And the Verdict is Guilty

What impact will the Tyler Clementi case have on the LGBT community?

Photo by Think Stock

The name Tyler Clementi has become synonymous with teen suicide in this country ever since the Rutgers student plunged to his death on Sept. 22nd of last year. And when his former roommate Dharun Ravi was found guilty on Friday of what’s being described as “anti-gay intimidation,” the reactions varied from elation to somber acknowledgement to questions about what the decision may mean for other cases like it.

Many LGBT leaders and activists applauded the decision, believing that actions like Ravi’s may have pushed the gay teen to take his own life after his intimate homosexual relationships were exposed online. But a few legal experts are wondering what impact the case could have in the courts as hate crime and the laws associated with it are brought into the spotlight.

Two of the most serious charges (there are 14 of them) of which Ravi was convicted include bias intimidation based on sexual orientation – which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years. Even though the most he may receive come this May’s sentencing is a few years jail time (or no time at all – depending on the judge), some are saying the penalty is very steep for a 20-year-old Indian native who may or may not have understood the consequences of his actions.

Was it a college prank gone terribly wrong? Or did Ravi harbor intensely hateful feelings for his gay roommate? Is Ravi himself struggling with issues related to identity? We may never know.

But since the verdict came down on Friday, comments on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter exploded through the weekend, with many LGBT people particularly saying that justice was served in perhaps one of the most famous bullying cases this country has seen in the last few years.

“We do believe this verdict sends the important message that a `kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student,” says Steven Goldstein, chair of Garden State Equality. The organization has been an important watch dog group for all LGBT issues in the Garden State – including this ongoing bullying case.

In an online reaction to the verdict, Goldstein posed perhaps the most important quandary of the entire case: “The fundamental question in this trial was whether Dharun Ravi would have similarly invaded the privacy of a roommate having intimate relations with someone of the opposite sex, as Ravi did to Tyler Clementi.”

Goldstein says no. “In fact, the most compelling evidence in the case, Ravi’s text messages, indicated exactly that. The text messages demonstrated beyond any doubt that Ravi was deeply uncomfortable with Tyler’s being gay, and that Tyler’s suitor was a guy.”

Several of the jurors interviewed after the case pointed to the text messages, as well, saying they expressed anti-gay sentiment, which convinced them of Ravi’s intent to do harm based on Clementi’s sexual orientation – or at least his experiences with another man.

But a few legal scholars are asking whether the outcome will mean anti-gay speech of all kind will be tried with the same vengeance – and how that plays out with First Amendment Rights. Could someone face hate crime charges for expressing displeasure with LGBT issues? Or could this trial be more telling of the boundaries of technology? As we express ourselves more and more on social media – how do we preserve a reasonable expectation of privacy? Does it even matter that Clementi was presumably gay? Or is this situation most tragic because a young’s man private life was paraded online – unknowingly – which may have contributed to his suicide?

Again, so many questions. And very few real answers – yet.

Interestingly, a prominent gay rights activist in New York – Bill Dobbs – admitted concern about the verdict. He told The Huffington Post this weekend: “As hate crime prosecutions mount, the problems with these laws are becoming more obvious … how they compromise cherished constitutional principles. Now a person gets tried not just for misdeeds, but for who they are, what they believe, what their character is.”

It was another famous gay college student who inspired us all to take a much harder, more serious look at hate crime legislation in this country. Matthew Shepard, the young man who was beaten and left for dead in rural Wyoming was the inspiration for the Matthew Shepard Act – legislation that carries harsher penalties for those people convicted of bias crimes against LGBTs.

For many, the decision to acknowledge the higher-than-average rate of violence and abuse directed toward the LGBT community has been critical in opening peoples’ eyes to issues like bullying. And when the Matthew Shepard story pervaded the community – and the world – he quite naturally became the poster boy for the cause – one that had really been a silent killer. Finally people were paying attention. And finally a law felt like it really was interested in protecting people who had lacked protection for so long.

But is there a fine line we’re walking?

James Jacobs, a law professor at New York University, thinks so. Not only does he question the Ravi verdict, but also other hate crime legislation in general and how it tends to value or devalue one crime over another on the basis of sexual orientation.

He told The Huffington Post: “It’s one thing to pass them, and everyone is proud to say they’re opposed to hate and bigotry. Yet occasionally these laws are used in cases like this (the Ravi trial) … What he did was immature, stupid, wrong, but to make this a poster case for hate crimes shows the weakness, the whole misapplication of the idea.”

Again, more questions. Is Ravi the homophobic monster the prosectors made him out to be? Or is he, himself, a victim of technological overload and a really horrible college prank gone very, very wrong?

LGBT advocates who are pushing for even tougher hate crime protection are already using the case to point to other incidents that are linked to suicide and death among many young people – a major issue in this community. And the unanswered questions seem to inspire others about why states like Pennsylvania currently do not have laws on the books that include sexual orientation or gender identity.

Politics aside, perhaps we can agree that while the verdict is history making in many ways for LGBT rights, this isn’t exactly a celebratory moment. Two young men’s lives have been changed forever. One is dead. One may face a prison sentence and deportation. And society is faced (still) with how to understand technology, bullying and the definition of hate.

Goldstein summed it up well. “So are we ‘happy’ with the verdict? ‘Happy’ doesn’t seem like the right word given that Ravi has been convicted and will now face the societal consequences,” he says. “’Happy’ also seems too trivial a word when we remember that Tyler Clementi lost his life. But we do believe this verdict sends the important message that a ‘kids will be kids’ defense is no excuse to bully another student.”

What do you think? Should Ravi serve a prison sentence? And does the verdict send an important message about the dangers of anti-gay bullying? Or is this simply a college prank gone wrong – a terrible lesson, perhaps, about the boundaries of technology and privacy today?