Following the suicide of their son Tyler Clementi, his parents — particularly his mother, Jane — have struggled to deal with the inevitable guilt. In an interview with The New York Times, Jane and Joe Clementi share how their son’s death forced them to look at life and themselves differently and spurred Jane’s decision to leave her church.
“People talk about coming out of the closet — it’s parents coming out of the closet, too. I wasn’t really ready for that,” Mrs. Clementi admits. She was surprised at her son’s coming-out — having thought they had a “pretty open relationship” — and proceeded to question Tyler, who was only two days away from leaving for Rutgers.
Tyler later described the revelation to a friend via text, claiming that his mom “basically completely rejected” him.
“It did not change the fact that I loved my son,” Mrs. Clementi told the Times. “I did need to think about how that would fit into my thoughts on homosexuality.” She had no idea that Tyler felt rejected by her, however. Mrs. Clementi had long suspected Tyler’s brother James was gay and had spoken to Tyler about the fact. “Tyler knew we weren’t going to reject him or stop paying for college for him or not let him come home, because James had done all those things and we had a good relationship.”
While Joe Clementi argues that his son was simply engaging in typical teenage hyperbole — “Just to be clear: Tyler had two parents, and I didn’t have any problem with it. He had support.” — the guilt still weighs heavy on his wife’s shoulders. “Obviously he felt that way, he needed to tell his friend that,” she laments.
How does a parent cope with that after not only a child’s suicide, but the resulting media frenzy and trial of the callous roommate who posted a video of the 18-year-old’s intimate encounter with another man online?
For Mrs. Clementi, religion was the answer…in more ways than one. She decided to leave her evangelical church, in which homosexuality was taught as a sin. Though she turned her back on the church, Mrs. Clementi’s faith remained unwavering as she turned to the Bible for answers. “At this point I think Jesus is more about reconciliation and love,” she said. “He spoke more about divorce than homosexuality, but you can be divorced and join a church more than you can be gay and join churches.”
Tyler had told his mother, upon coming out, that he didn’t believe he could be both gay and Christian.
The Clementi family has also dedicated itself to a foundation that promotes acceptance and hopes to prevent gay teen suicides. “I think some people think that sexual orientation can be changed or prayed over,” Mrs. Clementi said. “But I know sexual orientation is not up for negotiation. I don’t think my children need to be changed. I think that what needed changing is attitudes, or myself, or maybe some other people I know.”
Jane Clementi’s dilemma reflects an age-old debate: the role religion has in homosexual persecution. While there are churches that are very LGBT-inclusive, the gay community and the religious community are more often than not pitted against one another, particularly when politics are involved. Conservatives are notorious for using religious rhetoric to bolster anti-gay legislation, but if Tyler Clementi’s sad story — and countless others throughout history — have proven anything, it’s that this vehement vitriol in the name of god, or God, or whomever, hurts more people than it helps.