Ten years ago I was still a high school student. My school had a Gay Straight Alliance that I’m guessing met regularly.
I have a vague memory of hearing announcements and seeing posters for it on the walls. I remember wanting to go. I hadn’t yet come out at this point but I had the sense that I would find support and understanding in this club, and I wanted to be a part of it so badly.
But there was a barrier in my mind that prevented me from being able to attend the club. I graduated without going to even one meeting.
Earlier this month I had the opportunity to present as a guest speaker at the 10th Annual Conference for LGBTQ-Straight Alliances in my home state of New Jersey.
The conference is a state-wide gathering of high school GSA’s sponsored by GLSEN and HiTOPS which provides a full day of education, dialogue, community and people sharing their stories. The conference was attended by about 400 students and faculty representing high schools across New Jersey.
I was invited to attend as a special guest speaker, sharing about my experiences of coming out into a conservative Christian family, losing my brother Tyler to suicide, and the work I now do with my family through the Tyler Clementi Foundation to help young people like Tyler find support and compassion in an effort to prevent further tragedies.
Walking into the high school’s packed auditorium to address the students really forced me into a new perspective about my journey of coming out and coming into myself.
Ten years ago I was a high school senior as the first GSA conference was going on. I had no idea that anything like this was out there, and what I had to admit was that if there had been a program available to me I would have been way too scared to even consider attending.
I was struck by how brave these students are, because however much progress has been made the truth is that attending a conference like this one is not a popular activity for a young person to get involved with.
It was pointed out to me that many of the students in attendance did not have the support of their families and had to hide the subject matter of the conference from parents. Many of them were the targets of bullies in their schools and attending the GSA Forum put them at further risk of being targeted.
It was such a fulfilling experience to see that the students that came (and not all were LGBT, there were many allies in the group as well) were able to find a supportive and accepting community of peers and teachers that felt elusive to my younger self.
Following my presentation, I led a workshop discussion with a group of about 25 students, alongside my mom Jane Clementi and our foundation’s executive director Steven Guy.
Our workshop was designed around the experience of high school students transitioning into college and what sorts of LGBT-specific opportunities and protections were necessary to help make this transition as smooth of one as possible.
This is a particular area of focus for the Tyler Clementi Foundation because of my brother Tyler’s experiences being cyber-bullied and targeted right as he was beginning his college career.
For young people transitioning into a new social and living environment, this time period is absolutely crucial. This is a time when familiar places of support such as family members, high school friends and teachers are no longer in place and everyone is searching to find a group that they belong to. If a young person is taken advantage of or exploited in any way during this period it can create an even deeper inner turmoil than it would during a time when things are a bit more settled.
Considering this, we wanted to hear firsthand from the students about what they felt would make a difference in their lives as they look towards college.
It was also a really incredible opportunity for the students to talk about their own experiences in school and with family and friends.
I was not surprised to learn that many of these young people had struggles with not only their school communities but also with gaining the support of their families.
One young woman spoke about the fact that there has been persistent anti-gay bullying in her school and the administration refuses to address the problem. Another student spoke about the constant slurs and disapproval she hears from her grandmother, who has finally reached a point where she just refuses to acknowledge it.
The saddest thing that I heard all day was several young people shared with me that they had lost a family member or a friend to suicide. Even more young people told me that they had lived with suicidal feelings themselves.
This conference was more than an opportunity for students to connect with others like them. It was an opportunity for them to learn about the options they have available to them: the programs, organizations and hotlines that are always there as resources for the difficult times.
My brother wasn’t the only young person to struggle with coming out and being gay within a social within the context of a society that is all too often hostile and rejecting. I dealt with the same issues, and I have met many other people who went through that process as well. But my time with the GSA Conference was such an eye opener, as I became aware of how widespread these issues are.
While not all LGBTQ young people will be bullied or have rejecting families, the reality is that being LGBTQ creates potential harm for a young person as not all of our society has caught on to the virtues of love and equality for everybody.
This is why we continue to have a great need to have these conversations.
Young people already know about the potential emotional and physical harm they face from peers, teachers, family and religious leaders. This is their day-to-day reality. In order to save lives (or to make someone’s life happier and safer) we need to be talking about GSA clubs and taking away the stigma so that youth aren’t afraid to attend.
We need to talk about suicide prevention and make sure that we are willing to be that safe person that others can come and talk to in a crisis.
We can empower young people to reach out for help and create progress that all of us will benefit from.