Such Sad Deaths — and A Legal Perspective

There are two legal dimensions to the recent tragic suicides of several young gay men that warrant further thought — one having to do with some of the underlying causes and the other having to do with the appropriate treatment of those who contributed to those deaths.

In perhaps surprising ways, the two legal issues are related.

As for causation, one the most frequently recurring messages that young victims of anti-gay bullying talk about is how they feel that there is no place for them in the social world they inhabit. This is a broad social issue that needs to be remedied, though conversation, counseling, and community activism. But legal change is part of that process, as one of the goals of anti-bias legislation is to encourage social change and to counter the harmful myths, by fostering an atmosphere of hope, support and legitimacy with regard to LGBT young people. In many ways, working to pass anti-bias legislation is a powerful way of demonstrating these gay-positive values, by sending a clear and public signal to young gays and lesbians that they are valued, honored, and respectable members of society. By the same token, those who oppose those laws, or who use their political podiums to condemn same-sex partnerships or sexual freedom for LGBT folks, send a hateful message that inevitably finds its way into the minds and hearts of vulnerable people, with often destructive results. Gay rights legislation isn’t just about establishing legal rules — it is also a way of publicly demonstrating positive social values.

In a similar way, the criminal process should hold people accountable for acting in ways that lead directly to the suffering of others, and as we have seen too often this month, in some instances leading to the suicides of those who are the victims of bullying, teasing, and cruelty. It is impossible to know precisely what would lead someone with such a stellar future (as the young student at Rutgers had) to such a tragic ending. Undeniably, he was vulnerable in ways that those who webcasted him surely did not realize. But his vulnerability does not excuse the wrongful actions by those who “outed” him as they did, and their lack of awareness as to the likely consequences of their actions should not entirely absolve them of legal liability. The legal system should send a strong message that such reckless actions — whether or not motivate by anti-gay feelings or mere insensitivity to the likely consequences of their actions — must be appropriately punished.

Matthew Shepard’s tragic death inspired many activists to work together to change the lives of lesbians and gay men across this country. We can only hope that Tyler’s death in New York can similarly be an inspiration to positive social action on behalf of the legal rights of lesbians, gay men and transgender people.

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