Clementi Tragedy: Tech Teens' Lust to Expose, Not Gay Bashing

October 1, 2010


by Sandip Roy

originally posted at New America Media

After two decades in the United States, I still feel a thrill of recognition when I see a South Asian name in the media. A winner on a cooking show on the Food Network, a congressional candidate in Kansas, a new appointee to some team on the White House - it does not matter, there is always that twinge of pride.

I look out for these names. 

That was why I noticed Dharun Ravi’s name. And felt a chill go through me. Tyler Clementi, 18, had jumped off the George Washington Bridge after his roommate and a friend secretly taped him on their webcam having a sexual encounter with another man. And then they streamed it on the Internet.

The roommate’s name was Dharun Ravi. The headline on one article said “Dharun Ravi: The Reason for Tyler Clementi’s Suicide.”

It has a picture of Ravi and the other person involved, Molly Wei. They look like high school yearbook photos. Ravi has curly hair, and a broad smile. He is wearing a black tie and black jacket. He looks like my cousins in New Jersey, the ones that go to Bhangra parties and have stellar GPAs.

It’s easy to call this a horrifying example of homophobia. Ellen Degeneres recorded a moving message about how even in 2010, teenagers are killing themselves because they get bullied for appearing gay.

Yet, I am not sure that is the story. I know nothing about Ravi. I just kept thinking as a newly arrived Indian college student in America, I would have not dared to come out to folks like Ravi’s parents. I would think they would not understand.

But, I would have had no qualms coming out to someone like Dharun Ravi.

My activist friend Urvashi Vaid who went on to head the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force often said not to worry about the conservatism of the uncle-auntie generation of the Indian immigrant community. It’s all changing with the next generation, she’d say. Her nephew was cool with all this. As is my niece. They have grown up knowing gay people. It’s not a big deal.

Could it be too much “not a big deal?” I don’t think it’s as simple as saying Ravi was homophobic. This is not Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, pistol-whipped and left to die, tied to a fence like a scarecrow by men he met at a bar. That was 1998.

This is 2010. Clementi was out to Ravi. He requested permission to use the room to entertain his date. He complained on a forum that his roommate was tweeting about him and had turned the webcam on. He thought about moving out but worried a new roommate could be worse. He said he was “pissed” and his roommate was “obnoxious.” He sounds annoyed, not suicidal, paranoid about finding all the webcams.

In a strange way this is about a nonchalance around sexuality where it has become a public sport. A few years ago, a teenager in India videotaped his female classmate performing oral sex on him on his cell phone and emailed it around. It got auctioned off on India's subsidiary of eBay and became a viral sensation. The young woman apparently had to leave the country. Did he intend to hound her out of the country? Probably not. Just as Ravi and Wei probably never intended for Clementi to jump off a bridge.

Maybe they thought they were just having fun. A sort of online game of showmanship and truth-or-dare with ever higher stakes. Privacy meant nothing. It was just a game and they needed to outfox Clementi to get to the next level. We want people to watch us online. We want them to follow us on Twitter. We don’t care that our online hijinks have real life consequences. It’s as if we get more points in our virtual worlds, if we catch our friends in flagrante delicto. We are perpetually on candid camera, playing gotcha with our webcams.

Coming out has always been a lonely process. You could grow up in a country with a billion people and not know how to find another gay person. I remember standing in a phone booth in Mumbai, trying to pluck up the courage to call a newsweekly because one of their editors had come out as gay in an article I had read. I never did make the call.

The Internet changed that. Now gay men and women, coming out in small towns, in remote corners can safely find other people to chat with, create virtual world wide webs of support while sitting in their own bedrooms. An Internet group in India, GayBombay eventually became a flesh-and-blood group that hosted parent support meets.

Yet, Clementi's death proves the Internet is a double-edged sword. Ravi and Wei are accused by the media of sexually harassing and bullying Clementi. That they could have done any time, in person, in private. They were not even trying to out him. They just wanted the world to see him online with his pants down. They wanted to tweet about it. They wanted to make his private encounter a "free show" for the world to see. They probably thought it was not a big deal. But it was. Horribly so. Done without his consent and streamed to the whole world to see.

It's just life in the online world where everything is fair game and privacy is just a Facebook option.

Chillingly, Clementi left behind his last message as an update on his Facebook page.

"Jumping off the gw bridge, sorry."




While I don't totally disagree that this isn't a clear-cut, Matthew Shepard-esque case of homophobia, I think that we need to look at the larger picture. Even if Clementi was out to Ravi, even if the internet has allowed LGBT individuals to find some solace and community with people hundres of miles away, being queer is still seen as an undesirable.  When the phrase "that's so gay" is thrown about casually in schools across the country to express your disgust for something, there is a fundamental problem of homophobia deeply rooted in the world today. And in a world such as this, being out to a roommate, being out to your friends might not be a big deal, but being out to the entire world in a video that's sure to go viral without your consent is obviously enough to make you throw yourself off a bridge.
It's clear that Ravi enabled, condoned, depended on, and perpetuated society's homophobia in order to derive entertainment value from invading his roommate's privacy, and counted the titillation factor of the gayness of the roommate's sexual activity when he calculated the entertainment value it might provide to others and the social status that exposing his roommate's activities would bring to him (to Ravi). How can you essentially claim that an entire generation of South Asian Americans is essentially free of homophobia, when homophobia still permeates every layer of society in America? South Asians don't grow up here in a vacuum. Legally speaking, I agree that prosecuting Ravi for a hate crime would be wrong. But morally speaking, he deserves a whole lot of condemnation, and not just for the simple trespass of violating a roommate's privacy. In a sense, the calculatedness of what Ravi did, the form this particular tormenting of his gay roommate took, was crueler than the actions of someone who would have openly condemned and shunned Clementi because they were driven to do so by prejudice caused by unmaskable feelings of anger, disgust, and fear. I'm not trying to establish a hierarchy of suffering or say that being gay bashed or openly verbally abused is "better". I'm just pointing out that an underhanded and coldly calculated betrayal by a roommate who wasn't so open about or aware of his prejudices can wound much more deeply than "honest hatred". Clementi might have found it easier not to care about what his roommate and his roommate's friends thought of him if he could have dismissed the guy as a straight-up bigot. In addition, this kind of "soft" bigotry can make it harder to get the attention and support of the proper school authorities, should a student try to address the situation.
Also, to build on Rick's comment, we have no idea what kind of family/hometown Clementi came from. For many kids who are gay or even just different from their families in some fundamental way, college is a place where you can finally be yourself and explore/learn about being yourself without having to take the significant financial and emotional risk of "coming out" to your family. The prospect of a viral video getting out and exposing his sexual orientation to, say, extremely conservative and/or religious parents, can certainly be enough to drive a young person to suicide if he has had to spend his entire life tormented by being something he knew would be unacceptable to his family. The sad thing is, I would have expected children of immigrants, who, like gay kids, often grow up living a separate identity that they hide from their usually much more conservative parents--or at least have friends who must live this way--would be sensitive to a gay roommate's need for privacy in a way that Ravi obviously was not.