Tragedy inspires art, gifting its music, painting, or writing to survivors like a soothing balm for pained hearts. The suicide of gay teen Tyler Clementi inspired the beautiful, nine-song choral movement, Tyler’s Suite. Harmony: a Colorado Chorale with Sine Nomine will present the Rocky Mountain regional premier on May 5th at the Broomfield Auditorium, and May 6th at the Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Denver.
In 2010 Tyler Clementi — a sweet, deeply loved and musically talented freshman interested in science and finance — was exploring life and sexuality at Rutgers. His straight roommate used a webcam to spy on him, inviting others online to watch intimate moments between Tyler and another young man. Outed on the internet and ashamed of harassment and humiliation, Tyler jumped off the George Washington Bridge in New York.
Cyber-bullying yielded yet another heartbreaking statistic. More have followed, and sadly, more probably will, despite the national attention Tyler’s death brought to the issue and the struggles facing LGBTQ youth. According to the Trevor Project, the rate of suicide attempts is 4 times greater for LGB youth and 2 times greater for questioning youth than that of straight youth.
“We have to change our future,” Jane Clementi, Tyler’s mother, said. “Let’s move forward to make sure people are not alone, not to accept but to celebrate [diversity], to move the conversation forward, and not stay in the place of tragedy.”
Still, we ask the question: Why did this young man — or any young person — on the cusp of fulfilling life’s potential choose the option with irreversible consequences?
Confronted with tragedy, we demand comfort and answers, knowing the mystery will never be solved.
As survivors, we can turn to artists to assuage our confusion and sorrow. We can absorb and interpret their abstract answers on emotional or spiritual levels. In our shared humanity we can appease our yearning for understanding, no matter our nearness to Tyler’s story.
“We wanted [Tyler’s Suite] to resonate. We wanted it to act as a call to action with a message of hope so there are no other casualties,” Jane said.
Premiering in 2014, Tyler’s Suite was created under the collaborative leadership of Broadway and movie legend Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked, Pocahontas) and Timothy Seelig, conductor and artistic director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. Today’s dynamic composers John Corigliano (the opera The Ghosts of Versailles), Jake Heggie (the opera Dead Man Walking), and others worked tirelessly until they settled on nine powerful songs.
Selig also worked with the Coil Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to “eliminate prejudice and discrimination against LGBT people.” The organization uses artistic expressions as one of its methods.
Librettist Pamela Stewart met with Tyler’s family to give voice to different facets of Tyler’s life, even the media frenzy. An article by his brother also provided lyrics.
“My older son is gay too,” Jane said. “I needed to make sure he was safe, as well as the countless other children.”
Lost in a lengthy fog of grief, Jane found purpose again within her son’s foundation. The family wanted to ensure the integrity of Tyler’s story and prevent dishonorable manipulations. The Tyler Clementi Foundation offers programs, actions, and resources to accomplish its mission “to end online and offline bullying in schools, workplaces, and faith communities.”
Why faith communities? Before Tyler committed suicide, he came out to his mother who belonged to an evangelical church.
After Tyler’s death, she found his bible with notes on the sin of homosexuality and how it separates one from God.
“My church supported my grief tremendously, but not my son. They drew a line. Homosexuality was still wrong. My faith comforted me, but my eyes opened,” Jane said.
Jane now attends an inclusive Presbyterian church.
In 2012 Dharun Ravi, the roommate who broadcasted Tyler’s private, intimate moment, was convicted on 15 counts of invasion of privacy, bias intimidation, tampering with evidence, witness tampering, and hindering apprehension or prosecution. Due to changes in New Jersey laws and a plea deal in 2016, Ravi’s 15 convictions were overturned except the attempted invasion of privacy. Ravi’s sentence included a 20 day time served, a fine, community service, and counseling. He has denied his actions led to Tyler’s suicide. He has never apologized.
People magazine published Jane’s response online.
“Maybe the law can change the legal definition of bias but the moral definition never changes. Maybe the point of all this was not to find truth or justice but rather to learn a tiny bit of wisdom. Become an Up-Stander, someone who stands up and speaks out when they see someone being harassed and humiliated. Hold the people around you accountable. Let Tyler’s story help build a culture of kindness, respect and empathy all around us.”
Tickets and information for Tyler’s Suite, directed by Dr. Seelig, can be purchased at HarmonyChorale.org. After the Saturday, May 6th event, a VIP Reception follows with an opportunity to meet Mrs. Clementi, Dr. Seelig, and soloists. Prior to it, a forum runs 6:30 p.m. to 7:15 with a panel discussing inclusion, diversity, and anti-bullying.