Tyler Clementi has clearly been significantly memorialized by the barrage of “it gets better” videos that poured onto YouTube after his suicide. But my friends tell me that Dharun Ravi is going to be an insignificant blip in the American imagination within a year. It’s clear however that there are communities for whom Ravi represents so much more than the crimes he was charged with. For his supporters, South Asians in New Jersey and across America raising money to support his appeal, Ravi is a foolish prankster who only got caught because his gay, white roommate committed suicide. He is a brown brother being sacrificed by gay crusaders. No doubt there are power-gays that wield the resources to ensure that gay causes are prioritized, sometimes at the cost of racial and economic justice; but we South Asians must also remember that queerness and queerphobia are always present in our own communities. Ravi had imagined his father would throw Clementi out the window if he knew of his sexual orientation. Whether or not he honestly believed this, Ravi’s depiction of his father as violently homophobic signals the comfort with which South Asians perceive and represent their intimate community as homophobic. The reaction in South Asian enclaves to Ravi’s indictment demonstrates how vulnerable we feel in the face of state and federal law. That Ravi could possibly be deported as punishment for his crimes is a reminder of the expendable nature of Asians in America (the notorious “No. Where are you really from?” question is symptomatic of this as well). Also, the application of hate crime laws in this case and not in cases involving the murder of South Asians has raised alarm in Indian communities.
Some community leaders wonder how it is possible from someone in an oppressed community—a community that had been the recipient of so much hate post 9/11—to commit a hate crime. Yes, hate crime laws are kind of screwed up, but: A. That’s a fucking absurd question. B. I am appalled at Ravi’s supporters’ failure to interpret his actions as homophobic, merely writing it off as a foolish prank. Ravi refused his plea bargain because he did not want to go in front of a judge and falsely admit to hating gay people. Further, he believes that any discomfort Clementi felt by his hands was not as brutal as “real” gay bashing. I don’t believe Dharun Ravi hates gay people, but I’m pretty sure gay-sex freaks him out… and gay people tend to have gay sex. His invasion of Clementi’s privacy was motivated by the sensational and presumably grotesque act of gay sex; “Things might get nasty,” he warned a friend. Ravi’s actions participate in an un-interrogated homophobia that permeates all of America, the kind that allows people to ask so blithely “So which one of you is the woman in the relationship?” “Do you like to drop the soap?” or “How do two women have sex?” Epithets such as “cocksucker” and “gandu” deliberately derogate gay sex. These kinds of comments and questions have made me distrustful of and disgusted by my own desires, body, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Homophobia is not always hate driven, but it is phobic (duh!). Ravi said (joked?) that the camera was set up to ensure that “the gays” did not end up on his own bed. These are the kinds of soft and hard blows (really, no pun intended!) that lead queer people to feel ashamed of their sexualities. Homophobic acts, like Ravi’s publicising of Clementi’s sex life, cultivate self-loathing.
Though sex explodes across mainstream American media, gay sex remains closeted. The representation and visualization of queer sex has been so thoroughly removed from public images of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. If we are to un-closet and normalize queer sex, we have the additional task of bringing sex itself out of the closet in South Asian media and communities. But we must simultaneously unmask the racism that makes Ravi such a convenient poster child for cyber-bullying. Ravi is both all-American (preppy, Frisbee playing, friend making, social-media addicted) as well as distinctly non-American (brown, immigrant, mostly around other Asian Americans). Innocence and sincerity are not as legible on his body as they would be on a blond, blue-eyed, pinkish-white face that looks a lot more like the people who are extrapolating Ravi’s conviction as justice for Clementi’s death.
We might claim that his homophobia is symptomatic of a much larger xenophobia in America and not just a culturally situated one, but his South Asian identity is only fodder for the broad-based belief that immigrants / people of color are more homophobic than their white American counterparts. Some gay men I meet try to stoke the internalized homophobia they expect me to have being brown / foreign. And I can’t tell you how many people refuse to believe that my South Asian / non-American family lovingly and compassionately accepts my queer identity. Sure desi parents have less exposure to gay culture, people, and identity politics, but that does not make them less capable of learning, loving, and listening. Even desis (Ravi included!) are guilty of imagining that their (immigrant) parents are more homophobic than themselves.
It is imperative that we do not forget Dharun Ravi. He is evidence of liberal America’s racisms and homophobias. He is also a reflection of South Asians’ own failure to raise healthy conversations about race and sexuality in our cultural communities. As his sentencing continues and appeals are filed, questions continue to be raised about the usefulness of hate-crime laws and how, in this case, it sets brown communities against a gay cause. There should be justice for Dharun Ravi—10 years in jail does no good for him, the Clementis, or any one of us. But if we remember him only by valorizing him as an unwilling sacrifice to the gay movement, we close off the possibilities of confronting homophobia in the South Asian community. And if we vilify him as the face of homophobia, his difference / otherness permits a constant displacement of massive social prejudice onto people of color as happened in the passing of bans on same-sex marriage in NC and CA.