NEW YORK — Growing up in Ridgewood, N.J., James Clementi said he did not know of any gay people.
And while he did suspect that his younger brother Tyler was also gay, he kept his own sexual orientation a secret from his family for another seven years — even during the months after his brother’s well publicized suicide two years ago.
“I grew up in a very conservative evangelical Christian family,” Clementi told a small audience at the Snapple Theater Center in Manhattan on Thursday. “I always thought that my mom and dad would not accept my sexuality.”
“That was a very scary and difficult thing to do,” he said.
But James Clementi is now encouraging other young people struggling with their sexual identity to come out.
In a new interview with the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Clementi said he was often overcome with guilt after his brother’s death, and often wondered what role his inability to come out might have played in it.
“At the time, of course I was thinking maybe if I had stepped up as an older brother and had been the one to do it first, it could have changed everything,” he said.
While he now describes those thoughts as “irrational,” he is determined to encourage all young gays to come out, not only for themselves but to support one another.
Since revealing his sexual orientation to his parents, they have left their longtime parish in Ridgewood, citing conflict with its views on same-sex lifestyles and relationships.
“Coming to people in your life, even with the fear that they may not accept you, that’s the thing that actually changes people’s minds, and I’ve seen that at work in my own family,” Clementi said.
Clementi and his parents are now working full-time with their charity, The Tyler Clementi Foundation, to help prevent bullying, cyber-bullying and to prevent suicide among young, gay people.
Clementi was joined in celebrating “National Coming Out Day” with the producers and cast of the upcoming off-Broadway musical play, “Bare,” which is about a secret love affair between two teenage boys at a Catholic boarding school.
“National Coming Out Day is so important to Bare and to our allies in the fight for LGBT equality,” said producer Paul Boskin.
The musical, featuring music by Damon Intrabartolo and book and lyrics by Jon Hartmere, will begin performances Nov. 19, prior to an official opening Dec. 9, at off-Broadway’s New World Stages.
Today’s event also featured speakers including former NHL star Sean Avery on behalf of Athlete Ally; activist Fiona Dawson on behalf of the Human Rights Campaign; executive director Brent Childers and LGBT and women’s rights advocate Roberta Sklar on behalf of Faith in America.
Steven Guy, Executive Director of the Tyler Clementi Foundation, was also attended the event, told the Star-Ledger the “acts such as Gov. Chris Christie‘s veto of a law that would have permitted same-sex marriage in New Jersey send a powerful message to kids — one that laws aimed at bullying or other discrimination can not easily undo.”
“When we talk about issues of bullying, it’s really broad based, and you have to approach it as a societal issue,” Guy said. “It’s really about inclusion and recognition.”
Clementi agreed, and noted that neither he nor Tyler brother had any gay role models to help them through their transitions. Despite the tragedy of Tyler’s suicide, he believes it could ultimately change the course for those facing similar adversity in the future.
“Kids are taking their lives every day. Most of them don’t have a voice or a face,” Clementi said. “Maybe he was the impetus to make change.”