Can Suicide Be a Hate Crime?

Article excerpt

Byline: Jay Michaelson

Dharun Ravi may be a jerk, but he shouldn't go to prison for it.

One of the core assumptions of LGBT activism, anti-racism work, and other civil-rights activism is that all of us, no matter how enlightened we are, have prejudice within us. You don't "get over" your racism or homophobia; you learn to recognize it.

Yet the highest-profile gay-bashing trial of the decade will turn on whether Dharun Ravi, a Rutgers University sophomore, acted out of anti-gay bias against his roommate, Tyler Clementi, when he recorded Clementi having sex with another man on his webcam and tweeted about it. The facts are not in dispute; only the motivations. In other words, not only is the entire case taking place in Dharun Ravi's head, but Ravi is on trial for what all of us feel from time to time: prejudice against those who are different from us.

Why? Because while Ravi is on trial for invasion of privacy, the more serious offense with which he is charged is "bias intimidation," a hate crime. If all Ravi did was film Clementi in bed with another man, it's a minor offense. If he did so in order to harass Clementi for being gay, he could get 10 years in prison.

As the trial has unfolded, there appears to be general agreement that Ravi is a bit of a jerk. He and his friends made fun of Clementi's economic status, his nerdy demeanor, even his choice of email provider. Ravi used the words "fag" and "gay" in a derogatory way. And yet, as I've read the instant-message transcripts that form much of the body of evidence, it's been abundantly clear that Ravi's homophobia is of the casual, locker-room variety. Yes, it's there, but it's also everywhere.

Clementi, meanwhile, emerges as a delicate young man who was uncomfortable in his own skin--not only because he was gay, but also because he was slight, socially awkward, and unsure of himself.

Of course, this trial is taking place only because shortly after Ravi recorded him, Clementi killed himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. …