I came out of the closet during my freshman year at Florida Southern College, an improbably scenic institution erected in the hellish swampgrass between Tampa and Orlando. Some new arrivals at FSC that year referred to certain kinds of locals as “swampcrackers,” which seemed apt. My coming out occurred just after Christmas break. I told my friends, who told their friends, who told their friends, who told their friends; and very soon there were swampcrackers involved. I woke one morning, perhaps a week after making my announcement, and found the rear lights of my car smashed, my windshield wipers ripped off, and the word “faggot” written in mud on my rear window. Around the same time, one of my best friends told me I was going to hell, and that we probably shouldn’t be close anymore. This was a boy named Miles, who had no idea I was in love with him, or that it was my falling in love with him that had made me realize I was gay.
I can’t recall if it was the vandalism or Miles’s disapproval, but for whatever reason I awoke one January morning in the middle of a crying jag. It wouldn’t stop. I spoke to the hall coordinator, who said nice things to me, yet the jag persisted. I drove home to Fort Lauderdale, crying most of the way. This was the day I came out to my mother. My mother took the news extremely well, but the whole experience nevertheless sent me into a deep funk, where I dwelled for another year, until I departed Florida Southern College for good.
I didn’t kill myself. But if I had, I can’t imagine my ghost would have wished for the students who vandalized my car to lose their homes for the crime, or for Miles’s life to be ruined as punishment for tipping me over the edge.
But Dharun Ravi may very well lose his home, and his life is almost certainly ruined. It has, at least, been smashed into an unrecognizable shape. Ravi is the young man who posted some mildly offensive remarks to Twitter about his gay roommate, Tyler Clementi, during their freshman year at Rutgers University, and who later – and only very briefly – used a webcam to spy on Clementi as Clementi hooked up with an older man. For these crimes, and for subsequently tampering with evidence of those crimes, Ravi was sentenced on Monday to 30 days in jail and three years of probation, and ordered to pay a $10,000 fine. In addition to all that, he may yet be deported to India, where he was born but has barely ever lived.
Of course, Ravi isn’t really being punished for those crimes. He’s being punished because Tyler Clementi threw himself off the George Washington Bridge shortly after learning of Ravi’s spying. And he’s being punished because he’s become a celebrity; a stand-in for all the abusers of all the gay teens who’ve ever committed suicide. Judge Glenn Berman, before delivering his sentence, made it clear that he was sending a message. Nevertheless, the gay community is outraged at Ravi’s getting off so easy. Even Dan Savage, who publicly hoped that Ravi wouldn’t be given the 10-year prison sentence for which he was eligible, derisively called Ravi’s punishment a “slap on the wrist.” Tyler Clementi’s family intends to file an appeal to obtain a harsher sentence.
The outrage of the Clementis needs no explanation; Dan Savage’s probably results from an abundance of empathy with gay Clementi, a paucity of empathy for straight Ravi, and dimming memories of how horribly college kids tend to treat each other. But the gay community’s outrage has surely been fueled by the very odious misapprehensions surrounding the Ravi/Clementi story, most of which were admirably dispelled by Ian Parker’s New Yorker article, “The Story of a Suicide.” Popular myth has Ravi outing Clementi, which he didn’t: Clementi was already out. Popular myth has Ravi broadcasting Clementi’s hookup to an audience of fellow students in some kind of sick viewing party. Popular myth has Ravi record Tyler’s hookup. None of that happened. Nor, it seems, did Ravi even watch most of the hookup. According to the few available witnesses, Ravi tuned in to the webcam feed he’d rigged in his dorm room only once, for only a few seconds, and didn’t see anything very naughty. Several nights later, Ravi did use Twitter to encourage others to tune in to another of Clementi’s Tyler’s hookups, but by then Clementi had grown wise to Ravi’s spying, and disconnected his computer.
The sum of Ravi’s wrongdoing, then, watching a webcam feed for a few seconds, and publishing the following tweets:
Found out my roommate is gay; and
Roommate asked for the room till midnight. I went into molly’s room and turned on my webcam. I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.; and
Anyone with iChat, I dare you to videochat with me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes it’s happening again.
… and then attempting to obscure the evidence of these tweets and webcammings after the police became interested.
All of which means Dharun Ravi was an asshole. Yet it’s far from clear that he was an anti-gay asshole. He refused to take a plea bargain that would have kept him out of jail and un-deported because, to do so, he would have had to admit to anti-gay bias, and Ravi’s already compromised honor would not abide that admission. Certainly, Ravi doesn’t seem homophobic: His flabbergasted first tweet about his gay roommate, his IM conversations about Clementi, and his chatter about Clementi’s hookups were never cruel. On one occasion, Ravi even defended Clementi’s use of an online gay forum to a friend who was poking fun; on another, he claimed he “didn’t care” about Clementi’s sexuality, and insisted it wouldn’t be “awkward” if Clementi developed a crush on him. Ravi’s fixation on Clementi’s sexuality seems to have been animated by an almost pathological desire to gossip, to become the center of attention by sharing exciting, scandalous news with friends. And Ravi’s reaction to Clementi’s hookups, in particular, seems born of a desire to cover up some personal insecurity, perhaps relating to the fact that Clementi was getting some while Ravi was not. The published evidence, at least, makes Ravi seem less like a raging homophobe than like a frustrated virgin.
Now Ravi shall be a frustrated virgin in jail, and in debt, and on probation, and facing deportation. And he’ll be a frustrated virgin whose face is known all over the world as the face of America’s anti-gay bullying epidemic. Every employer from whom he seeks work will know him; every girl he attempts to date will Google him; everyone he meets will remember he recorded his closeted roommate’s dormitory tryst, broadcast it to his peers, and bullied a shy young man to death. That’s no slap on the wrist. Considering my lack of anger at my own collegiate tormentors, I can’t help but wonder if Tyler Clementi wouldn’t think it excessive.