On March 16, a New Jersey jury reached a verdict in the case of Dharun Ravi, a student at Rutgers University who was accused of spying on his former roommate. In September 2012, Ravi set up a webcam with which to record and broadcast his then-roommate, Tyler Clementi, having sex with another man. Three days later, Clementi, who was not out to the general public, committed suicide by jumping off of a bridge. On Friday, the jury found Ravi guilty on charges including bias intimidation and invasion of privacy. He faces a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
This case, and Ravi’s conviction, represent the depth and controversy of the debate that surrounds the definition of a hate crime. Regardless of Clementi’s sexuality and openness, Ravi’s judgment in his decision to display the innermost details of his roommate’s private life on the Internet is clearly immoral. But the motivation behind this inexcusable action is a key part of the conviction and punishment. Ravi is on record saying that he was “uncomfortable” with Clementi’s sexuality, and this bias was an obvious factor in the way he violated his roommate’s privacy. Clearly, then the crime was a hate crime—an act of terrorism against a person because of his or her identity, akin to last week’s shootings of members of the LGBT community in D.C.
The prevalence of violent crime against members of the LGBTQ community clearly shows that homophobia is alive and well in America. While Ravi could face deportation to India in addition to a jail sentence, the political commentators who have sprung to his defense suggest a continued acceptance of homophobia, as the non-heteronormative community remains one of the last groups that it is still socially acceptable to hate. While the struggles of racial minorities, for instance, who still confront obstacles to equality every day, should not be minimized, it would be outrageous to suggest that interracial marriage be banned. Nonetheless, politician and civilian alike feel perfectly entitled to express “discomfort” with people of non-normative sexual or gender identities.
There have been laudable attempts to curb homophobia, such as the ThinkB4USpeak campaign. But as politicians like Rick Santorum continue to compare equal marriage to “man on dog” and “man on child” without suffering reproach from their voter bases, homophobia continues to be entrenched in our culture. This continued mainstream acceptance of bigoted hatred against specific groups must be halted. Targeting individuals for their sexuality—something no less a part of a person’s natural identity than race—is a direct violation of basic human rights and decency. Clementi’s tragic death was unequivocally caused by a hate crime, and if we are ever to move past a society that treats the LGBTQ community as second-class citizens, we must start by calling this case what it is.