Thoughts on the Tyler Clementi CaseHarsh punishment misses an opportunity for change
Dharun Ravi was a college student like any other. He was a techno-geek, as many of us claim to be, and posted constantly to Twitter. He was a foreigner, and he attempted to weave his story into the melting pot that is American culture. He was making his parents proud, attending a good school and getting generally good grades. Dharun Ravi was also supremely immature.
All of these characteristics combined unfortunately when Mr. Ravi found out that his roommate, Tyler Clementi, was gay. Soon afterwards, Ravi began discreetly recording his roommate’s make-out sessions with another man. Upon discovering that his roommate had put videos of his lover and him making out on the Internet, Mr. Clementi jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge on Sept. 22, 2010. On March 16th, after many months of litigation and legal posturing, the jury in Mr. Ravi’s case finally reached a verdict. Ravi was found guilty on all sixteen counts, including hate crimes and tampering with evidence, for attempting to delete Twitter messages in which he encouraged people to check out the posted videos.
The suicide and successful prosecution was seen as a watershed moment for many gay-rights activists and sympathizers. Its facts force even the most stringent anti-gay people of this nation to sympathize with the plight of a human who’s been shunned, discriminated against and hated for a simple biological fact which he can’t change—a characteristic so essential as his sexuality. But in the end, Mr. Ravi is going to spend some 10 years in jail for an act which, if one truly thinks about it, isn’t worth ten years of a another young man’s life.
Ravi is certainly stupid and cruel, but sentencing the guy so harshly is simply unfair. Ravi’s parents most likely disapprove of homosexual behavior, as most Americans above forty do. Should we put them on trial? Should they be charged for creating the conditions under which a child can grow up holding such disrespect for the gay community? What about Clementi’s parents, who it would appear were so against homosexuality that their son would rather face death than have to reveal his true sexual nature? Can they be put in front of a jury and tried for his death? After all, though he wasn’t charged explicitly with Clementi’s death, that Clementi died surely had a powerful influence on the jury’s decision.
Mr. Ravi is a foolish young man who strangely thought it funny to watch two gay guys kissing. Ravi, however, is not to blame for what happened to Tyler Clementi. In fact, I’d argue that Ravi isn’t even mostly responsible. It is our society that reinforced his parents’ views, the playgrounds where weak performance in a game is referred to as “gay,” the schools where calling referring to someone with a homosexual slur can start a fight—these views and cultural trends are the true culprit. Like many Americans, he grew up surrounded by a culture that teaches us that gays are a mistake of nature, or as the Bible calls them, “an abomination.” Ravi’s actions were wrong, but within the context of the culture many of us grew up with and still live in, more leniency was deserved.
This ruling isn’t a triumph for the gay rights movement, but a stain. It undercuts the true message of the pro-gay rights effort. Gays aren’t seeking to punish, but to be understood and accepted. Will sending a young man to jail change his views on homosexuality? Or society at large? Did the jury suspect, as I do, that anyone who enjoys watching two gay guys kissing and professes not to be gay is probably suppressing some kind of homoerotic tendency? What this decision accomplished was to take focus away from the plight of LGBT men and women in this country and make this an issue of whether hate crime statuses are appropriate for bullying cases.
I like the idea proposed by the three concerned citizens and activists, Stephen Karashian, Orlando Rodriguez and Phyllis Rodriguez, in their letter to the editor of the New York Times: sentence Ravi to volunteer for a gay rights organization. Dharun Ravi should not be a scapegoat for gay vengeance, but a symbol of what needs to change in our society. This could be the moment when we, as a country, decided to have a truly open discussion about some of our greatest societal problems.
Ravi’s actions are inexcusable, but justice must be balanced with compassion. The focus shouldn’t be on making Dharun Ravi pay for his immaturity, but rather on making him learn from it. The rest of our society would do well to learn from it as well.