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Student's Suicide Makes Deadly Point About Intolerance

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The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi is a tragedy that has sparked outrage, sadness and reflection about bullying, public humiliation, privacy and tolerance. Host Scott Simon speaks with Judy Shepard, the mother of hate-crime victim Matthew Shepard, about her organization's efforts to promote tolerance of gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

The suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi is a tragedy that sparked outrage, sadness and reflection about bullying, public humiliation, privacy and tolerance. Mr. Clementi's roommate, Dharun Ravi, and another Rutgers student have been charged with invasion of privacy for secretly taping Tyler Clementi having a sexual encounter with another young man, and then transmitting that footage on the Internet.

Tyler Clementi, who was 18 years old, apparently felt humiliated by Dharun Ravi's tweets, which seemed to ridicule his roommate's sexual orientation.

The past decade, Judy Shepard has been urging tolerance on both high school and university campuses. She, of course, is the mother of Matthew Shepard, who was murdered in 1998 because he was gay. Mrs. Shepard has gone on to found the Matthew Shepard Foundation in memory of her son. Its mission is to support diversity programs and education, and to help youth organizations establish environments where young people can feel safe and be themselves.

Judy Shepard joins us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Mrs. Shepard, thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: What do you see in this case?

SIMON: Well, a tragedy, a lot of confusion, terrible loss of life, reckless actions - hateful actions, even - by a young man's roommate and friend, a terrible invasion of privacy in a society that somehow, made those two young people think it was OK to do that to Tyler. Just really hard to believe.

SIMON: Do you see it necessarily as - hate crime wouldn't be the case - but a hate-inflicted suicide?

SIMON: I don't think we know enough now to know whether this is actually a bias-related crime, a hate crime. I think it's a crime that's hateful, but technically can't really call it a hate crime yet.

SIMON: Is it possible that it was a hateful action where gender orientation wasn't at issue? I've seen some interviews with friends of the young man and woman who say they weren't hateful people; they weren't homophobic.

SIMON: You know, that's an interesting question because in my own mind, I'm thinking if Tyler had not been in an encounter with a man, if it had been a girl, I think the two would have gone on with the webcast. I just think that it would have been perhaps - I don't know this for sure - but less impactful on the young man.

You know, we know teen suicide is just, the numbers are just out of control. And you throw in sexual orientation or perception of sexual orientation, and the numbers just go up exponentially.

SIMON: Can't kids be cruel across all kinds of distinctions? I mean, they can be as scheming as Stasi agents. You know, if a kid has curly hair, they get ridiculed about it; if a kid is overweight or has acne, they get kidded about it.

SIMON: Sure. No, that's absolutely true. Even in my childhood, which was so many years ago I don't remember that much about it, teasing was a different thing than bullying. Bullying has become a phenomenon that we did not face - or at least, I didn't - in my youth. And now we have the advent of the Internet and cyberbullying and text messaging and those things, which give a feel of anonymity - that you would do things that you would never do to someone's face.

SIMON: What do you tell youngsters?

SIMON: Well, that's a really hard question. You want them to be honest with who they are and about their future, and to recognize that you are who you are and you love who you love, and that's just the way it is. My advice to young people is to find someone who can mentor them that they can talk to most, most honestly - whether it's parents, sibling, counselor, teacher, minister - someone who has a true understanding of what they may be going through.

SIMON: Mrs. Shepard, can you tell a youngster: Look, I know these are difficult months and even years; but hold on, it gets better?

SIMON: I try that. I try that. I try to equate it in the words of a person who's lived a life where things, as you look back on, really were an eyelash in time but at the time, seemed to be just forever. Junior high and high school are a blink compared to your entire life. And I think one of the most important things we need to remember is to be true to ourselves. The most important thing in your life is not to be like everybody else; it's to find out who you are and to be that strong individual, that good citizen who cares about other people.

SIMON: Judy Shepard is the founder, with her husband, Dennis, of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. Thank you so very much, Mrs. Shepard.

SIMON: Thank you, Scott. It was very nice speaking with you this morning.

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