April 17, 2012
On March 16, Dahrun Ravi, an ex-student of Rutgers University, was found guilty on charges of invasion of privacy, evidence tampering, and bias intimidation in relation to the death of his roommate, Tyler Clementi. Last year, Clementi, who was gay, threw himself off of the George Washington Bridge after Ravi used a webcam to view him having an “intimate encounter” with another man.
Tyler Clementi was in many ways the face of the rash of gay teen suicides that broke out last year. His death spurred the It Gets Better Project, and helped to shape the passage of the “Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights” in New Jersey. Clementi’s name again made headlines when, in 2011, gay teenager Jamey Rodemeyer committed suicide just days before the first anniversary of Clementi’s death.
According to an investigative New Yorker piece, much of this attention has been spurred by worrying misinformation. It noted, “It became widely understood that a closeted student at Rutgers had committed suicide after video of him having sex with a man was secretly shot and posted online. In fact, there was no posting, no observed sex, and no closet.”
The case, it transpires, is much more complicated. According to the New Yorker article, before he met Clementi, extensive online searching revealed to Ravi that Clementi was gay. Ravi wrote to a friend online, saying ““FUCK MY LIFE / He’s gay.” He also tweeted (to 150 followers, although anyone could have read the tweets) a link to a gay forum on which Clementi had posted along with the comment “Found out my roommate is gay.”
The article goes on to state, though, that Ravi seemed relatively unperturbed by or unfocused on Clementi’s sexuality. He soon moved on from the topic and wrote online to his friends about Clementi’s class and social status. The two met a few weeks later, and barely spoke although they shared a miniscule bedroom. It came as a surprise to Ravi, then, when Clementi asked him to let him use the bedroom for a meeting with an older man who was not a student at Rutgers.
Ravi agreed, but expressed concern to a female friend who lived across the hall. He allegedly stated “It’s a really old-looking guy, like, What the heck, what’s going on?”. Ravi used iChat from a friend’s computer to connect with his laptop—which remained in his bedroom—and use its built-in videocamera. From across the hallway, he and the friend watched as Clementi and his guest kissed. About three minutes later, Ravi tweeted “Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”While he was with the man, Clementi noticed a green light on Ravi’s webcam, which prompted him to check Ravi’s Twitter the next day. It was there that he saw Ravi’s tweet. He talked about it at length to a friend from home, but said that he was not too worried, noting “its not like he left the cam on or recorded or anything / he just like took a five sec peep lol.”
His friend encouraged him to look up Rutgers’s policy on spying, although she expressed confusion as Clementi eagerly read about it as he had told her just minutes before that he had not felt violated. Later that night, Clementi asked for advice on a gay men’s forum, as well as Yahoo Answers. In both spaces, he expressed concern that the best that could happen would be that he would be given a new roommate, and he was worried that he might get a worse one.
Two days later, Clementi again invited the older man to his room. He asked Ravi if he could use the room until midnight. Ravi again agreed, and tweeted “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” Ravi later texted a friend saying, “people are having a viewing party.” Clementi read the tweet before the man arrived, and went to see a resident adviser, to whom he explained his situation. The RA took him seriously and asked for him to email him about the event. After staying in his room with the man until 11:48, Clementi formally emailed the RA, explaining the situation and stating “I feel that my privacy has been violated and I am extremely uncomfortable sharing a room with someone who would act in this wildly inappropriate manner.”
The next day, Clementi, behaving normally, went to violin rehearsal and talked on the phone to his mother. The RA visited Ravi, who seemed upset at the allegations. Clementi returned to the room briefly, but soon left and travelled towards the George Washington Bridge.
While Clementi was en route, Ravi sent him a text message stating that the filming had been an accidental coincidence. Ten minutes later, he sent another, reading “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. In fact one of my closest friends is gay and he and I have a very open relationship. I just suspected you were shy about it, which is why I never broached the topic. I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt. You have a right to move if you wish but I don’t want you to feel pressured to without fully understanding the situation.”
It is unknown if Clementi ever read that final text. He jumped off the George Washington Bridge. Soon after, police contacted his parents after finding his phone and wallet. As police arrived at the room, Ravi deleted the original tweet about watching Clementi and edited the others so that they implied he was not videoing Clementi.
The police questioned Ravi and his female friend. She revealed everything, but he maintained that the call had been an accident. The two—and the police—quickly realized the discrepancy in the stories. As court proceedings began, the friend bargained with the court, plead guilty, and got off with 300 hours of community service, testimony against Ravi, and no time in prison. Ravi turned down similar offers, which would have absolved him of jail time because, his lawyer stated, “Simple answer, simple principle of law, simple principle of life: he’s innocent.”
The court, though, did not agree, and convicted Ravi of the crimes with which he was charged. He is now subject to up to ten years in prison. ABC News reports that it is “very likely” that he will be deported to India after he leaves prison. Responses to this have deeply troubled queer imaginings of hate crimes (the “bias intimidation” in Ravi’s charges).
An Op-Ed in the New York Times holds that it can be dangerous to apply hate crimes laws—intended for violent crimes against individuals motivated by racism, homophobia, and other prejudices—with bullying, which, although certainly a problem, is also an issue of children that should not be connected with the criminal justice system to such a great extent.
An article in The Moral Liberal points out that poorly written laws that classify harassment in higher education as hate crimes can have the potential to be misapplied and could be used to prosecute students for petty actions.
An NPR article failed to reach any consensus on the true definition of a hate crime, and even fewer on the Ravi verdict. Callers expressed concern about everything from freedom of speech to the political value of public admiration.
Edge Boston, an online gay publication, noted that queer people have provided “surprising” criticism of the ways in which the case has been handled. The article notes the problems of speedy jury processes with shoddy testimonies. That queer people are involved in critiques of the criminal punishment system, though, is neither new nor surprising. Queer people, along with other subjected groups such as people of color and trans people, are disproportionately policed and involved in criminalized activities outside of prison, and experience particularly inhumane treatment while incarcerated. This has led to a strengthening queer prison abolition movement. Queer criticism is not surprising because, as trans scholar-activist Dean Spade wrote in his book Normal Life, “Criminal punishment cannot be the method we use to stop transphobia when the criminal punishment system is the most significant perpetrator of violence against trans people.”
In addition to the problems that pursing hate crimes poses to the case itself and as a strategy for queer movements at large, commentators have noted that hate crime legislation is an easy way for a homophobic state and society to absolve itself of blame for tragic losses. An article on Slate explains, “the impulse to paint Ravi as some kind of unprecedented, hate-driven monster is a cop-out, considering that his brand of homophobic posturing is pervasive in our culture. Exiling him to prison won’t absolve us of our complicity in that fact, and it won’t heal the lack of empathy that Parker mentions.”
Only with much larger structural changes will cultures of hostility and hatred, particularly surrounding queer people, end. These situations are never simple, though, and to charge Ravi with hate crimes and walk away is to fail to take into account the complicated nature of Clementi’s death. Ravi behaved horribly—but many sources indicate that he did not necessarily act based on homophobia. Hate crimes laws pose a broad range of issues to victims and perpetrators alike, especially when conflated with incidents of bullying.
A Huffington Post article points out that homophobia is not an issue that affects individuals but instead a systemic, societal problem. Charging Ravi with such an extensive hate crime will not change the homophobia that queer people experience every day. As the Slate article states, “Unfortunately, we can’t lock the bully up, because the bully is in all of us.”
Chamonix Adams Porter is a freshman in Yale College. She is an Associate Editor for Broad Recognition.