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My big day was May 29, 2011. It was the day I would exchange vows and lawfully wed my husband, Mike. We were surrounded by our family and closest friends. Actually, it was the first time many of us had gathered for a happy occasion after experiencing the devastating loss of our youngest family member in September 2010.
I was immersed in the joy and happiness of this new journey. I wasn't nervous. I was excited and grateful and very much in love. A piece of my heart was hurting though. Reality sank in as my wedding would miss the beautiful presence of my beloved first-cousin, Tyler Clementi.
You see, I had always anticipated walking down the aisle to the sound of my incredibly talented little cousin playing the violin.
What I never expected was what happened. I had never imagined that I would give the eulogy at his funeral service. I had never planned on going to Rutgers to pack up his dorm room with my aunt and uncle. I had never wanted the bridal chorus played by an organist when I had grown up with a violinist in the family.
After Tyler's death, I wrote in my journal every free moment that I had. I called friends and made sure to tell them what I had always loved about them. I couldn't close my eyes for months without thinking the absolutely most painful thoughts. The only comfort I found was in the company of our family.
Tyler's story was everywhere. As much as I tried to mourn and deal with this tragedy personally, there was no escape. When Tyler committed suicide, there was an outpouring of support and kind words from hundreds of thousands of people across the country and even the world. Every day I would watch the "In Honor of Tyler Clementi" Facebook page grow. Each comment grabbed my attention; every word touched my heart. One minute someone would write from Seattle, Washington and the next minute Sydney, Australia.
I knew this was something that I didn't need to escape from. I needed to speak out. I hoped that no one would ever have to go through what Tyler went through. I prayed for a more sympathetic and kindhearted world. I understood the opportunity would be there to take a stand and help others.
Immediately I wanted to be involved, in any and every way, to ensure that no person would ever feel that taking their life is even an option. I reached out to as many organizations as I could, and I remained behind the scenes with most efforts. Quite frankly, I had never fully realized the positive impact that my thoughts, feelings or words could have on others. I am grateful that I have this opportunity though.
I found myself frantically driving up to Boston the weekend before my wedding to be interviewed for a documentary on bullying. After my honeymoon, I recorded a public service announcement for Garden State Equality's anti-bullying hotline, while I was preparing a "Tribute to Tyler" that I would share at their annual Legends Gala amongst legislators, stars, bullied teens and Lady Gaga's parents, Mr. & Mrs. Germanotta.
A huge moment came when I testified at the New Jersey Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting on behalf of A.1/S.1 - the marriage equality bill.
In less than two years I have lived and learned what feels like a lifetime's worth of sadness, hope, love and despair.
Staring me in the face as I write this is a picture of my two younger sisters and me, with our three cousins and grandmother on Christmas of 2009. Who would have ever thought that it would be the last picture we would all take together?
It was the last time that we would celebrate any holiday as a complete family. We are now and will forever be incomplete.
In July of 2011, we lost our grandmother. She was not in the greatest of health and was certainly suffering from a broken heart having out-lived her youngest grandchild.
After Tyler's suicide, other stories like my cousin's flooded the media. These young boys and girls faced similar cruelty and carelessness that he did, and they chose the same route. My heart still hurts for all of their families. Tyler wasn't the only one that opted to end his life. But he was the only one who I was related to, the one I would never be able to play cards with at Grandma's house ever again.
Then the social media wave on this matter had come crashing down. It was a wakeup call for us as a nation, as a race, the human race, to create a more tolerant, compassionate and accepting society.
Politicians, leaders, celebrities and professional athletes were among the first to respond publicly to these tragic losses. The world was inundated with "It Gets Better" videos. From President Obama to Ellen DeGeneres to Neil Patrick Harris, we were witnessing respectable figures and individuals in the spotlight standing up and speaking out to create an awareness of the value of each person's life.
I very fondly recall New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's emotional and sympathetic remarks when the world caught word of Tyler's passing. As a father himself, he held back tears discussing "the unspeakable tragedy" and was choked up at the unbearable thought of losing his own child.
This Catholic family man is the same governor who has made it very clear that when the marriage equality bill passes through New Jersey's Senate, as it did on Monday, and then through the Assembly, which votes this week, he will veto it.
Just so you know Gov. Christie, I am a Catholic myself. My family is made up of several different practicing faiths. One of my grandparents was Catholic, one was Lutheran and two were Jewish. My parents and two sisters are Catholic, while extended family members are also Catholic, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, nondenominational evangelical or non-practicing of any formal religion at all.
My religious melting pot of a family, and our respective communities, were the most supportive and compassionate people around while we mourned the loss of our loved one. This included friends I knew from my Catholic parish and the Catholic school that my sisters and I attended. No one took pity on us. No one condemned us for having a gay relative who committed suicide.
My family's traditional 100-year-old parish embraced us, and cared for us, and cried with us, and loved us when we needed it the most.
In fact, on September 23, the day after Tyler passed, the deacon from our church rushed over to my grandmother's house to pray with us, comfort us and offer us the heart of our Catholic tradition - the Eucharist.
I truly believe that at the heart of every human being, regardless of faith, religion, race, sexual orientation or political party, there is an innate understanding of unconditional, all-encompassing love.
It makes me happy to see so many speaking out on behalf of bullied, LGBT teens. No one wants to see these tragedies happen. As I know all too well, it can happen to anyone.
It's hard at times to imagine that the LGBT youth can fully believe it gets better when they are already being stripped of the right to our most formal expression and recognition of love. Their dreams of getting married one day are being trampled on and destroyed. That sounds like bullying to me!
It is not OK to only care about and protect our student-aged population with all sorts of anti-bullying initiatives and then feed them to the lions by denying them their dream of marrying. It sends a mixed message. It sends a message of inequality.
I don't know how any political figure can sit there and sympathize for the LGBT youth, yet continue to treat them as second-class citizens.
For those of us who already have the freedom to marry, please think for just a moment about how you would feel if your family member, or your child, or your neighbor was denied this right, and really treated like a second-class citizen.
I ask that you please consider the ripple effects of your thoughts, judgments and misperceptions of other people's lives and the ones they love. For those of you opposed to same-sex marriage, it may not match your beliefs but it should not be your choice to determine the right of another human being.
Each and every word, action, friendship, smile, insult, joke, and law creates a surge in humanity with no logical end. The mantra that has helped me through the loss of my cousin is: "Even hundred-fold grief is divisible by love."
Love cannot be defined or contained, yet it fills immeasurable spaces in each and every one of our lives.
There are many dots to be connected between acceptance, equality, inequality, humanity, reality, our most fundamental right to love and the laws that our great nation are governed by.
Perhaps Martin Luther King, Jr. said it best when he stated, "Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love."
We cannot turn our heads any longer when it comes to granting the basic and civil right for every person to marry whomever they choose to honor and cherish, in sickness and in health, until death do they part.
When my husband and I wanted to marry, we walked into borough hall and filed for our marriage license weeks before our Catholic ceremony. It was just another routine day for the clerk, as she pointed out to "sign here"... "sign here"... and "sign here"... and then asked us for the $28 fee. One of the most exciting moments of our lives was just a regular day for the clerk. We could not fathom why two men or two women could not fill out the same exact paperwork. No relationship is more or less important than ours. Why could we experience this immense joy because of our sexual orientation?
Put the collective beliefs of formal institutions aside for a moment and reflect upon the real message in your heart -- the message of love and acceptance.
In a life-or-death situation, would you deny the life-saving services of an LGBT paramedic? Would you stop rooting for your favorite professional sports team if they were "gay friendly"? Would you boycott a clothing brand because of the sexual orientation of the designer?
Whether you know it or not, your life could be saved, enhanced, or so greatly affected by any human being at any given time. In these flash point moments, there is no sorting of individuals by their sexual orientation.
And when it comes time for every individual to express and recognize their most ceremonial love for their partner, they should be permitted to do so freely.
Each of us plays a vital piece in the puzzle of humanity. Every voice matters. Every ounce of love matters. And please trust me when I say this: there is no sense in taking the chance of not honoring each other while we are here together, alive, on Earth.
I wish for the "aha" moment in every person's life when they recognize that we really are all the same. There is no "me" or "them." There is only love.
To every individual that is reading this, please consider contacting your state legislators and letting them know that you are in favor of marriage equality. Your voice does matter.
To the legislators out there who will be voting on marriage equality, please vote your conscience. We have elected you to "implement the demands of justice."
And in the meantime, smile at a stranger. Be kind to the person who makes your cup of coffee in the morning. Embrace one another, even when it may feel inconvenient for you. Speak up. Speak out. Know that your voice matters, your life matters and who you love matters. Live to "correct everything that stands against love."
And give those youth - the Tyler's out there - a reason not to give up hope on life or love.