James Clementi Chooses a Life of Compassion and Activism Following A Family Tragedy

by James Clementi

I’m James Clementi and I’m from Ridgewood, New Jersey.

Growing up, my family was very loving. I come from a household with a mom and a dad and two younger brothers. I’m the oldest of three boys. I definitely felt very safe and protected and loved, but at a certain point, I realized that I didn’t really feel like I belonged anywhere, and I felt different from everyone around me, and I didn’t really have a word for what that difference was.

I didn’t actually realize that I was gay until later on, but definitely in middle school and certainly by high school I was called gay and made to feel really different from my peers.

Additionally, my family was very religious and I went to church in middle school and high school on a weekly basis every Sunday morning, and I got a lot of messages from the church that I attended that being gay was a sin.

Actually I remember in Sunday school at one point, they were talking about the story of Sodom and Gommorah, and basically they said that God destroyed an entire city filled with people because of homosexual acts that were happening in the city. And I’m not sure that that’s really a correct interpretation of what that story is about, but that’s what we were told is what it was about. And I just remember thinking, “Wow, God would wipe out an entire city because of gay people. It’s not okay to be gay. I could never tell these people that I might be gay because they would never accept me.” And that was a really hard and lonely place to be in.

That sent me into a spiritual crisis where I didn’t know if i had to choose between my sexuality or my religion and I didn’t think that they could fit together.

I think at some point, I became very closed off to religion, which I think I did as a way of being able to protect myself and not be so hurt by it.

So I went away to college after graduating from high school. I went to a school in upstate New York. A small liberal arts school called Skidmore College. While I was there, I found myself in a very liberal environment, kind of the exact opposite of where I went to high school. It was kind of like swinging from one extreme to the next. Even my freshman year, I had a lot of classmates who were out and openly gay, and a lot of classmates who were extremely supportive straight allies, and really didn’t see that it was a big deal to be gay.

Coming out in college to my classmates and friends made me a much stronger person, a much happier person, and I was really able to put aside a lot of the shame that I felt and a lot of the internal struggle and turmoil that I felt and really became comfortable with who I was.

After graduating from college, I came back home. I was living at home for a time and was back in the family environment, and it felt very closeted again and very hard to be myself.

One thing that was really a big turning point for me was actually the fact that I realized that my youngest brother Tyler was gay also. And I wanted to be a role model for him, and I wanted to set an example for him and show him that it was totally okay for him to be out and to be himself and that he deserved to be loved and respected by other people because of it.

So I ended up telling Tyler that I was gay. He was very relieved. It just seemed like a huge burden had been lifted off his shoulders when I told him. And he smiled and he told me that he was also gay, and it was just this really great moment where we were able to be ourselves with each other for the first time ever in our lives.

But also looking back a sad moment at the same time. I guess bittersweet, because he ended up passing away only a few weeks after he got to college.

He went to Rutgers University, which is one of the biggest state schools in New Jersey, where we’re from.

He was hooking up with another student in his dorm room and had the understanding that there was privacy in the room. And what he didn’t realize was that his roommate was actually in another dorm room and had activated the webcam on his computer from another location and was actually streaming what was going on in the room. His roommate invited other students to watch this physically in the dorms and then also through his Twitter and AIM profile and inviting people from remote locations on the internet to watch as well. He was very young – he was very insecure and shy and this was a very intimate moment in his life that he didn’t want being shared with the world. And it wasn’t for the world to see, and it wasn’t meant for anybody else. So it was very embarrassing for him and it was very painful for him to go through that. And he did end up taking his life.

So really, Tyler’s passing created a lot of change in my life where I was able to come out to my mom and dad, and they have changed dramatically and in so many amazing ways. And they really, really have embraced the LGBTQ community, and they really speak out now. My parents have become two of the biggest activists I know.

And I have also joined them in that journey of becoming an activist.

I’m so glad to have them in my life in the way that they are now. And on the other hand, so many of the people that attended the church that I went to and was hearing a lot of the really homophobic messages – they haven’t changed. And I’m not sure that they will ever. But I think that it’s really important to know that it’s okay to let go of those people and you don’t need to care what they think and you don’t need to carry the weight of their negative energy in your life, and that there are other people that will grow with you and that their love is so strong and so much that they will change their views and they will accept you and support you and I think it’s important to know that you can’t maybe change everyone’s mind, but the people that you can change – they’re worth having in your life. And it’s worth sharing your full self with them.


Resource Partner for LGBTQ Inclusion: The Tyler Clementi Foundation. TCF, guided by the life and story of Tyler Clementi, promotes safe, inclusive and respectful social environments homes, schools, campuses, churches and the digital world for vulnerable youth, LGBT youth and their allies.

Through educational partnerships, research, public dialogues and awareness programs, TCF fosters empathetic, constructive discussions of respect and dignity for youth and families, at all levels of society.

It envisions a world that embraces all members of society with human dignity and unconditional love regardless of sexual orientation or differences, real or perceived.

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