When I read that 18-year-old Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi had committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge days after two students streamed a video of him hooking up with another man, my heart sank. Tyler grew up in New Jersey and played the violin, and I did too. I don’t know what life was like for Tyler before he chose to end it, but my early high school years were spent improvising survival strategies. I mentally plotted the corridors where the jocks hung out and avoided them. I desperately tried to never go to the bathroom during the school day. I was Asian and gay, stood 5-foot-2, weighed 95 pounds and when I got excited about something, my voice cracked into a register normally heard among Hannah Montana fans. If it weren’t for the fact that I ran really fast and talked even faster and enjoyed the protection of a few popular kids—well, it’s not hard to imagine a similar fate.
I say all this not to elicit pity—I’m a bigger boy now, and I bash back—but to make it clear that I’m conditioned to abhor people who bully queer kids. There’s nothing that raises my hackles more than seeing an effeminate boy being teased. But I also find myself reluctant to join the voices calling for the law to come down hard on Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, the Rutgers students who streamed the video and who are now facing "invasion of privacy" charges. If convicted they could get up to five years in prison; the gay rights group Garden State Equality is calling the incident a hate crime, and if the two are prosecuted under New Jersey’s hate crimes law, their sentence could double.
What Ravi and Wei did was immature, prurient and thoughtless; it undoubtedly played some role in what became an awful tragedy. That they acted with homophobic malice, that they understood what the consequences of their actions might be or that their prank alone—or even chiefly—triggered Clementi’s suicide is far less clear. There’s no record of Ravi or Wei discriminating against gays in the past, and there’s nothing exceptionally homophobic about the tweet Ravi sent—"I saw him making out with a dude. Yay." One could easily insert "fat chick" or "jerking off to porn" into the scenario, which wouldn’t have made it any more acceptable for Ravi and Wei to surreptitiously broadcast the incident, but might have provided just as much inducement anyway. More important, we know virtually nothing about Clementi’s life, including how he felt about his sexuality or whether he found affirmation of it at home, among his friends or at school.
But for some gays and liberals shaken by Clementi’s suicide, the complexities and unknowns don’t seem to matter. It’s convenient to make Ravi and Wei into little monsters singularly responsible for his death. In the words of Malcolm Lazin—the director of Equality Forum, a gay rights group calling for "murder by manslaughter" charges, a demand echoed on sympathetic blogs and Facebook pages—the duo’s conduct was "willful and premeditated," an act so "shocking, malicious and heinous" that Ravi and Wei "had to know" it would be "emotionally explosive." Every one of these accusations is entirely speculative, a fact that you’d think Lazin, a former assistant US Attorney, would bear in mind before rounding up the firing squad.
Clementi’s is the latest in a rash of suicides by gay teenagers, most of them boys. Since September 1 that body count includes Billy Lucas, a 15-year-old from Indiana who hanged himself after repeatedly being called a "fag" by his classmates; Asher Brown, a 13-year-old Texan who shot himself after his fellow students performed "mock gay acts" on him during gym class; and 13-year-old Seth Walsh from California, who hanged himself from a tree in his backyard after being teased for years for being gay. In each of these cases, news reports focused almost exclusively on the bullies—other teenage kids—as the perpetrators in what’s been dubbed "an epidemic of antigay bullying." In each of these cases, liberals and gays expressed dismay that the bullies weren’t being charged with crimes. Few of the reports asked what home life was like for these gay teens or looked into what role teachers, schools and the community played in creating an environment where the only escape from such torment seemed to be death. And at least initially, too few drew the line to the messages mainstream adult America, especially its politicians, sends every day.