The latticework of high-flying steel on the George Washington Bridge looks like a cage to me. Perhaps that’s what Tyler Clementi saw as he stared into the vanishing point where the walkway meets the lines of wire. You might have read about him. He was the freshman at Rutgers University whose roommate streamed footage of him in bed with another man. Mortified, Clementi drove to the George Washington Bridge and threw himself into the Hudson River.
The real cage that Clementi was escaping is homophobia, and it encloses thousands of people in this country. As an out, queer man in my twenties, that cage is all-too-familiar. It is the fear of others’ hate and meanness. It is the loneliness of being different. It is the anger of feeling weakness. Fortunately, I have escaped. How I got out was by literally getting out: connecting with nature, being outside, recognizing that there’s a whole world that accepts me for who I am. It is a world that I like to call the “more-than-human.”
We lose too many people to homophobia. Suicide is the third highest cause of death for American youth 15 to 24 years of age. In Clementi’s case, like so many others, bullying led to his suicide. Nearly 90 percent of LGBT high school students report being verbally harassed, 40 percent report being physically harassed, and 19 percent report being physically assaulted at school within the past year.
So what do we do about it? Dan Savage, the nationally syndicated sex columnist, offers one answer. He responded to Clementi’s death by starting the It Gets Better Project, which urges adults to post encouraging videos to LGBT youth. Yet the videos – as edifying and heart-warming as they may be – are not enough to stop bullying. They feed words of encouragement to the young people still held prisoner by hate. What I wonder is what else we can do to tear down the bars.
Richard Louv, in his Last Child in the Woods, offers another part of the answer: Kids need to play in nature. They need to learn how to function in a complex world, how to build and maintain healthy relationships, and how to form their identities according to their own needs. Research indicates that kids do all of these things through the simple act of playing outdoors.
What I find so hopeful about Louv’s message is that it has the power to transform both the bullies and the bullied. Would-be-bullies are more likely to be kind the more time they spend outside. There could be a number of reasons for this, the simplest being that people get grumpy, and consequently mean, indoors – the bad lighting, the stale air, the barrage of chemical exposure.
For the bullied, playing outdoors provides them with the space in which to accept themselves. Last year, I interviewed gay men who worked for the National Park Service and US Forest Service. I discovered that these men overcame the challenges of living in isolated, often homophobic locations by finding refuge in the more-than-human world. The men spoke about feeling fully accepted in wild, unpeopled landscapes. They told stories of encountering bears, prairie dogs, and chipmunks, none of which cared about whom they loved. They talked about the equanimity of lightning that could just as easily strike a straight person as a gay person. And they admitted that they had found places to cry, openly, out where the sagebrush wouldn’t tell anyone. These men found the confidence to continue living in a society full of hate, anger, and violence.
What if all kids could experience the acceptance that transformed these men’s lives? I don’t know if Tyler Clementi ever had such an experience. I hope he did. I hope he had the chance to stand in the middle of a forest or on the top of a mountain with no one else around. In that moment, he would have seen the physical world, the one from which his body had emerged, and to which it would return. He might have recognized a sense of peace, somewhere inside of him, the sense that he belonged. Nothing there in that place would have laughed at Tyler Clementi because of the joy he found in another man’s arms.
Alex Johnson has just returned from paddling the Yukon River. His writing has appeared in Orion, Astrobiology, Camas, and elsewhere.