Re: “After a Son’s Suicide, a Mother Finds Blame in Herself and in Her Church,” New York Times/8/25/12“
A hypothetical open letter to Mrs.Clementi
Dear Mrs. Clementi:
I was saddened to read your comments in the above article. As the mother of a 29 year-old gay son, I share your concerns. For fourteen months now, I have been writing a blog for straight parents of gay and lesbian children. Despite our commonalities, never having lost a son, I don’t pretend to know the depth of your despair.
It was painful for me to read about the guilt you still feel and hold accountable for Tyler’s premature death. It is normal for parents to feel guilt after a suicide and to play the alternatives over and over in their head such as “ If only I had … What if ? I could have…” I’m sure you will never get over Tyler’s death, but I hope, the pain will lessen. I trust your work with a foundation promoting acceptance of gay and lesbian teens will help you feel better.
You said that you were hurt that Tyler didn’t open up about his sexual orientation until a few days before he was entering Rutgers University. You thought you had a “pretty open” relationship.” Your reaction is common. Tyler may have known since middle school that he was gay but with many gay and lesbian children, they know they are disappointing their parents with this earthshaking revelation, particularly in a family with three boys, and the middle son, James, is already out. In traditional families, gay children may feel as if they are destroying their parents’ dreams for them. It is not only the parents’ expectation for the child, but the child’s expectation for his/her own future which has to be reevaluated.
So you’re split- second reaction was not uncommon: you were caught off-guard and responded accordingly. “How do you know? Who are you going to talk to? Who are you going to tell? “ Your response was not one of rejection of Tyler, as his text implied to his friend, but most likely, fear and shame associated with outing the family. This is a common response by parents who are not prepared for the blindsiding news. As your husband, Joe, pointed out, Tyler’s dramatic reaction was typical of a teenager.
You say that you were not ready to tell friends who later confided that they too had gay children, that you wanted to protect Tyler (you were correct to not out him without his permission) and yourself from the harsh judgment of others. It is the criticism of homophobic outsiders who keep many families silent.
Your local church, you thought, did not provide support for you nor Tyler, who didn’t think he could be “Christian and gay.” As you said, “you can not pray gay away.” You’ll be glad to know that the California State Assembly has recently approved a groundbreaking ban on so-called ex-gay or reparative therapy aimed at minors.
I have known many parents who have left their churches for lack of support. However, there are gay-friendly alternatives such as The Metropolitan Community Church and welcoming organizations such as for Christians such as Dignity, Inc. (Catholic) www.dignity.org or Integrity, Inc. ( Episcopal) www.integrity.org. to name a few. It may interest you to know that the leader of the Episcopal Church, Gene Robinson, is openly gay and advocates same-sex marriage.
No one institution or person can be blamed for Tyler’s suicide. Joe’s comment that Tyler’s “ bad luck of roommate lottery” and the other students’ willingness to further invade Tyler’s privacy by watching the webcam video are to blame. Are they collectively accomplices?. This deplorable act was, in my opinion, “the last straw” for Tyler. If anyone is to blame, it’s our society at large which doesn’t respect diversity. As you stated, “my children don’t need to be changed. What needs changing are attitudes.”
The trial of Tyler’s roommate, and the press spotlighting you and your family may have felt as if the public were forcing you, earlier than expected, to come out of the closet in such a powerful way. It’s wonderful that you have found relief in not hiding what others may regard as your family’s business although “it is not something you would have done on your own.”
As you astutely observed, parents need to come out of the closet, too. Many do with the help of an organization like PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) www.pflag.org. Some go to the privacy of a therapist’s office. Others can’t deal with it all, reject their children, and throw them out of the house. Almost 40% of teen runaways are GLBT rejected kids. Still others like yourself, become activists.
I hope you have found fulfillment with the work you and Joe are now doing to prevent suicide. It’s a testament to your and your husband’s love for Tyler. I wish you peace.
(Ms.) Wesley Davidson
See my February 2012 post on Tyler Clementi “Is it Depression, Teenage Angst or Suicidal Thoughts?”)
When Your Child Is Gay: What You Need To Know
For more detailed advice, see book, co-authored with a mother of a gay son and a psychiatrist, Jonathan L. Tobkes, M.D.