In 2010, Tyler Clementi, a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey, threw himself off of the George Washington Bridge three days after his roommate had video-recorded and broadcast one of Clementi’s sexual encounters in their shared dorm room. There were many suicides that year that came close on the heels of acts of bullying. This is what began Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign. March 16 of this year, Dharun Ravi, Clementi’s roommate at the time, was found guilty of 15 charges, one of which was bias intimidation. Some of the charges carry penalties of five to ten years in prison. And in the context of Clementi’s death, the criminal justice system and many acts of cyberbullying on college campuses, we have to ask ourselves, what exactly gets better? Because none of this needs to happen in Claremont.
Though there is neither enough time nor enough space to explain the details of why the Prison Industrial Complex needs to change, I do think that the bias intimidation charge was useful insofar as it established and recognized that what happened was not separable from the culture of heteronormativity that we live in. Because Ravi’s bullying and Clementi’s suicide were not just individual acts, they are part of this system. As a working definition, heteronormativity is a system of ideas and practices that normalize, regulate and privilege a particular brand of heterosexuality. Think Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling on the poster for The Notebook. It is not the same thing as heterosexuality or homophobia. At the same time, this system demonizes, punishes many other forms of sexual expression. If a gay student kills himself after being videotaped and tweeted about, the sex is not the problem, it is the embarrassment and the social cost of the act that is the problem. If a student hangs himself in a barn for being called what I shall call “the F word,” it is not because he does not like the sound of the word. These social effects are produced by and examples of heteronormativity.
Dharun Ravi claims that he has no problem with gay people, and that he doesn’t believe himself to be homophobic, and that’s not something that I am willing to argue about. But when you tweet about catching your roommate hooking up with a guy, in a culture that marks that type of sexuality as deviant and worthy of ridicule, your being a homophobe or not is irrelevant. This is not to say, “Oh, hey, it’s just a system, so it doesn’t matter what I do.” People do make terrible choices and do terrible things, and Ravi claims to recognize that now. Convicting these people of intimidation sends a very strong message regarding our nation’s feelings toward this sort of thing. But our work should not end when someone is potentially sent to jail.
We have to work constantly and vigilantly against this system. And one of those ways is learning how to recognize and anticipate systems such as heteronormativity. If he had thought to himself, “I wonder if Tyler is out to everybody, and what would happen if I did this?” he may not have publicized the video. If people thought about the systems at play around their bullying, or offhand comments or things said uncritically “in jest,” then many more atrocities could be avoided. This is not about Dharun Ravi being a “good” or “bad” person who makes us all feel better now that he has been charged and convicted; this is about a system that we all live in and that we have to make active moves to avoid. And when I say “we all” I mean Claremont students. Parties with such titles as “CEOs and Office Hoes” or any variation on the theme are part of this system. Yelling that little “F word” at me as you drunkenly urinate on the side of the school gym after a sporting event is part of that process. Referring to trans people or people who don’t really fall into a legible gender category as “it” is part of this process. Let’s not forget the “butt-pirates” who scrawled their team name on the rainbow wall that Queer Resource Center staff and supporters painted that same day. These are all things that I have experienced in Claremont, and these are all things that could have been avoided. The list is too long and my memory too short to list more compellingly violent examples. And I also would like to shy away from those spectacles of violence because they allow many people to avoid these smaller aggressions. These smaller events are what caused people to start the unofficial and now defunct “Gay Party Agenda,” which consisted of a whole assortment of queers and allied students crashing “straight” parties. While this was fun, I’m sure we’d rather our party-going experiences were non-aggressive.
The Clementi-Ravi situation comes for us before the month of April, which for the QRC is “Gaypril.” The center has many events planned and most if not all of them are open to the public. All wordplay aside, it is a time for us to remember that there is a system at play that organizes, polices and values different modes of sexual expression differently—and that we all need to be vigilant about our positions toward that system. I don’t predict anything as terrifying as Clementi-Ravi happening here, but I am not going to let that assumption keep me off my toes. And none of us should.