“We can blame the actors for what they did, and we should, but as a society we have to realize that we’re at a place where our technology has outstripped our ability to contain it,” Kirby said.

In reference to Clementi’s suicide and his peers who taunted him online by posting Twitter updates of the webcam, Kirby said, “If we could do evil things anonymously, what would we do? We already know what we would do.”

Andrew Olson, a gay junior at PSU, suggested that the Rutgers tragedy might have been less a case of homophobia than a combination of immaturity and technology.

“Lots of people just like to post [stuff],” he said. “My cousin just got kicked off Xbox Live because he wrote ‘kill all gays,’ but he wasn’t serious.”

At Rutgers, the community response to the tragedy has been deep and broad, according to Greg Trevor, senior director of media relations at Rutgers. A statement released by Rutgers President Richard McCormick on Oct. 1 urged members of the campus community to participate in Project Civility, a two-year effort spearheaded by the senior dean of students, Mark Schuster.

“We believed it was needed two years ago,” Schuster said.

On Wednesday night, he hosted a panel discussion on cyber-bullying. Other campaigns of the project include a three-day conference with the residence life department at Rutgers that would work with athletes and members of fraternities and sororities, the communities that tend to stereotype, Schuster said.

Clementi’s roommate, Dharun Ravi, and Ravi’s friend, Molly Wei, are both facing criminal charges and Rutgers’ judicial process. Dr. Cheryl Clarke, director of the Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities at Rutgers, points to the fact that all three of the students involved were freshmen, and that the incident happened within three weeks of the start of the school year.

“Nothing about theplace [Rutgers]—its values—had sunkin,”Clarke said.

According to the Rutgers student code of conduct, offenses that can result in expulsion include making or attempting to videotape or record anyone in university bathrooms, showers, bedrooms and other places where privacy is expected.

At PSU, the student code of conduct is reviewed every three years. Dean of Student Life Michele Toppe said that a clause may be added to address the phenomenon of Internet harassment.

The preamble of the current code could be sufficiently brought to bear on cases of harassment resembling the Rutgers incident, Toppe said, as the university supports everyone’s right to live and learn in “a safe and respectful environment.”

At PSU, there have been three reported hate crimes on campus in the past three years, according to the Campus Public Safety Office.

At Monday night’s vigil in Pioneer Courthouse Square, no harassers heckled the crowd. In fact, Pride NW did not contact the Portland Police Bureau to request a presence because the speakers felt safe, said Pride NW Outreach Coordinator Mark Santillo.

The PSU Chamber Choir opened the vigil with “Earth Song,” composed by Frank Ticheli, and finished the night with a traditional South African freedom song.

“The lyrics [of ‘Earth Song’] weren’t specifically about bullying, but they were appropriate,” said choir member Alison Nordyke, a PSU senior.

The chorus of “Earth Song” is “sing, be, live, see, peace.” ?