Dharun Ravi, the Rutgers University student whose spying with a webcam on his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, led to the roommate’s subsequent taking of his own life, has been sentenced to thirty days in jail. He was also fined $10,000, given three years probation, and assigned to 300 hours of community service. In all probability, he will not face deportation back to his native India. The question remains: does such a punishment fit the crime?
The gay community has been split on the answer to that question. Some believe that it is far too lenient, that thirty days behind bars pales to nothing in comparison to the life of a young man. Ten, twenty, thirty years from now, it is a safe bet to assume that Ravi will be alive and building his career and family. His ex-roommate, however, not to put too fine a point on it, will still be as dead then as he is now, a life unfulfilled and cut too tragically short, due to a stupid and uncaring so-called prank that Dharun Ravi somehow thought would be a fun thing to do. To call such an act, with such consequences, insensitive, as the judge did, is nothing less than a colossal understatement. It was a horrendously callous, heinous, and hateful act maliciously perpetrated on an extremely private and highly sensitive young man.
Ravi could have been sentenced to up to ten years, but the judge maintains that he took into consideration the fact that the defendant had no prior record and that normally charges of so-called bias crimes are reserved for violent assault or murder. If Ravi’s actions were not a violent assault, and I suppose no one could reasonably say that they were, at least it could well be argued that the effect of his actions surely did turn violent in the end.
I am not advocating here for a harsher sentence for this young man, as unfeeling, cold-hearted, and uncompassionate as I think he clearly was. His actions were utterly stupid and vacuous, and as much as he claimed to have had no bias toward gay people, what he did clearly contradicts and gives the lie to what he says. Even so, I do not see the good that would come from putting him in prison for a long period of time. We can only hope that he will live his entire life with the memory of the evil he perpetrated on an innocent man, who had never harmed him in any way. And if it is true that karma brings to all of us the fruits of our actions, good and bad, we can only assume that Dharun Ravi will in one form or another reap what he sowed.
On the side of Tyler Clementi, it does no good to wish that he had been able to better weather the storms of hatred and bigotry. All gay people experience this kind of thing, perhaps not so directly as Tyler did, but still no one who grows up in the United States and who is gay, whether man or woman, can escape the sting of hostility, ill will, and homophobia. Witness, merely just as the latest example, the bigoted and hate filled Baptist preacher in North Carolina, who recently declaimed from his pulpit that all lesbians and gay people ought to be put into a pen surrounded by electrified wire and left there to die. These are the kinds of messages that LGBT people grow up with in this culture, and given the fact that the messages are so pervasive, so invasive, and so insidious, especially for young people it is difficult in the extreme not to allow them to penetrate to some extent.
As one grows older, for the most part, one finds ways to ward off and deflect the hostility that so often surrounds us. Indeed, it manifests itself in so many ways, large and small, that gay people are well advised to learn ways to manage and cope. Some do so by hiding, or at least by dissimulating, and sad to say there are times when that may be the wisest thing to do. On the other hand, if you live in a large city, especially on either coast, perhaps for the most part you can be relatively, or entirely, open. Even so, the act of coming out is one that keeps on presenting itself. Every time a gay person meets someone new, or is put in a new situation, a kind of decision has to be made as to how “open” he or she will be. Just how safe is it? What could the consequences be? Is it worth the effort to do or say what a straight person might not even think twice about in the same circumstances? Should we, for example, make reference to “my partner,” or “my husband,” of “my wife,” or would it be better entirely if nothing at all were to be said? How am I feeling, how strong, how much energy do I happen to have right now, how much gumption, how much will, how much courage?
These are questions that LGBT people face every day, sometimes multiple times a day. For the most part (although with some very notable exceptions), it is true at least in this country that these are not life-threatening things, nor are they any longer likely to land anyone in jail (as they can in such countries as Uganda, or Zimbabwe, or even Russia). All the same, they can be unrelentingly exhausting. And young people in particular, who are just coming to terms with who they are and opening up to friends and family, as I have said, are especially prone to the insidiousness of it all. I do not doubt that it was this kind of atmosphere, as well as the distorted bias and bigotry of his roommate, that contributed to that terrible and fateful decision on the part of Tyler Clementi
Unfortunately, there is no happy ending to this story. Tyler will not go on to flourish as a musician, or anything else, and for the rest of their lives his parents are going to somehow have to come to terms with the gaping wound of the absence of their son. Dharun Ravi will go on to put this behind him, even if – let us hope – he will never forget what he did. Perhaps the bigotry in this case was unthinking on the part of a senseless and delusional young man; perhaps it was more malevolent. We will probably never know which. In the end, however, it makes very little difference. One way or another, a unique and promising life has been snuffed out, we are all the less for it, and homophobia has triumphed once again.