Facing facts on Tyler Clementi’s death

Tyler Clementi

What “hate crime” was to Matthew Shepard, “bullying” became to Tyler Clementi, the 18-year-old Rutgers University student who took his life in September 2010 by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. Allegedly, this occurred after and because his roommate gay-bashed him, exposed his sexuality to the world and broadcasted him having sex with a man over the Internet.

But was what really happened even bullying? Or was this tragic tale lumped among the manifesting outrage and issue-centric advocacy that was popular at the time?

Following the self-inflicted death of 15-year-old Billy Lucas, who was chronically harped upon at school for not seeming straight, the world took up arms to combat this type of “bullying” that too often leads kids – gay or otherwise – who feel marginalized and alienated from their peers to take their own lives. Clementi’s death, which came to pass amidst a string of some half-dozen similar suicides, was often embraced as an emblem of the bullying (and cyberbullying) “epidemic” — including via TV talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and stories within the viral “It Gets Better” campaign, led by Dan Savage.

In reality, most of the story that was reported in the early weeks of the tragedy – the one that’s still embedded in public consciousness – is a far cry from the truth.

A New Yorker article published this week examines the facts and questions the motives of the young adult accused of instigating Tyler Clementi’s suicide.

For example, it characterizes Clementi as a socially awkward, painfully shy teen who felt more at ease talking to strangers online than talking to peers in his own periphery. It carefully asks if he may have been struggling with internalized insecurities and suicidal thoughts even before he ever met the young man who would be his roommate, Dharun Ravi.

It also introduces pertinent facts by explaining that Ravi had no way of knowing Clementi was reading his Twitter feed, where Ravi posted, among other discriminatory remarks, “I saw him making out with a dude. Yay.”

And then there was the fact that the two young men hardly ever spoke — and that Clementi was not out, formally, to Ravi.

Most importantly, there’s the truth that while Ravi and a friend peeped in on Clementi while he was kissing a male friend, no sex was witnessed and nothing was taped – much less virally shared. Ravi did, however, potentially attempt to set up a second live filming that never came to pass.

Many of these details are going to play a strong role in the prosecution of Ravi, who is now on trial for his purported role in Clementi’s death. They were all pieced together from a combination of text and IM messages as well as tweets and message board posts — virtual evidence that’s rampantly available and bewilderingly accessible in today’s networked world. Some critical details, like direct feedback from Ravi or the content of Clementi’s suicide note, are unfortunately omitted.

The article also introduces the term “bias intimidation.” Rather than the phrase “bullying,” this is the technical term describing the most critical of the charges faced by Ravi. The article explains that bullying is characterized by repeated outward antagonizing, for which there is no evidence here.

Now 20 years old, Ravi’s fate comes down to the distinction between actions and their corresponding descriptors: spying – an invasion of privacy and a sex crime, with a light sentence – or bias intimidation, which is a hate crime. The latter term is the doozy. It implies that Ravi acted out of malice toward Clementi because of his sexual orientation, or that Clementi had reason to believe his roommate harbored such hatred. It could, in its own right, sentence Ravi to five to 10 years in jail.

More recently in New York, 15-year-old Amanda Cummings committed suicide by stepping in front of a bus. Originally her parents and the police questioned whether bullying drove her to it. Some believed that she had been targeted in relation to a 19-year-old male, with whom she’d recently split. But ultimately, the case was dismissed as a matter of bullying. Is there room to speculate what this tragic occurrence might have looked like were Amanda dating a 19-year-old woman? Similarly, what would Ravi’s charges look like were he filming someone who was straight?

Sometimes it’s important to expand your point of view. But then again, sometimes it’s important to narrow it. Without the baggage attached to the broad “bully” buzzword, this case whittles down to one-sided testimony and parsing Web posts.

Distinguishing whether Tyler Clementi felt ostracized because he was gay, felt threatened by his roommate or simply felt overwhelmed by the world around him can have a major impact on the trial’s outcome. Ian Parker, author of the New Yorker article that so painstakingly pulls together the details preceding Clementi’s death, informs us that it’s time for more careful, concise terminology to enter our collective vocabulary when it comes to the life and death of children and young adults in need. In this case, that includes Dharun Ravi. 


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