Reflections on What to Make of Tyler Clementi


Posted on September 30th, 2010 by Katherine Franke
 7 comments  

Like many people, I’ve taken hard the suicide of Tyler Clementi.  I got choked up this afternoon in front of the University of Connecticut Law School faculty when I mentioned his death as part of a talk I was giving on lgbt rights more generally.  But I’d like to avoid using this post as either an opportunity for painful identification or emotional confession about the issue, so here are a few thoughts:

First: Does it matter, and if so how, that what was streamed about him on the web was same- (not different-) sex intimacy/sex/something?  (I want to avoid calling him gay, I have no idea how he self-identified, or whether his attractions had organized themselves into an identity.)  As I listened to the NPR coverage of the matter while driving back from Hartford in the rain this afternoon, I took note of the fact that both the “teaser” and “lead in” for the story emphasized a violation of his privacy and the issue of “cyber-bullying,” not homophobia or homophobically-related shame.  Have we reached a point where the (unconsented to) exposure/publication of sexuality is an offense with equal cause for objection regardless of whether it was homo or hetero sex, or is there something more and differently objectionable about the outing of a young person’s attractions/acts/desires for another person of the same sex?  If so, doesn’t this reproduce and re-credentialize the notion that there’s something shameful about the exposure of same-sex desire?  Yet, so long as we live in a world that exacts a price for non-normative sexuality or desire (as this world most certainly does), how can we deny the added psychic cost of having one’s sexual encounters outed in such a public manner?  To pose the question another, and more legalistic, way: was what happened to Tyler Clementi a privacy crime or a hate crime?  What’s at stake in taking sides on this question?

Here’s the thing: if he’d been video-taped having sex with a woman he might have felt personally violated, exposed, and maybe humiliated, but it would have been something that was publicly available for boasting and homosocial bonding (thank you Eve Sedgwick).  And above all else, the victim here would have been the woman.  He would have been (regardless of what he actually felt) the hero of the film.  The fact that everyone agrees that he was the injured party here is testament to the enduring cost of heterosexism.

Second: Might we want to pause before indulging the impulse to turn to criminal law to punish the perpetrators of this awful event and remedy its deadly consequences?  After listening to Dean Spade talk at numerous lgbt conferences about the perils of criminalization, I can’t help but question why and how the lgbt community continues to seek recognition and refuge in criminal law.  As Spade, a law professor in Seattle, has put it:

In the context of mass imprisonment and rapid prison growth targeting traditionally oppressed groups, what does it mean to use criminal punishment enhancing laws to purportedly address oppression? … Hate crimes laws strengthen and legitimize the criminal punishment system, a system that targets the very people that these laws are supposedly passed to protect … By naming that system as the answer to the significant problem of violence against trans [and lgb] people, we participate in the logic that the criminal punishment system produces safety despite the fact that the evidence suggests that it primarily produces violence  … A new mandate to punish trans [and homo]phobes is added to the arsenal of justifications for a system that primarily locks up and destroys the lives of poor people, people of color, people with disabilities, and immigrants, and that uses gender-based sexual violence as one of its daily tools of discipline.

What happened in a Rutgers dorm room this week was unconscionable – the first month of school; figuring out who you are and what you like for the first time outside the pickets of the nuclear family; violated by your roommate – remember we pair freshmen and women with roommates because they “need” the sociality that a roommate brings.

But of course we can’t lay all the blame at Rutgers’ feet.  It didn’t start there.  We can equally point to the priming that happens in almost all middle and high schools that renders same-sex desire so shameful that its exposure amounts to a kind of soul-killing for the same sex desirer, and that desire’s broadcast on the internet a “harmless freshman prank” to those who do the broadcasting.   Criminal law can’t and won’t do much to interrupt the conditions precedent to this week’s loss of life.

7 comments

  1. Your blog brings up an urgent and a pressing need for educators to rethink ethically what discourses of difference mean in the K-12 classrooms. Efforts need to be made to rethink forms of subjectivity and relations outside the oppressive confines of the always heterosexualized classroom. Unfortunately, current discourses of inclusion reinforce a notion of possession by not facilitating the proliferation of identifications necessary to rethinking and refreshing identity as more than a limit of attitude. Britzman in her essay, “Is There a Queer Pedagogy? Or Stop Reading This Straight,” claims that part of the tension is that in current discourses of inclusion, there tend to be only two pedagogical strategies; provisions of information and techniques for attitudinal change. As a result, K-12 curricula that profess to be inclusive may actually work to create new forms of exclusivity when it comes to issues of sexuality, if the only ideologies presented are those defined within standardized definitions of normalcy. The assurance of tolerance within this context implies intolerance by the fact that acceptance of the other in this case presupposes the appropriation of the other into the self, thereby annihilating the other into a projection of the self. A reconceptualization of identity, sexual or otherwise necessitates that curriculum reform be thought of as a matter of ethics, as the problem of curriculum now becomes one of recreating identifications, not closing them. How to accomplish this while concurrently resisting the incredible pressures to instantiate and reify essentialized images of sexuality and marginal subjects that function like fixed locations on the outer perimeters of normalcy, without thereby fortifying and stabilizing dominant subjectivities and knowledge, is a project K-12 schools need to explore as part of their curriculum on inclusion.
    >

  2. @rymenhild http://bit.ly/dzLYBH

  3. This is very insightful. As a member of the LGBT community in a rural southern state, I never met a non-heterosexual person (out of the closet, that is) until my junior year of high school. It is easy to imagine that I did not realize my non-normative behavior was tolerable in any circumstance. As a gay male that was taught to hate himself by the dominant culture, can I really attribute blame on an individual who is heterosexual? A heterosexual male not only increasingly has to deal with the expectations of masculinity (as we all do), but also has no experience as being the Other. This policing of masculinity and inability to recognize the agency, needs, and very existence of the other – prescribes the violent behavior (rhetorical or physical) of “hate crime” perpetrators. This system also serves in many ways as the source of the penal system of the United States and Western Society. The second point about punishment I therefore find quite compelling. The left needs to return to more radical tactics (I wish I had a less violent word than tactics). It is apparent that working within the system of punishment only reinforces the very systems of masculinity that create the harassment in the first place. What is the criminalization of “hate crimes,” but another form masculine intimidaThis is very insightful. As a member of the LGBT community in a rural southern state, I never met a non-heterosexual person (out of the closet, that is) until my junior year of high school. It is easy to imagine that I did not realize my non-normative behavior was tolerable in any circumstance. As a gay male that was taught to hate himself by the dominant culture, can I really attribute blame on an individual who is heterosexual? A heterosexual male not only increasingly has to deal with the expectations of masculinity (as we all do), but also has no experience as being the Other. This policing of masculinity and inability to recognize the agency, needs, and very existence of the other – prescribes the violent behavior (rhetorical or physical) of “hate crime” perpetrators. This system also serves in many ways as the source of the penal system of the United States and Western Society. The second point about punishment I therefore find quite compelling. The left needs to return to more radical tactics (I wish I had a less violent word than tactics). It is apparent that working within the system of punishment only reinforces the very systems of masculinity that create the harassment in the first place. What is the criminalization of “hate crimes,” but another form masculine intimidation only sanctioned by the state? A new left should return to the idea of envisioning an alternative society in which that which is “feminine” or “queer” is not undervalued. Otherwise, we threaten only reinforcing the very system of oppression that got our communities to this crisis in the first place.tion only sanctioned by the state? A new left should return to the idea of envisioning an alternative society in which that which is “feminine” or “queer” is not undervalued. Otherwise, we threaten only reinforcing the very system of oppression that got our communities to this crisis in the first place.

  4. Reflections on What to Make of Tyler Clementi http://bit.ly/dzLYBH Katherine Franke is my hero basically.

  5. Reflections on What to Make of Tyler Clementi http://bit.ly/dzLYBH

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