Looking Through and At the Media Treatment of LGBTQ Youth

It is difficult but nonetheless urgent for all of us who engage with or impact young people in various ways to respond to the many terrible events of the last several weeks: the devastating spate of LBGTQ teen suicides, as well as horrific cases of gay bashing and torture, homophobic remarks and hate speech. Further, it is urgent for us to do so in ways that demonstrate the imperative of response across all areas of our work and our lives. As someone who works teaching college students in a department of “Modern Culture and Media” and a program in “Gender and Sexuality Studies,” I feel that it is crucial for me, along with my students, to think through the intersection of media and sexuality carefully (as just one issue, amongst so many, that are crucial to consider regarding these events).
Many of these events have become big stories in the news, showing how news coverage can be very important for disseminating information and for generating attention to homophobia.But, of course, the news also needs to be critiqued, since many of these tragic events have not gotten much mainstream media attention, and, if we go beyond those last several weeks, certainly there have been many, many other cases as well — too many to count — remain invisible. Why are some of the suicides and anti-LGBTQ aggression getting coverage and not others? And why now, when there have tragically been so many suicides and violence in the past too? What grabs headlines and airtime and what doesn’t?
The suicide that seems to have received the most media scrutiny is that of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student whose roommate streamed live video on the Internet of Tyler having sex with a male partner, leading to his despair and to his desperate decision to jump off the George Washington Bridge (after, in fact, posting his intention to do so on his Facebook page). These “new media” connections — the effects of webcams, the rise of “cyber-bullying,” changes in how we willingly or unwillingly share our private lives in the era of digital technologies — gave journalists a hook for this story. As media forms thus reported on media forms, turning to themselves even as other youths were also turning to despair, this suicide got the attention that other instances did not.
In noting this, I am not trying to suggest that these media issues aren’t important ones deserving of attention. Indeed, as a media theorist, I think that they’re critical to analyze, and, as a queer theorist, I believe that they’re particularly critical to analyze in relation to sexuality. How do new media formations (with their interactive and social networking capacities yet also classificatory and tracking operations) shift our ideas of public and private or the personal and the interpersonal? How do they impact our sense of identity and community or “safe” or “unsafe” spaces? How do they (re)construct free speech and/or speech that is not so free (not only in the sense of coerced and/or coercive, but, also in the economic sense, given attempts further to commodify and profit off speech in media forums)? What, then, do these formations do to the ways in which people live their sexuality (and hopefully do live that sexuality, rather than decide to end their lives)? These questions are ones that we need to grapple with in order to assure a media presence and present — as well, as vitally, a future — for all queer folks.
Yet this doesn’t mean that this particular story (of sexuality as it meets new media) — as necessary as it is for us to acknowledge and examine — is more important than other stories, other situations, other struggles. We need, in other words, to think about the role of communications technologies and media (in this case, the role of various digital media forms), but we also need to go beyond accepting what mainstream media deem important: we must interrogate how media give us certain things to know while remaining ignorant of other things, and critically analyze what’s treated as unusual enough to count as “news” and what’s just accepted as part of “normal” life (like everyday heterosexism that doesn’t receive the attention it too absolutely requires).
Still, it’s important not to totalize here, since “the media” does not just include “mainstream media,” and even commercial mass media can be — indeed, have to be — seen as sites of struggle. So just as it’s important to critique the role of media here, it’s also important to see their possibilities. I’m thinking, for example, of the “It Gets Better” campaign, initiated by media figure Dan Savage, which uses those same forms by which Tyler Clementi was so horribly tormented but does something very different with them, attempting to employ internet video for empowerment, not shaming (with, as has been well publicized by now, various people making and posting web videos to encourage queer kids about the potentialities that lie ahead for them).
There have been many critiques of the “It Gets Better” campaign. For example, one might note the project’s own use of the hook of “the new,” both in the way that it generates attention to and through new media forms and in its implicit presumptions that, as time goes on, progress will necessarily occur on its own. Likewise, one might critique the way in which, even as it condemns the murderous effects of heterosexual privilege, the project itself also presumes certain kinds of privileges, since, at least at the beginning, most of the “It Gets Better” videos came from well-off, urban, white gay men who, arguably, had the resources to have things be better. These criticisms strike some people as quite valid; to others, the criticisms may appear to be less convincing or beside the point. But, whatever one might think about this, the debate over just these issues also took place in media forums (in YouTube comments and blog posts, on social networking sites and in discussions amongst TV commentators), bringing more and more people into the conversation, forging more and more connections, creating more and more activity, even activism, and thus showing how the media aren’t just disruptive to supposedly (but not actually) “safe” public and private boundaries but also, in some cases, productive of empowering and enlivening counter-publics.
Yet, in claiming this, I don’t want to reproduce what I was just critically analyzing by coming up with my own new media story to prioritize over other things; certainly activism and counter-publics are formed through so-called “older” (but, of course, still vital) modes of face-to-face contact too. My point, then, is that we need to use all of the strategies at our disposal. Whether at-a-distance or face-to-face, in-person or “virtual” (both of which, I’d say, are “real”), communication can function as a survival tool — not just, as in the Clementi case, as a weapon. That’s why it’s so important to have forums like this one to keep the conversation enlivened — and its participants alive. We must all do what we can, in whatever way, to foster discussion and, in so doing, to mediate, in our own ways, the chilling and killing effects of a homophobic world.
Lynne Joyrich is associate professor of Modern Culture and Media at Brown University where she has taught film and television studies, as well as gender and sexuality studies.

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