Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student charged with bias intimidation, wipes his brow as he departs the courtroom inside of the Superior Court of New Jersey in Middlesex County, New Brunswick, New Jersey March 15, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
The verdict in the Dharun Ravi trial came down on Friday. As I wrote back in September 2010, Tyler Clementi’s suicide shatters that part of me that remembers what it was like to be 18 and in the nerve-wracking process of coming out—at once both bold and shy, alight with a sense of possibility one minute, jaded and world-weary the next. I survived, as most gay people do; Tyler did not. Why? Nothing that has been revealed in the trial and subsequent reports has satisfyingly answered that question for me. And nothing about the verdict gives me an ounce of comfort.
After turning down a plea deal that would have spared him jail time, Ravi was tried on thirty-five charges related to fifteen separate counts and was found guilty on twenty-four of them. Seven of these are for tampering with evidence or hindering the prosecution; eight are for invading or attempting to invade the privacy of Clementi and his sexual partner, identified in court only as “M.B.”
If Clementi hadn’t committed suicide, it’s quite likely that these charges would never have been brought against Ravi, and the whole matter might have been resolved by Rutgers authorities. But Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge just days after Ravi, his freshman year roommate for all of three weeks, saw him making out with M.B. on his web cam, tweeted about it and then hatched a foiled plot to broadcast a second encounter. As Ian Parker’s excellent New Yorker anatomy documents, a firestorm erupted, fueled by misinformation and speculation about what actually happened. People assumed that Clementi was closeted (he was not), that Ravi and his accomplice Molly Wei had watched entire sexual episodes (they only saw a few seconds of making out), that Ravi had recorded the incidents (he did not), that he successfully broadcast them online (he did not) and that Clementi was the victim of widespread homophobic bullying (he was not). Gay rights advocates recklessly called for manslaughter and hate crimes charges to be brought against Ravi and Wei. Facing intense public pressure, the Middlesex county prosecutor relented, in part. Wei struck a plea deal and testified against Ravi, who was convicted not just of invasion of privacy but on nine additional charges of bias intimidation, turning the conviction into a hate crime and creating the very real possibility that he could be sent to jail for ten years. His sentencing is on May 21. Because he is an immigrant, there is also a chance that Ravi could be deported to India.
On civil liberties grounds, I’m opposed to all forms of hate crimes legislation—punish the crime, not the thought, I say. But since hate crimes laws are on the books, it’s worth reviewing whether or not they were appropriately applied to this case. When hate crimes were expanded to include sexual orientation in the wake of Matthew Shepard’s murder, the argument for them was that they were necessary to prosecute violent crimes perpetrated by extremist agents of hate who were terrorizing whole communities. (Whether or not that description applies to Shepard’s killers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, is subject to debate. Whether or not hate crimes statutes were necessary to throw the book at them is not. Wyoming had no hate crimes statute, but McKinney and Henderson will both die in jail.) Dharun Ravi may have been, as one friend described him, “so much of a jerk,” but no one has alleged that he is a violent criminal. But is he a hater?
The cell phone and social media evidence that Parker combs through for his article suggests a more complicated picture than the initial caricature of Ravi as a cyber-armed, homophobic bully. Decode and contextualize the teen-text speak, and what emerges is a story of two boys, one more vulnerable than the other, trying to navigate—badly and without much guidance—the vicissitudes of close encounters of the freshman kind. Ravi expresses horror when he discovers online that his new roommate is gay (“FUCK MY LIFE/He’s gay”), but he later texts “I don’t care” and characterizes Clementi as “gay but regular gay”—a term he also used to refer to the month of January (“what a gay month”). He was also upset with what he believed to be the Clementi family’s poverty (“dude I hate poor people”). Clementi, for his part, expresses some alarm that his new roommate’s parents are “soo Indian first gen americanish” and so “defs owna dunkin’ [donuts].” Had the roles been reversed, it’s not impossible to imagine a scenario in which that text would be used in court as evidence of Clementi’s racism. Class, race, sex—the stuff that grips the grown-up world is all there in grammatically challenged, condensed crudeness, because teenage boys are the unadulterated personification of the collective social id.
Don’t mistake me. This isn’t a “boys will be boys and so it’s all okay” argument. Pace Christina Hoff Sommers, the piggish culture of teenage masculinity to which Ravi bowed all too obsequiously is not all right. Boys will be boys—and that’s why they need to change. What the record shows, however, is that that too was a possibility. Clementi requested a room change and reported the incident to an RA, who took it seriously and spoke to Ravi about it. Perhaps that would have ended the matter, or perhaps the two would have learned to live with each other. They might even have become friends. We’ll never know.
What we do know is that minutes after Clementi posted on Facebook “Jumping off the gw bridge sorry,” Ravi texted him two apologies. The latter read, “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it…. 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.” Ravi says that he did not see Clementi’s suicide post when he apologized. If this is true, it demonstrates Ravi’s capacity—however stunted and late—for moral reasoning and maturation. And maybe he will still grow up to be better man, but it’s hard to see how ten years in prison makes that process any easier.
Clementi, of course, will never have the opportunity to grow up. In the media’s gaze and in the court records, he is frozen as the ultimate victim, a symbol instead of the person he was and the potential person he might have become. For those close to him, this martyrdom adds another complicating layer to the grief. Tyler’s brother James, who is also gay, recently published some heartbreaking posthumous letters to his kid brother. In them, he writes:
“I wonder what you would think, seeing all the commotion you’ve caused. It is surreal and meaningless to see you as a mere story on The New York Times, a brief glimpse at a life with none of the detail. You were a typical college freshman, trying to adjust to a dorm room, make some friends, meet a cute guy, and enjoy your independence, and no one noticed. The headlines tell of how you were violated and ridiculed; your last moments are a cautionary tale, a scandal, something to sell and entertain.”
Among the things blotted out by the trial and media circus is the enduring mystery of why Tyler Clementi committed suicide. He had an older, gay brother with whom he had a close and supportive relationship. His parents' reaction to his sexual orientation was mixed; his father was cool, his mother not so much, but they were still in regular and civil communication. He was clearly vexed about what Dharun Ravi had done, but was discussing what to do about it with a friend, the RA and online message boards. There’s nothing in these records that indicated he was suicidal or even beyond appropriately anxious about a situation to which he himself saw a resolution within reach (a new room). He wasn’t the victim of bullying across campus, and although he was socially shy, he was also somewhat sexually daring. He had four years of college, and a life, to look forward to—and indeed, until his Facebook post announcing his suicide, he was doing just that.
There are all too many cases of gay teenagers whose lives have been made intolerably miserable and who are driven to suicide by the harassment and violence of parents, family, fellow students, teachers and other authority figures. This is not transparently one of them. And the trial and verdict to one side, there is another kind of injustice done when a life is crudely forced into becoming a symbol of social wrongs, when it is made to carry the burden of a composite reality—anti-gay hate crimes—to which it bears but a schematic and hasty relation.