“Jumping off the gw bridge sorry.”
—8:42pm, September 22, 2010.
Two weeks ago, I traveled upstate with a bunch of volunteers and employees of NYU’s LGBTQ center for a weekend. We crashed in a YMCA lodge and got to spend time away from the city, other commitments, and cell signal. I’ve been working with these folks for about 6 weeks now, doing trainings and running events about equality on campus. Upstate, we got to discuss those trainings and what we felt the role of campus diversity groups should be.
It was also an opportunity to spend time away from everything, and to think about the circumstances that had led us down a life-path that had wound up with us standing on the edge of a lake in upstate New York on an LGBTQ trip.
Across the board, this year has involved me getting more involved with the things I always cared about — I was always interested and invested in equality, digital freedoms, and sexual assault prevention. Now, I get to work with the LGBTQ center, the Student Net Alliance (where I’m lucky enough to be a board-member), and the New School in NYC, where I’m one of 6 or 7 volunteers helping to develop and present a 3-hour sexual assault prevention workshop aimed at college freshmen. As I wrote way back in the spring, I felt bad being what I saw as the stereotypical college student, spending his days working on whatever social causes catch his eye:
I often worry that I’m only interested in advocacy because I’m a freshman at college and these are the years when you’re most likely to be “edgy” and “counter-cultural.”
I think I was unnecessarily hard on myself when I wrote that, not least because these are very much the years you’re supposed to try new things and dip your ten toes in ten different pools.
When I’m standing up in front of a group of 40 students and faculty, talking about LGBTQ issues and trying to impart some sense of good ally-ship, you only get a vague sense of where everyone’s coming from. You could be presenting to someone who grew up with two moms and attending Pride parades around the country, or you could be talking to a freshmen who grew up somewhere where her family hated her for who she was. She might be very religious and think she’s going to hell, and it’s your job, at the top of that room, to assure her that there’s nothing wrong with her. You have provide a loving and accepting community at New York University, especially for those who didn’t get one at home.
When we were going upstate this weekend, we crossed the George Washington Bridge leaving Manhattan. My NYC geography is still patchy in places, and I haven’t spent much time in the area. I only know the bridge because, in 2010, an 18-year-old Rutgers college student called Tyler Clementi threw himself off it, falling to his death in the Hudson River below. I was in Minnesota for a time when that happened, and it was part of a string of suicides among LGBTQ youth. We were all familiar with names like Raymond Chase, Ryan Halligan, Asher Brown, and Seth Walsh — people bullied for being LGBTQ+ or even just being perceived to be queer. They were bullied and pushed to suicide.
I thought of Clementi as I crossed the George Washington Bridge, and I thought hard about why I had taken a job with NYU’s LGBTQ center. I took it because of Tyler Clementi. I took it because this happened in 2010 in a city that’s supposedly known as one of the most accepting places on earth. I took it because as a volunteer at the center I come into contact with a ton of freshmen I’d never have gotten to meet otherwise. I took it because I inhabit a space in the world and I want to improve it, in however small a way. Because otherwise, what’s the point?
Tommy Collison is an activist and writer studying at New York University. He runs events to teach journalists and activists how to use privacy tools and tweets as @tommycollison.