Tyler Clementi grew up in Ridgewood, N.J., attended Rutgers University, and was gay. There are good reasons to believe that he may have committed suicide because he felt humiliated and alone after his roommate used a webcam to spy on him and another man in his dorm room.
Cason Crane grew up in Lawrenceville, NJ, received a deferment from Princeton University until September 2013 and is also gay. He will spend the next year attempting to become the first openly gay man to climb the seven summits—the highest mountains in the world, one of each on the seven continents. He’s undertaking this endeavor — which he calls The Rainbow Summits Project— to raise money and awareness for The Trevor Project, the leading national organization dedicated to providing crisis intervention and suicide prevention to LGBTQ teens.
Although these two young men never knew each, there are invisible ties in death and life that bind them to each other.
Cason grew up not questioning that he was gay.
“I was always comfortable with myself, and my parents were always very open and accepting of my sexuality,” he said.
Tyler did not tell his parents about his sexual orientation until the two days before he went away to college and never seemed to discuss the subject with his friends.
Cason, who attended private schools, remembers only three incidences of name-calling as he was growing up—one in middle school and two in high school. On all three occasions, an older student called him a “fag.” We have no record of any remarks made to Tyler because he seemed to seek safety in the closet during his high-school years.
Unbelievably, Cason had an “only positive” reaction to the insult that was hurled at him and it planted within him the desire to “combat homophobia.” He was always proud of his orientation, and he served as president of the Gay-Straight Alliance at his prep school. He tells a story of a gay faculty member at the school who thanked him for “changing the culture on this campus and for just being an aggressively comfortable person. … I thought that was one of the nicest things anyone had ever said to me.”
While Cason was in boarding school, Tyler took his own life. For Cason it was a very painful wake-up call. He admits that Tyler’s death “shook the ground under my feet.” So absorbed were they in their own small world, he and his fellow GSA members hadn’t considered the severity of gay teens’ suffering.
Then Cason discovered The Trevor Project and its potential for reducing the high incidence of suicide among gay teens, but he didn’t at first realize the effect its work would have on him in the future.
Cason’s athletic talents helped him gain acceptance among the student body at Choate Rosemary Hall school. He participated in three varsity sports and was the first openly gay captain of the varsity cross-country and track teams. He acknowledged his athleticism was a way to build credibility among his peers.
Being gifted at athletics put to rest the question of “my masculinity,” he said. He didn’t have to act out in what he calls “negative ways to attract attention.”
At first, Cason’s athletic talents led him to his seven summits mission. But it took some time for him to join this feat to the cause of helping gay teens.
In 2008, at age 15, he and his mother climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Kenya, one of the seven.
“I thought it was the coolest thing in the world,” he said of the experience. “I was on the top of the world. It was also, for me, a spiritual experience; I had never felt so close to God.”
The idea of climbing more mountains began to percolate, and at his mother’s suggestion, he began to figure out the logistics of how to pursue his dream.
“Climbing the seven summits was definitely not at the top of my list, even though I had decided to defer going to college for one year.” Then last December, Cason was in New Zealand with his family on a biking and hiking trip.
“New Zealand was the home of Sir Edmund Hilary, the first man to climb Mt. Everest, and you cannot help but feel his presence when you are in that country,” Cason said.
At the end of the excursion, he and his mother joined a private training course, where the ethos of training was about “when not if everyone in the group was going to climb all seven of the highest peaks in the world.”
Cason was haunted, however, by the thought that climbing these summits was “exceptionally selfish,” when it came to both time and cost.
“I thought it was a project that was all about me.”
Then he thought of how he could turn the mountain challenge into a project for “giving back.” He struggled to find an appropriate cause and asked the training director if she knew if an openly gay man had ever succeeded in climbing the seven summits. (Only about 300 people in mountaineering history have ever succeeded in accomplishing this demanding goal.) When she said she had never heard of one, Cason remembered The Trevor Project—and everything clicked into place.
“I think that my attempt to become the first gay person to climb the seven summits and raise funds and awareness for the Trevor Project will help more LGBTQ teens not feel hopeless and choose suicide. … My message to other gays teens, as I climb these seven mountains, is, ‘What is your Everest? You can find and achieve it.”
“And by achieve it,” Cason adds, “I don’t necessarily mean make it to the ‘summit’—that’s not a realistic goal for all of us. I mean that just by seeking to overcome adversity in our lives we are already succeeding. It’s the journey that counts and embracing the challenge that matters.”
In March, Cason checked a second peak off his list: Aconcagua, in South America; this summer he will climb Mt. Elbrus in Russia, Denali (McKinley) in Alaska, and then the Carstensz Pyramid in Indonesia. Mt. Everest is scheduled for next spring.
Cason’s energy, determination, and belief in himself and his cause fill me with confidence. I think he can and will indeed “climb every mountain,” to use the words from The Sound of Music, and also raise the significant funds for The Trevor Project.
As we, as a nation, weigh the Dharun Ravi sentence handed down this past Monday, it is worthwhile to read these words of insight that Cason wrote and spoke at 16 to his peers in an English class:
“Today all I ask is for you to try to understand life through someone else’s eyes—through the eyes of anyone and everyone who is different from you. I invite you to reflect on the choices and judgments that you make. I implore you to reconsider any pre-existing biases or prejudices. Not everyone or everything is as it appears on the outside, so take the time to look within.”
I am only sorry that Tyler’s and Cason’s lives didn’t intersect somehow and sooner. I asked Cason what he might have said to him had he met him. He said, “Embrace and celebrate who you are and your uniqueness. Realize that we each bring something unique and amazing to this world, and it would not be the same without your contribution.”
Even in death and life, these two fine young gay men inspire us to be better people.