On Sept. 19, 2010, Tyler Clementi brought a man back to his Rutgers dormitory. His roommate used a webcam to capture their intimacy, without Clementi’s knowledge and posted it on Twitter.
When Clementi, who had only recently confided to his parents that he was gay, found out, he jumped to his death off the George Washington Bridge. His suicide and case garnered national headlines.
The following year, Jane and Joseph Clementi, Tyler’s parents, started a foundation to help gay teens accept their orientation and not be bullied.
“I was still in a fog,” Jane recalled recently, but people were coming to her and her husband and telling them to “use the attention for good.”
She thought: “There was a lot of space for God to work through this.”
By 2018, she was fully immersed in the foundation’s work and is now its president. A small office was set up in Manhattan, but COVID shut it, so she now works out of her home in Harrison, where she’d moved to be closer to Manhattan.
The foundation has circulated the Upstander Pledge online and is approaching one million signatures. The first line states: “I will stand up to bullying whether I’m at school, at home, at work, in my house of worship; whether I am speaking in the digital cyber world or out in the real world with friends, family, colleagues or teammates.”
But a recent pledge to religious leaders raised awareness of the foundation’s existence when 13 Catholic prelates, including Newark’s Joseph Cardinal Tobin, signed it. Titled “God Is on Your Side: A Statement From Catholic Bishops on Protecting LGBT Youth,” it goes on to state: “The Catholic Church values the God-given dignity of all human life and we take this opportunity to say to our LGBT friends, especially young people, that we stand with you and oppose any form of violence, bullying or harassment directed at you.”
Jane Clementi was happy but wondered what about the other 428 bishops.
“Bishops don’t seem to be accepting this benign, simple statement,” she said.
Several religious orders of men and women and other religious organizations did, however.
Furthermore, she found the recent Vatican statement banning Catholic priests blessing same-sex unions as “a form of bullying behavior.” She wasn’t alone. Outrage emerged throughout the world, including from members of the hierarchy who were particularly upset with the document’s language about same-sex love as “disordered” and that the church “cannot bless sin.”
“It is a devastating message,” Jane said, “a message that causes shame and creates animosity within the hearts of parents, siblings and other kin, leaving our LGBTQI+ youth to feel abandoned and alone in a cold world.”
Lately, much has been written about opposition to trans individuals and youth. In New Jersey, three Republican lawmakers have introduced a bill that would ban transgender athletes from playing in girls’ sports. Other states are also fighting this battle.
On March 12, The Star-Ledger ran a front-page story titled “For N.J.’s transgender residents, an unspoken toll.” It includes the story of a trans woman in the Edna Mahon Correctional Center beaten so badly by officers that she now uses a wheelchair.
Jane believes that “words do offend.”
“This happened to Tyler and no one stood up,” she said.
Jane recalled her struggle accepting her youngest son’s sexuality when he confided to her before leaving for college. She later noted that she had not been ready as a parent to publicly acknowledge having a gay son.
Religious institutions, she believes, have a big part to play in acceptance.
“My hope is that all our church leaders will reflect God’s compassion, hope and unconditional love into the world, so that everyone will find a place of refuge and support from their pain and heartache, just as I did in my darkest hours,” she said.
There are two other Clementi sons. Brian lives in Jersey City and works in finance. Her oldest, James, lives with his husband, Ramon, in Maplewood. He is a licensed therapist who’s been active as a consultant with the foundation.
Nearly 11 years after losing Tyler, Jane is hopeful.
“Love must always embrace, encourage, build others up and give life,” she said. “Now that would be an amazing sight: seeing God’s unconditional love shining brightly in the words and actions of our church leadership.”
The Rev. Alexander Santora is the pastor of Our Lady of Grace and St. Joseph, 400 Willow Ave., Hoboken, NJ 07030. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @padrehoboken.