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Tyler Clementi and Us

The verdict in New Brunswick NJ on the trial of Dharun Ravi is in. Ravi was convicted of a hate crime after setting up a webcam to tape his roommate Tyler Clementi in a homosexual encounter. He then tweeted the link so that others could watch. Humiliated and hounded, Tyler killed himself two days later.

No one intervened on Tyler’s behalf in two days. No one spoke up about the”joke”.

Ravi was sentenced to 30 days in jail, 300 hours community service, 3 years probation, and $10,000 in fines, plus court fees. The media debate is now about whether that sentence was severe enough. It’s not our job to comment on the fairness of the sentence. Our job is to focus on the continuing effect of bullying of gays on straight spouses and our families, and the attitudes of acceptance surrounding it.

Judge Glenn Berman aptly noted that despite the leniency of the sentence, he has not observed any sign of regret or remorse from Ravi. The prosecution will appeal the sentence. Ravi is appealing the conviction. Meanwhile, we have noticed disturbing comments in the general online media. Some are calling for Ravi to be treated as a murderer, which he is not. Some are blaming Tyler’s family for his suicide – the old “if only they’d accepted him his life would be perfect and he’d have had no problems” mantra. Still others believe that Ravi really did nothing wrong.

The truth is that for many young adults, any discussion of sex with their parents is difficult. It’s not that the parents are bad or narrow minded or abusive or intolerant – it’s just that it’s really difficult to tell your parents your business! Straight teens don’t come out to their parents; gay teens have an additional step to take when talking to their parents openly about their sexual activity. It’s a process that takes time in many families.

The truth is that Tyler was bullied. The truth is that dorm life in freshman year can be a very difficult adjustment. The truth is that his roommate was not happy about living with someone who was actively gay. The truth is that his roommate deliberately set up the webcam, the broadcast, the tweet. The truth is that his roommate intended to shame and humiliate him.

The truth is that if there were resources available to Tyler, he likely was unaware of them. The truth is that other students knew. No one did anything about stopping the sharing of the video. No one did anything to warn or help Tyler.

No one can blame a young college freshman for being irritated at a roommate who has sex in the room, especially if being around gay sex is new, especially if it involves someone who is not a student. But roommates have had these conflicts for years, and not resolved them through bullying, shame, public humiliation.

It’s time for college residence life counselors to recognize two things: one, that gay students or those perceived as gay still are targets for harassment, bullying, shaming; and two, that some students may have a difficult time living with a sexually active gay or lesbian student for reasons other than “hate”.

Those issues have to be owned. It has to be safe in a college dorm to be gay, or to not want to be close to gay sexual activity in your personal living space.

There must be honest and open ways to resolve these incompatibilities without forcing someone to be bullied, or to be politically correct but very unhappy and uncomfortable. College residence life must be safe for all.

The alternative is uncomfortable silence, pretending this was just Tyler’s fault, pretending that Ravi is a hateful murderer or pretending that its OK to assume he did nothing wrong, he just got caught.

Gays and lesbians are part of a family. Hopefully, as more families and straight spouses speak out about our lives, the idea of bullying someone for being gay will become socially unacceptable – because the gay person could be our brother, sister, son, daughter, parent. But first, it will have to be safe for families to speak out. And in a college dorm, admitting you have a gay sibling or parent could be difficult, and open you up to more harassment.

This is the world we live in. Let’s change it through honesty and compassion.

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