3 Years Later and 5 Questions with the Clementi Family

An Interview with Mitchell Gold

Three years after Tyler Clementi ended his young life, Jane and Joe Clementi, Tyler’s mother and father, along with Tyler’s oldest brother James, sit down with Faith in America founder Mitchell Gold to discuss their loss. The family talks openly about ways that other parents and young people can learn from what happened to Tyler to prevent other tragedies. While working to create a more loving and welcoming world, the family has been blessed with Mitchell’s friendship and insight.

Mitchell Gold is the co-founder and CEO of award winning and internationally recognized home furnishings company Mitchell Gold + Bob Williams. Seven years ago he co-founded Faith in America with former Methodist minister Jimmy Creech. The organization’s mission is to educate people about the harm caused by outdated, misguided and ill-informed religious teachings towards innocent and vulnerable gay teens. Mitchell has been credited with having the courage to “start difficult conversations” about religion with a wide array of people from the news media, politicians and everyday families. In 2008, he edited CRISIS: 40 Stories Revealing the Personal, Social and Religious Pain and Trauma of Growing Up Gay in America. It was released a year ago in paperback as Youth In Crisis, and has been a great help to the Clementi family.

Mitchell encouraged the Clementi’s, saying, “Think about what you want a gay kid who feels ashamed, broken, bullied to learn if they go to your site. Think about what you want parents to learn.”

Mitchell: What would you say to Tyler if he were sitting with you?
Joseph: Tyler, I miss you every hour of every day. Instead of taking the action you took I wish you would have taken your tenaciousness and used it to survive. I know you are at peace and with God now, yet I wish you were here. I know I can’t understand the feelings of isolation and hopelessness that must have driven you to act as you did. You were the child who seemed to have it all together yet underneath you were suffering.
I wish I could have impressed upon you more that there is no problem, no issue, no act that you could commit or could be committed on you, that would
have ever diminished my love and support for you and who you are. I thought you knew and understood that. I am profoundly saddened that this wasn’t clearly communicated or understood properly, and wish that I could have changed that.
James: In this life so many things happen to challenge us and hurt us, and you have felt more pain for being who you are in a world that doesn’t understand, and for having the wrong kind of people in your life just as you were beginning to find yourself. You never should have had to doubt your own worth and value, and I wish you would have known it all along. In your absence I have nothing but a void that will never be filled. You are gone, but the love and connection that I feel for you is forever. I don’t agree with your choices, and I will remain confused and hurt by them. I would have changed this world to create one where I could be you every day. You didn’t give me that chance, but in all of the people that I’ve spoken to and worked with since your passing I see a great need for change. I will be doing my part to change this world for them. But you don’t know how much I wish I was making changes that you could still benefit from.

Mitchell: What do you want to say to any lesbian, gay, bisexual or Transgender (LGBT) kid out there listening, especially ones who are frightened, who have been taught that being gay or acting on it is a sin?
Joseph: If you have been taught by your faith community or perhaps your family and friends that your sexual orientation is a sin, consider this – you were made the way you are by God for a reason. Being gay is not a sin. If you are afraid and are in an environment that is not accepting, please realize that there are a lot of people who want to help. Seek the help of those people through national and regional LGBT organizations.
Jane: You are perfectly and wonderfully made in God’s image. God does not make mistakes and you were created by a faithful, loving and compassionate God, who loves you very much, just as you are. You are not broken or inferior….it is not a sin to be gay. Find a supportive network of friends and family that can encourage you and give you true and accurate information, always maintaining your safety and protection.
James: Hang in there. Stay strong. There is nothing wrong with you. You deserve to love yourself and accept yourself fully. You are
not sinful. Know that anyone who has ever told you that about yourself or
someone else who is LGBT is wrong. You are entitled to support and love from
other people in your life. If you feel like you are alone with it, I promise
you you’re not. There are people in your life who love you and will support
you. You don’t have to go through life with such a big part of who you are
remaining a secret. Never be ashamed. There is love and support out there. I
urge you to seek it out, no matter how scary it is. Please give yourself the
chance to be truly happy and free in your own skin.

Mitchell: What do you want to say to any parent of an LGBT kid so they never have to go through what you have?
Joseph: If you suspect that you are the parent of an LGBT kid or know that you are, the way you react will have a positive or negative effect on the life of your child. The way you react is important so that there is a positive outcome. When your child comes out to you, it’s important for them to know that they are accepted. They need to know that they are not broken and there is nothing to be “fixed”. Any child or youngster taking that step to come out is putting themselves at risk. Parents should embrace their children unreservedly and their sexual orientation no matter what it is. That is how they will know they are ok. That is how they will know they did not make a mistake by taking the risk to come out. That is how they know that you love them.
Jane: It is important to remain focused on what is important
– the fact that you love your child and you want what is best for them. As parents you also need to have support and correct, accurate information so that you can best help, protect, assist and most importantly show your unconditional love for your children. If you are struggling some basic information would be helpful. Sexual orientation is not a choice. Your child did not just “choose” this. It is not something that can be changed. By holding to these false ideas you are causing great emotional and psychological harm to your child which research shows might lead to destructive physical injury as well as great emotional wounds. Family Acceptance Project is a great
resource for parents who are struggling with many questions.
James: The thing that I most feared before coming out was telling my parents and having to anticipate what their reaction would be. There are many ways that you can make this easier for your child. Make it
clear in your words and actions that you love your child no matter what, and
that you will support them no matter what. Bring up LGBT friends or
acquaintances you have and speak about them in an affirming light. If you’re
watching TV together and marriage equality is being debated on the news or a
gay character shows up on a sitcom, take a moment to say something supportive
and let your child know that they are safe with you. Don’t wait for a crisis to hit, constantly look for new ways and times to bring up your unconditional love and support.

Mitchell: What do you want to say to any parent of a straight kid so their kid is not reckless in how they treat LGBT kids?
Joseph: Set up a precedent of inclusiveness and acceptance in your home by taking our Upstander Pledge. Print it out and put it up on your refrigerator. As parents our interests are in raising our children to be the best that they can be. Part of being the best is to establish in our children a sense of fairness in how we treat others. Your kids are going to meet people in their lives who are different from them. You need to reinforce that while we have differences, our similarities are much more significant. LGBT kids may be different from your kids in whom they are attracted to, what they look like, how they choose to dress and whom they choose to love. The important thing is that we are more similar than we are different. Teach your kids that outward appearances are not a judge of a person’s character. Encourage them to get to know LGBT kids because they can learn from them as well as anybody else. Parents also need to tell their straight kids that LGBT kids are a vulnerable group – vulnerable to hurting themselves. Teach your child to interact positively with LGBT kids and all kids because simply put, that works better for everybody.
Jane: As parents we should be teaching our children to be compassionate, kind, gentle and caring towards all people. We are all different from each other; this is what makes each of us special. We need to embrace our diversity no matter what the difference….race, religion, gender identity and/or sexual orientation. You need to show your children with your words as well as with your actions….your children are smart, they are watching. Your disrespectful or negative comments, snide remarks or even facial expressions to LGBT people (or even your silence….silence sometimes speaks louder than words) have an even deeper effect on people. You need to set a good example for your children. Words hurt and have consequences. Parents should use words to build others up, show respect and be inclusive.
James: Your child is very aware of your words and behavior. Kids pay attention and they learn from you about how to treat other people. That’s a huge responsibility. So make it clear that LGBT people are deserving of respect and dignity, and that any bullying, harassment or assaults will not be tolerated by you. Regardless of your own personal feelings about homosexuality, you must recognize that your child’s LGBT classmates are someone’s child, someone’s sibling, someone’s friend. That kid has every right to go to school feeling as safe and respected as your own child does.

Mitchell: What do you want to say to a straight kid who might not have been brought up to respect other LGBT kids?
Joseph: It’s very simple, live equal and let live. Treat others the way you want to be treated. If you are a youngster and have LGBT folks in your school or wherever you interact with others, you need to be especially sensitive to their feelings. If you come from an environment where you have not been taught to respect gay people’s feelings, or even to disrespect them I would say you have to make up your own mind. You have the
power to determine how you will treat people. That is within your control. Your interactions can have lasting effects on LGBT kids who are still wrestling with their identity or their acceptance at home, or in their faith communities. You never know at what point a person may be in their life in that regard and to simply refuse to engage in name calling and negative activities is the least you can do. You would do better for both of you to engage in a positive way. Build each other up. Resist the tendency to tear somebody down. You want to be cool? Make Kindness Cool.
Jane: As with everyone you should be respectful, kind and considerate to all. You have nothing to fear from an LGBT person…they will not harm you…it is not contagious…you cannot be taught to be “gay” nor is it something that you can learn. Nothing can cause or make you change who you are, it is just one more attribute that makes you, you and them, them. Just remember, all human beings possess dignity and are all worthy of kindness and respect. So just be true to your character, do what you have been taught, what you know to be true and good …be the kind, caring thoughtful person you were created to be.
James: I recognize that it is hard to respect something that you not only don’t understand, but you may have even been taught it is bad or wrong. But the reality is, there are LGBT students that sit in your classrooms, whether you know it or not. There is a good chance that one of your friends, family members, or someone in your community is LGBT, whether they have told you or not. Your words and your actions have a direct impact on
these people; even something that you think is a joke can be incredibly painful for them. Why make a choice to be cruel, threatening or unkind when you can just be nice to people? No one deserves to suffer for someone else’s ignorance. And I would also challenge you to learn why LGBT people are deserving of respect. If you actually got to know someone who is LGBT, you would quickly realize that they are people like all other people.