The unspeakable tragedy involving the suicide of a gay student at Rutgers University, who committed suicide after his roommate posted a video of his intimate encounter with another man, has galvanized an international discussion about anti-gay intolerance and the dangers of cyber-bullying. Tyler Clementi wasn’t the first gay teen driven to take his own life as the result of intolerable harassment, but the dramatic ingredients of his story made it much larger than a campus or even statewide incident.
Various groups and individuals within the Jewish community have been ahead of the curve in recognizing the dehumanizing impact of discrimination based on sexual difference and gender. Even before the Clementi tragedy, students at Rutgers Hillel had begun a support group offering “a safe space [for] students who may be struggling, as Tyler was, with issues around sexuality, confidentiality, and a sense of community,” according to Hillel’s executive director. In its statement on the incident, Hillel noted that it is “one of the tragedies of our world, which we as Jews have a mission to repair, that we often fail to recognize the ‘b’tzelem Elokim’ in each other” — the way in which we are all created in God’s image.
The Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey Regional Office has also been out ahead concerning the dangers of cyber-bullying and the need for Internet safety education.
The Reform, Reconstructionist, and Conservative movements have each in their own way been part of a revolution in terms of Jewish attitudes toward homosexuality, incorporating modern awareness about identity into the warm embrace of Jewish tradition.
The Orthodox world, too, has shown an evolving understanding of same-sex relationships. Earlier this year, dozens of Orthodox rabbis and mental health professionals signed a statement of principles calling for tolerance, and describing anti-gay harassment as “a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”
The Jewish and general community still has a long way to go in recognizing, in the words of the Orthodox rabbis’ statement, “that all human beings are created in the image of God and deserve to be treated with dignity and respect (kevod haberiyot).” The tragedy at Rutgers should serve as goad for us all to examine the ways we still rob one another of that dignity, in ways public and private.