On March 16th a jury found Dharun Ravi, a former Rutgers University student whose roommate, Tyler Clementi, committed suicide in early Fall 2010, guilty of a hate crime for his homophobic behavior. Not too long ago, this would not have been the case. The mainstream LGBT advocacy agenda has supported the creation of hate crimes legislation for homophobic acts as a solution to violence against queer and trans people (These are generally the same organizations that advocate for same-sex marriage as a solution to discrimination against queer and trans people). Their advocacy was successful, and now homophobic behaviors can be punished as criminal acts of hate, if they meet the definition and severity that is laid out in the hate crimes legislation for that jurisdiction. In New Jersey, the Rutgers student’s actions met these definitions, according to the jury, and he was convicted of a hate crime for spying on Clementi, along with other crimes like invasion of privacy.
This conviction expanded the realm of what can be considered a hate crime by deeming the use of digital and social networking technology to spy on a roommate and send homophobic messages as convictable acts of anti-gay hate. Essentially, in the wake of his roommate’s suicide, Ravi was convicted of a hate crime for making Clementi feel intimidated and targeted for his homosexual identity. The media are depicting this jury’s decision as a victory for LGBT people and organizations and as a step in the right direction for ending anti-gay violence, discrimination, and bullying.
It would be difficult to say that this young person did not engage in a homophobic and harassing manor in regards to Clementi and it would be erroneous to suggest that Ravi’s behavior did not cause Clementi significant harm. Intervention, education, and support were and are needed for both parties, and many other people. But criminalization? Is that really a good or helpful idea?
Or is this just a mechanism for larger systems imbedded with institutionalized homophobia, transphobia, and queerphobia to change their story and shift the blame. By advocating for hate crimes legislation, mainstream LGBT organizations have legitimized institutions that discriminate and harm queer and trans people (police, prison, courts, administrative bodies) as places that are now on our side; created more ways to put people (including queer and trans people) into courts and prisons; and avoided doing anything that might actually create help and support for queer and trans people that are being harassed and harmed. Through the hate crimes lens, the culprits of anti-gay hate are individuals, not institutions, and the institutions are transformed into places that create safety, not harm. The message is that these are places and systems that we need because they will contain homophobia, and Ravi’s conviction is supposed to be a successful example.
But in reality, when you really look at what this jury, court, and hate crimes law did, you will find that they put a young person of color in prison under the guise of “protecting” or “defending” queer and trans people… Is this ok with us? Is it really going to stop other people/systems from harming queer and trans individuals? Are we all safe now?
The civil rights movement did not end systemic racism or race-motivated violence against people of color. Neither did hate crimes legislation for racist violence. And, currently, people of color are disproportionately over-represented in prison populations in comparison to white people. So when we advocate for and convict people of hate crimes, are we fighting for a solution or distracting ourselves from the real problems? Additionally, because of the disproportionate representation of people of color in prison, we have to ask ourselves if we believe that Ravi would be in this situation if he was white. Or is this itself a manifestation of the racism of our criminal punishment system that has been clouded by a mainstream LGBT prison-legitimizing agenda?
Instead of protecting anyone, I think this hate crime conviction does the following harms:
1) The conviction results in this young person being subjected to the violence and harm of prison and possible deportation.
2) The conviction sends the message that this act of homophobia was isolated when in reality society is extremely homophobic and unsupportive of queer and trans youth. Why was there no place else for Clementi to go for support? Do we really believe that this was the only instance in which he experienced homophobia? Ravi sent homophobic messages through social media that could be accessed by numerous people; so isn’t it disingenuous to believe that Ravi’s homophobic act existed in a vacuum? Clearly, Ravi was not the only person in Clementi’s life, at Rutgers and otherwise, that was homophobic.
3) The conviction casts prison, which historically and currently is a place where queer and trans people have experienced an immense amount of abuse and violence, as a place that can now provide protection for queer and trans people.
4) The conviction opens the gates for the conviction of more people, including queer and trans people, under the expanded applicability of hate crimes legislation, which will result in more people being sent to prison for longer where they will experience violence and abuse.
5) The conviction does nothing to provide support for people that are being abused as a result of their real or perceived queer and/or trans identity. This kind of solution is not even relevant until someone has already been harmed or killed.
6) As evidenced by our current rates of incarceration, which have tripled since 1980, making the US the highest incarcerating nation in the world, the criminalization of behavior doesn’t deter people from engaging in the behavior or prevent people from being incarcerated for it, which suggests that this hate crime conviction will not stop homophobia from happening again. But it might make people think homophobia no longer exists.
Ravi is in facing up to 10 years in prison and a lifetime of social stigma, neither of which will end homophobia or anti-gay violence in our country. He is being used as a symbolic example of our nation’s progress and queer-inclusion, sacrificed to prove a point that isn’t true. And through the whole process, harmful entities like the police, the courts, and the prison systems are gaining the support of mainstream LGBT organizations.
With all these factors considered, I wonder where is the “victory” that the media is talking about? Who won?