By KATE ZERNIKE New York Times feature
RIDGEWOOD, N.J. — When Tyler Clementi told his parents he was gay, two days before he left for Rutgers University in the fall of 2010, he said he had known since middle school.
Richard Perry/The New York Times
After Tyler Clementi, a Rutgers student, died, his parents left their church, because staying there would suggest that they supported its teachings against homosexuality.
Richard Perry/The New York Times
A concert photo of Tyler Clementi hangs in his parents’ home.
“So he did have a side that he didn’t open up to us, obviously,” his mother, Jane Clementi, said, sitting in her kitchen here nearly two years later. “That was one of the things that hurt me the most, that he was hiding something so much. Because I thought we had a pretty open relationship.”
In her surprise, she had peppered him with questions: “How do you know? Who are you going to talk to? Who are you going to tell?” Tyler told a friend that the conversation had not gone well. His father had been “very accepting,” he wrote in a text message. “Mom has basically completely rejected me.”
Three weeks later, he jumped off the George Washington Bridge after discovering that his roommate had used a webcam to spy on him having sex and that he had sent out Twitter messages encouraging others to watch.
An international spotlight turned the episode into a cautionary coming-out story, of a young man struggling with his sexuality and the damage inflicted by bullying. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, was tried and convicted of intimidation and invasion of privacy; he served a short jail sentence. But the trial never directly addressed the question at the heart of the story — what prompted a promising college freshman to kill himself?
It is that question that lingers over the household here on a tidy street in this prosperous suburb.
The Clementis continue to blame the bad luck of a roommate lottery and the cowardice of students who failed to step up and say that the spying was wrong.
But their son’s suicide has also forced changes, and new honesty, upon them. They have left the church that made Ms. Clementi so resistant to her son’s declaration. Their middle son, James, acknowledged what the family had long suspected and said that he, too, was gay. The family is devoting itself to a foundation promoting acceptance with the hope of preventing the suicides of gay teenagers.
Most of all, Ms. Clementi has had to grapple with her own role in Tyler’s death.
“People talk about coming out of the closet — it’s parents coming out of the closet, too,” she said. “I wasn’t really ready for that.”
At the time Tyler sat down to tell his parents he was gay, she believed that homosexuality was a sin, as her evangelical church taught. She said she was not ready to tell friends, protecting her son — and herself — from what would surely be the harsh judgments of others.
“It did not change the fact that I loved my son,” she said. “I did need to think about how that would fit into my thoughts on homosexuality.”
Yet it did not occur to her that Tyler would think she did not accept him. She had long talked with him about how his brother James was gay — though at the time James had not said he was. “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,” she said.
Tyler’s father, Joe Clementi, characterized the last month in his son’s life as a “rough spot.” But Ms. Clementi said she believed he was “confident, comfortable” in his decision. He left for Rutgers telling his parents about plans to attend events for gay students. He reported having gone to New York with new friends to see plays; his parents took this to mean he was adjusting well.
During a phone call one afternoon he sounded different. “A little sad,” Ms. Clementi said. “I thought maybe it was adjusting to being away. I told him how much I missed him, he got a little teary and told me he’d missed me, too. I thought he’d been away too much.”
That evening, Joe Clementi was awakened by a call from the Port Authority police, saying they had Tyler’s wallet and phone, that he’d been seen — then not seen — on the bridge.
In the months after Tyler’s death, some of Ms. Clementi’s friends confided that they, too, had gay children. She blames religion for the shame surrounding it — in the conversation about coming out, Tyler told his mother he did not think he could be Christian and gay.
“I think some people think that sexual orientation can be changed or prayed over,” she said now, in her kitchen. “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.”
She decided she could no longer attend her church, because doing so would suggest she supported its teachings against homosexuality. And she took strength from reading the Bible as she reconsidered her views.
“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.”
What has troubled her most is the thought that Tyler believed she had rejected him.
Joe Clementi argues that his son was speaking with classic teenage exaggeration to a friend, that the remark was taken out of context by people who did not know the family, or the facts. “Just to be clear: Tyler had two parents, and I didn’t have any problem with it,” he said. “He had support.”
But Ms. Clementi can’t dismiss it that easily. “Obviously he felt that way, he needed to tell his friend that.”
Sitting in the courtroom every day during Mr. Ravi’s trial this winter, the Clementis often looked brittle, and rarely spoke. But here in their home, next to the elementary school that all three of their boys attended, they spoke openly. They have also been speaking to school and corporate groups about their experience. And though she supports the prosecution’s appeal of the 30-day sentence Mr. Ravi received on the ground that that it was too short, Ms. Clementi said, “It won’t change my life one way or another.”
It is a relief to have come out of the closet, she said. “It is not something I would have done on my own.”
She thinks often about her last phone call with Tyler, hours before he went to the bridge.
“I was sitting right over there,” she said, pointing to a corner of the kitchen. They had what seemed like an innocuous discussion about whether his parents should take Tyler’s bike to Rutgers for him. It was expensive and beloved, and he had not wanted it stolen.
“He got very teary and wistful — ‘Oh, my bike, I forgot about my bike,’ ” she recalled. “After the fact I think about it in different terms, but at the time, I didn’t. He said, ‘No, keep it at home.’ ”
She cannot recall how they said goodbye.
“It was probably the way we said goodbye all the time,” she said. “ ‘Goodbye, I love you,’ ‘I love you more.’ That was the way we usually ended it. I’m sure that’s how we ended it that time, too.”