Tyler Clementi was an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University in Piscataway, New Jersey, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on September 22, 2010. On September 19, 2010, Tyler's roommate, Dharun Ravi, used a webcam on his dorm-room computer and his hallmate Molly Wei's computer to view, without Tyler's knowledge, Tyler kissing another man. Tyler eventually found out, after Ravi posted about the webcam incident on Twitter. Two days later, Ravi urged friends and Twitter followers to watch via his webcam a second tryst between Tyler and his friend, though the viewing never occurred.
Ravi and Wei were federally indicted for their roles in the webcam incidents, though they were not charged with a role in the suicide itself. Ravi was tried and convicted in 2012 on multiple charges related to the webcam viewing. After an appeals court overturned parts of the conviction, Ravi pleaded guilty to one count of attempted invasion of privacy on October 27, 2016.
Tyler's death brought national attention to the issue of cyberbullying and the struggles facing LGBT youth.
Tyler was born in Ridgewood, New Jersey. A graduate of Ridgewood High School, he was a violinist; he played with the Ridgewood Symphony Orchestra and participated in the Bergen Youth Orchestra as concertmaster. Tyler grew up with a passion for music. He began playing the violin in the third grade and became an accomplished violinist. He performed in numerous orchestras and was awarded with several accolades for his musical contributions. Tyler was also an enthusiastic bicyclist and unicyclist.
A few days before leaving home to attend college at Rutgers, Tyler told his parents that he was gay. While his father supported him, Tyler said in an instant message to a friend that his mother had "basically completely rejected" him. In later interviews, Tyler's mother explained that she had been "sad" and "quiet" as she processed the information and that she "felt a little betrayed" that he had not previously confided in her that he was gay.
She later noted that she had not been ready as a parent to publicly acknowledge having a gay son, partly because her evangelical church had taught that homosexuality was a sin. After their conversation, she said that she and Tyler cried, hugged, and said they loved each other. Jane Clementi said that she and Tyler spent the rest of the week together and spoke frequently on the phone when he was at Rutgers. According to his mother, Tyler seemed "confident" and "comfortable" after coming out and told her of having visited New York City with new friends.
Ravi and Wei met while students at West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North. Prior to arriving at Rutgers, Ravi tried to find information about his new roommate online. On Twitter, Ravi referred to having seen Tyler's communications on the Just Us Boys website, and tweeted "Found out my roommate is gay."
Tyler also researched his roommate and read postings on Ravi's Twitter page. After Ravi and Tyler moved in together, they rarely interacted or spoke. Ravi's text messages to friends described Tyler as shy and awkward. Tyler's online conversations and text messages referred to his amusement at Ravi's construction of a private changing area, but Tyler said he appreciated the fact that Ravi left him alone and did not force an excessively social atmosphere.
On the nights of September 19 and 21, Tyler had asked Ravi to use their room for those evenings. On the first occasion, Ravi met Tyler's male friend, and Tyler said that the two wanted to be alone for the evening. Ravi has stated that he was worried about theft and that he left the computer in a state where he could view the webcam stream due to those concerns. Other witnesses testified that Ravi said he also wanted to confirm that Tyler was gay. Ravi and Wei viewed the video stream via iChat for a few seconds, seeing Tyler and his guest kissing. Later, Wei turned on the camera for another view with four others in the room, though Ravi was not there. During this second viewing, Wei and others saw Tyler and his guest kissing with their shirts off and their pants on.
On September 20, Tyler, who followed Ravi's Twitter account, read a message that Ravi sent a few minutes after the webcam viewing the previous day. Ravi wrote: "Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly's room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." According to a Rutgers employee, at about 4 a.m. on September 21, Tyler sent an online request for a single room because his "roommate used webcam to spy on me."
On September 21, Ravi posted text messages saying that there would be a viewing party to watch Tyler and his guest, along with directions on how to view it remotely. At 6:39 p.m., Ravi tweeted, "Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it's happening again." Ravi had set up the webcam and pointed it towards Tyler's bed. When Tyler returned to his room, he noticed the camera and texted a friend saying he had unplugged Ravi's powerstrip to prevent further video streaming during his date. Ravi has said that he had changed his mind regarding the broadcast and disabled the camera himself by putting the computer in sleep mode.
The same day, Tyler complained to a resident assistant and two other officials that Ravi had used a webcam to stream part of Tyler's private sexual encounter with another man. The resident assistant testified at trial that Tyler appeared shaky and uncomfortable when they met around 11 p.m., and in his official report of the meeting, the resident assistant said that Tyler requested both a room change and punishment for Ravi.
In a formal e-mail request to the resident assistant made after the meeting, Tyler described the two viewing incidents, quoted from Ravi's Twitter postings, and wrote "I feel that my privacy has been violated and I am extremely uncomfortable sharing a room with someone who would act in this wildly inappropriate manner."
Tyler wrote in detail on the Just Us Boys and Yahoo! message boards about complaints he filed through university channels about his roommate. His posts indicated that he did not want to share a room with Ravi after he learned about the first incident and then discovered that Ravi invited his Twitter followers to watch a second sexual encounter. "He [the resident assistant] seemed to take it seriously," Tyler wrote in a post about 15 hours before his jump from the George Washington Bridge.
Within a few hours, Tyler returned to his dorm room and he and Ravi were there for less than an hour.
On the evening of September 22, Tyler left the dorm room, bought food from the campus food court, and, around 6:30 p.m., headed toward the George Washington Bridge. By 8:42 p.m. he had posted from his cell phone on Facebook: "Jumping off the gw bridge sorry."
Tyler left a suicide note which, along with documents on his computer, was never released to either the public or to the defense team in Ravi's trial, because Tyler's suicide was not directly related to the charges against Ravi. Tyler's wallet, car, cell phone, and computer were found on or near the bridge. His body found on September 29, in the Hudson River just north of the bridge. The medical examiner gave drowning as the cause of death, noting blunt impact injuries to the torso as well.
Shortly after Tyler's suicide, the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network stated, "There has been heightened media attention surrounding the suicides in New Jersey, Texas, California, Indiana, and Minnesota." The same month Tyler died, four other American teenagers were reported to have committed suicide after being taunted about their homosexuality, although the brother of one of the deceased said he did not believe the suicide was brought on by bullying.
Rutgers University students planned a "Black Friday" event to commemorate and memorialize Tyler. Rutgers president Richard Levis McCormick stated, "We grieve for him and for his family, friends and classmates as they deal with the tragic loss of a gifted young man...."
Beginning in the 2011-2012 school year, a Rutgers University pilot program was instituted to permit students to choose their dorm roommates, regardless of gender. Members of the university's LGBT community told the administration that gender-neutral housing would help create a more inclusive environment for students.
By September 2012, Rutgers had implemented numerous new programs to provide a more supportive environment for LGBT students, in reaction to the suicide, including new dormitory options and a new Center for Social Justice Education and LGBT Communities, and students reported a much-improved campus atmosphere.
In 2011, Tyler Clementi's parents, Jane and Joseph Clementi, established the Tyler Clementi Foundation, which focuses on promoting acceptance of LGBT teens and others marginalized by society, providing education against all forms of bullying including cyber bullying over the internet and promoting research and development into the causes and prevention of teenage suicide.
In 2015, the Tyler Clementi Foundation launched #Day1, an anti-bullying campaign that aims to stop bullying before it begins, with support from Caitlyn Jenner, Sarah Jessica Parker, Matthew Broderick, Neil Patrick Harris, and others.
On March 9, 2011, the Point Foundation, the nation's largest scholarship-granting organization for LGBT students of merit, announced that it had created the Tyler Clementi Point Scholarship to honor Clementi's memory. Tyler's parents said they hoped the scholarship would "raise awareness of young people who are subject to abuse through malicious bullying."
Tyler Clementi's suicide, along with the suicides of several other gay teens who had been harassed, moved President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to express shock and sadness and speak out against any form of bullying. US Senator Frank Lautenberg and Representative Rush Holt of New Jersey introduced federal legislation titled the "Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act", to require schools that wish to receive federal funding to establish anti-bullying procedures and codes of conduct. Harvey Silverglate, working with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, has criticized that bill and similar legislation for what he considers to be the creation of rights that apply to some groups of persons but not to others.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie stated that the suicide was an "unspeakable tragedy... I don't know how those two folks [Ravi and Wei] are going to sleep at night" and added, "as the father of a 17-year-old, I can't imagine what those parents are feeling today - I can't." In response to Tyler's suicide and other, similar incidents, New Jersey General Assembly representatives Valerie Vainieri Huttle and Mary Pat Angelini introduced a bipartisan "Anti-bullying Bill of Rights" in November 2010, which passed on a 71-1 vote in the New Jersey Assembly and a 30-0 vote in the New Jersey Senate.
The San Diego Unified School District Board of Education unanimously approved a resolution to provide a safe environment and equal opportunities for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning students.
The day of the announcement of the verdict in the Dharun Ravi trial, Tyler's father, Joseph, released a statement, directed particularly at young people:
"You're going to meet a lot of people in your lifetime. Some of these people you may not like. Just because you don't like them doesn't mean you have to work against them. When you see somebody doing something wrong, tell them: "That's not right. Stop it." The change you want to see in the world begins with you."
In the same statement, Jane Clementi, Tyler's mother, noted the role that electronic media can have in singling out LGBT youth for being different. She said: "In this digital world, we need to teach our youngsters that their actions have consequences, that their words have real power to hurt or to help. They must be encouraged to choose to build people up and not tear them down."
In Los Angeles, the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles and all-male string quartet Well-Strung, in partnership with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, unite to pay tribute to Clementi with a one-night only performance of Tyler's Suite , an eight-movement choral piece that takes listeners on a journey through Tyler's brief life. Saturday's show marks the second stop in a six-city tour of the work, which debuted last year in San Francisco.
The project came together under the musical leadership of Broadway giant Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist. With its message of hope and dignity for LGBT youth, Tyler's Suite moves beyond the headlines-only perspective of Tyler's story to get to who he really was.
Tyler's mother, Jane, thinks Tyler's Suite captures her son's big personality beautifully. "What's good is there are so many different parts to the pieces and different parts bring up different emotions and memories for me, and that reminds me of Tyler because he was filled with lots of different sides to him," Jane says by telephone from her home in New Jersey. "He was so passionate about different things and so compassionate, very thoughtful, and yet he had a great sense of humor."
All those strings should sound familiar. Tyler Clementi was himself a trained violinist. "We had concerts at home every night as he practiced," Jane says. She recalls her son enjoyed playing pieces by Mendelssohn, Bruch, Bach, and Mozart. He also adored show tunes, she says, especially songs from Wicked . Several movements are written from the family's perspective, including "Just a Boy," which features a poem Tyler's father, Joseph, wrote shortly after his son's death. Another movement, "I Love You More," tells the story of a game Clementi and his mother played when he was a young boy.
Was Tyler ever bullied as a child?
"To my knowledge and to my other son's knowledge, we were never aware of Tyler ever being bullied," she says. "Which makes me think maybe that's why he wasn't able to handle it at the time in his life, when he had so many other stressors. Being in a new place. Transitioning to college. Just coming out. So many other factors. And it just snowballed. It rolled out of control."
Is it bittersweet for Jane to witness the sweeping changes around marriage equality in the United States? The current atmosphere for LGBT people in the U.S. is so different than it was just five years ago.
"Yes," she says after a pause. "I have met so many people that have dealt with loss over the past four and half years. One woman, whose son also died by suicide, had this thought that if it hadn't happened at that point, it would have been another point [in her son's life]. When I heard that I just cringed inside. My heart just broke. Because I knew that if Tyler didn't make that decision when he did, he would be here today. If he had just held on and reached out for help at that point, I know he would be here. That hurts greatly."
Jane acknowledges that the healing happens gradually. The show, she says, won't be as hard as last year's San Francisco debut, which, she says, was very painful. "I was in a very different place. It's been a long journey. Even the last six months, it's been improving greatly," she says. "But [the show] was very touching. There are parts that have some whimsical pieces to it, and that was good to see." Jane and her oldest son, James, who is also gay, attended the concert.
Through her family's tireless work with the Tyler Clementi Foundation, Jane says she meets too many people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Her hope is that Tyler's Suite will be another force to compel people to reach out to those in pain. "I hope that it will create a resolve in people and trigger the emotions that we need to help other people and make sure that other young people don't have to ever suffer again," she says. "We have to take that sadness and move it forward."
Jane believes there is no greater way to do that than through music.
She says her own healing has involved a lot of Christian contemporary music. "Music speaks to my heart greatly," she says. There is no better way to change people's attitudes and mindsets than to speak to their heart and share stories."
The bottom line, says Jane, is that anyone can help, even if it's just by taking the Tyler Clementi Foundation's Upstander Pledge. "The backstory is we kept finding that there are lots and lots of witnesses that saw what was happening and chiming in on the web-camming and then Twittering about it and posting on Facebook," Jane says.
"Tyler was seeing all those posts and going back to them. That really struck us. That was really hard for us to see. All these other people were being bystanders. Then we learned that it's true of nearly 85 percent of bullying situations. We just think that if you can change those bystanders and make them Upstanders - somebody that will speak up to the situation, speak out to the person being targeted, and helping to create a safe space around them, it will make a big difference. In any situation. Not just in schools, but in the workplace, in faith communities, anywhere. Just making sure that people are safe."
It's very simple, Jane says. "Almost like the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It's something Tyler didn't receive, but we want to make sure everyone else receives it."