Criminal or Cultural: South Asian Gay Community Weighs in on Dharun Ravi

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Dharun Ravi arrives in court with his lawyer Steven Altman. (Nancy Solomon/WNYC)

Dharun Ravi, the 20-year-old former Rutgers University student who was born in India and grew up in Plainsboro, N.J., is accused of using a webcam to spy on his roommate, Tyler Clementi, during an intimate encounter with a man. The trial has drawn national attention to bullying, privacy issues and homophobia.

The prosecution showcased what they consider to be anti-gay texts and messages from Ravi to try to build a case that his actions were borne in homophobia. The defense has responded with a series of witnesses, including Ravi’s Indian-American family friends, who say Ravi never made anti-gay remarks.

Much of the prosecution’s arguments against Ravi paint him as a homophobe and a bully. But within the South Asian gay community, the focus has been on whether Ravi’s actions were part of a cultural bias.

Ravi faces 15 criminal counts, including invasion of privacy and bias intimidation, and could be in prison for up to 10 years – and could even be deported to India.

Sonia Katyal, a law professor at Fordham University, said for those who “grow up in a world where no one talks about gay issues … it helps you to understand why someone might make the choice to engage in some sort of bullying or some sort of intimidation.”

She pointed to the refusal by organizers of the annual Indian Day parade in New York City to allow an LGBT contingent to participate until finally buckling to pressure in 2010. She found it ironic that the trial is taking place just when the Supreme Court in India is considering whether to decriminalize gay sex across the country.

Shawn Jain, a former board member with the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association in New York (SALGA) who is Indian-American, said he was “angered” that Ravi was being blamed for bullying his roommate.

“So many facts about the case had been misrepresented," he said.

But Ravi may have been acting in a way he described as being “symptomatic of an abusive, straight, privilege[d]” male of South Asian descent.

Amit Bagga, a gay Indian-American former Congressional aide who has been active in the LGBT community, said his reading of the case suggested that Ravi was "generally homophobic," consistent with the South Asian cultural environment in which Bagga said he grew up.

Bagga explained the perspective as a form of collective denial: “It's 'Why would we even think to talk about this? Because this is something that is so alien to us and our worldview and our understanding of the world.'"

(Photo: Dharun Ravi in video shown to jurors. Nancy Solomon/NJPR)

Yet during the trial, the seven character witnesses touted by the defense – all of whom were friends or associates of Ravi’s father – said they never heard him say anything negative about gays.

“We never discussed that explicitly,” Anil Kappa, a friend of Ravi’s father, told jurors last week.

Soniya Munshi, an LGBT activist who worked at a domestic violence organization in New Jersey, think it's easy to make too much of Ravi's Indian background.

At work, Munshi said she has dealt with several cases of South Asian gays or lesbians who were pushed into arranged heterosexual marriages. These are deep cultural problems, she said.

"It's not to excuse or justify it, but it's not that unusual for young people who are in a mixed environment, who are straight-identified, to think that gay or queer sex is funny or something that should be a spectacle," she said.


Correction: The original article stated that being gay was illegal was in India. This is incorrect. In 2009, a Colonial era law, HR377, that made it a crime to commit "unnatural offenses," such as sodomy, was struck down by the Delhi High Court. Since then, it's been legal within that court's jurisdiction, but remains illegal elsewhere within the country. It is currently being challenged in India's Supreme Court.


Comments [10]

Lena from India

"Homosexuality is a taboo topic in Indian and other SA communities" is too much of a generalization. Another point that hasn't been noted in this discussion is that Ravi stated (I forget exactly where/when) that he has a "close personal friend who is gay" and that he was very open with this person about it. So it was not something he was as freaked-out by as is being made out by his defense. If for a moment, we can forget that the victim of his "prank" was a person with a different sexual orientation, even then, nothing can excuse Ravi's and his twitterati pals' casual cruelty and insensitivity.

Mar. 16 2012 12:33 AM

o-ver-pro-se-cu-tion did he do something careless and stupid,yeah. but how many among us,at that age, did not also,engage in college age idiocy. i don't at all, compare this to hazing or racial cruelty. the bigger problem, is the collective we,as a society. we, have a problem with homosexuality,which is what shamed this poor young man,into suicide. let's not look, for a fast and easy scapegoat,which is part of our american pathology; so that we can all look in a mirror, thump our chests, and feel good about ourselves.

Mar. 15 2012 11:04 PM

Ravi is obviously immature and reckless, and he pulled a prank that went horribly bad. But he can't be THAT clueless about homosexuality. There are gay student associations, and gay students, who are out -- all over Rutgers (I know, I teach there). The Rutgers Queer Student Alliance is the second oldest LGBT campus group in the country and includes an alumni organization. Rutgers is one of the most diverse universities in the United States, and there seems like there are monthly memos to teachers and students, and God knows who else. stating it's wrong to discriminate, period, on the basis of race, religion, or sexual preference.

Ravi was part of that culture as well, and he had to know that it's wrong to pull this stunt on a confused gay student. I mean, c'mon, he strategized to pull off the webcam spying. That is proof he knew he was doing something wrong.

To pull the culture card is kind of like the Twinkies defense in this case. At the same time, this is so not the Matthew Shepard case. And the fact that the prosecution wants to make Ravi a glowing example by pressing for a hate crime charge, is as equally agenda driven.

Ravi should do some time, but not for a hate crime.

Mar. 15 2012 03:06 PM
Rohan Sooklall

I think too much is being made of the fact that he is South Asian.
True, homosexuality is somewhat of a taboo topic in some Desi circles, but I don't think that in itself has anything to do with what this idiot did.

Mar. 15 2012 02:08 PM
Tyco from new york city

It is no surprise that it was two Asian Americans accused of bullying Clementi.

Minorities have been bullied all our lives, often in very subtle ways, by American society. This was a case where two such minorities felt they had a chance to gain friends by bullying person who is a sexual minority.

I see this kind of transferance in hopes of people liking them all the time with minorities.

Mar. 15 2012 12:29 PM
Shawn Jain from Washington, D.C.

Thanks for examining this angle to the story, Arun.

I just have one small additional correction to add: the article says that an LGBT contingent was not allowed to march in the India Day parade until 2010. Actually, LGBT people were able to march in the parade prior to 2010 (in the early 90s and then again in 2000), but they have also not been allowed to participate for many years during that period, including as recently as 2009.

Mar. 15 2012 08:48 AM
hman from windsor terrace

I'm gay and Indian-American - born just a couple of miles from their dorm room! - and I feel no sympathy towards Dharun whatsoever.

Mar. 14 2012 10:43 PM
DGL from NJ

Who said being gay is illegal in India? If you have references from Indian judicial system then please pass that on so we can verify the facts.

People may not have an opinion / care about gays but that doesn't make them homophobe!

Mar. 14 2012 09:46 PM
random from India

Homosexuality is a taboo topic in Indian and other South Asian communities. That could have caused Dharun Ravi's alleged bias. Dharun's parents and his mentor Anil Kappa should have addressed this topic with him before or after the incident. Read more at:

Mar. 14 2012 07:11 PM
Rahul from Los Angeles

Do your reporters even research before publishing articles? Being gay is no longer illegal in India. Wow, great reporting.

Mar. 14 2012 07:04 PM

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