A Post-Gay Hate Crime?

This past week saw several suicides at American colleges. The most sensationalized was Rutgers freshman Tyler Clementi’s tragic jump from the George Washington Bridge after a fellow student streamed video of his sexual encounter with another guy over the Internet. However, two other college students—Raymond Chase, an openly gay sophomore at Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, and Jacob Miller, freshman, sexual orientation unknown, at Fordham’s Bronx campus—also took their own lives. (Chase is also the fifth gay youth to take his own life in three weeks.)

A Post-Gay Hate Crime?

You know why Samuel Barber's music is so sad? Because of friggin' homophobes

We like to find someone to blame for every tragedy, but the fact is that a rather disturbing number of suicides happen on college campuses—around 1,100 per year. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for college students, and the beginning of the academic year, with all its stresses, especially for incoming freshmen, seems to be a particular danger zone.

Administrators do their part to try to curb these disturbing statistics, but in some cases the cure is worse than the disease: Students who seem at risk for self-harm are often banned from campus. Better that they’re gotten rid of, goes this school of thought, than put the college at risk for a lawsuit or create another statistic or an embarrassing news story. Of course, rather than helping, this makes things worse, removing the at-risk students from any sense of progress towards a normal future, perhaps returning them to a bad home situation, and intimidating those who might have suicidal thoughts from speaking up and getting the help they need.

But that’s the subject for another column: What I want to talk about is the particular outrage directed at Dharun Ravi, the 18-year-old who, with his fellow freshman Molly Wei, is accused of publicly live-streaming the video of Clementi and his partner on September 21 after having peeped in privately two days prior. Campus LGBT groups condemned this as “cyberbullying” and a hate crime and took to the streets demanding Ravi’s head on a pike. As Steven Goldstein of the LGBT rights group Garden State Equality said, “You have to prosecute this as a hate crime. Anything less would be an insult to the memory of the young man our society lost.”

I disagree: While this was certainly a serious invasion of privacy, I’m not willing to say that it was a hate crime.

No doubt, what Ravi did was stupid, immature, and wrong. What is also wrong is characterizing it as an act of anti-gay hate without any supporting evidence. Ravi apparently didn’t say or write anything homophobic; by all accounts, he had gay friends, and he apparently liked Clementi. Though there’s still a lot of hate out there, Generation Y, as a whole, isn’t particularly homophobic. We live in a world where sexual orientation is thankfully becoming increasing irrelevant to how we judge others. Unfortunately, we also live in a world where any expectation of privacy, or filter between public and private, can be destroyed in a keystroke.

If, as I’m positing, Ravi was truly living in a post-gay headspace, broadcasting his roommate’s hookup may have seemed like a cute prank, The Virginity Hit-style, without the gender of Clementi’s partner mattering (besides being a way to exorcise the annoyance of being exiled from his room). However, this may have been all the push that was needed for the dominoes set up by Clementi’s own life experience and neurochemistry to fall over.

While acknowledging that there’s a great deal of anti-gay ugliness out there (and that college LGBT activists tend to be really angry because of it), and admitting that I may be living in a fantasy world where we’re on the cusp of real LGBT acceptance, I am unwilling to paint Ravi or Wei as bigots until I see specific evidence that they targeted Clementi because of his sexual orientation, or that there was a repeated pattern of harassment beyond the thoughtless webcam broadcast (that is, the second, public one). Just because something bad is done to someone who is gay doesn’t automatically make it a hate crime: Broadcasting your your roommate’s hookup is an assholish thing to do, no matter if it’s with a guy, girl, or Christine O’Donnell in a furry suit.

There’s no need to convict two people—one of whom (Wei) is guilty apparently only of letting a friend use her computer—in the court of public opinion before the full truth comes out. These two kids will already never have a sound night’s sleep for the rest of their lives and are facing criminal charges; there is no need to lynch them as well in order to satisfy our needs for vengeance or vindicate whatever injustices were done to ourselves in the past. If anything, past victimization should make us more sensitive to others. Thus, I may pity Ravi and Wei, and I may think they were wrong, but I’m not willing to condemn them as bigots quite yet.

What I am willing to condemn is that Clementi was made to feel that he had to suffer whatever he was suffering in silence. What I am willing to condemn is that he had to feel shame about being gay. What I am willing to condemn is that gay youth are made to feel feel so hopeless that they think death is better than life. And what I am willing to condemn is college administrators for not doing enough about the campus suicide problem.

Meanwhile, for all the gay teens out there, this link is for you.

Addendum: Why has no one shown sympathy for the poor guy, whoever he is, that Clementi was hooking up with?

Ken Mondschein received his Ph.D from Fordham University, and has also studied at Boston University, SUNY Buffalo, and Harvard. Besides his academic work, he has written for Nerve, the New York Press, ...read more

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