Dharun Ravi, Homophobia, and Race

Christine Quinn, the head honchessa of New York’s City Council, tied the knot with another girl on Saturday, May 19, the same day the NAACP came out in support of marriage for all. I was happy to hear the announcement, but not particularly surprised. Just like I wasn’t surprised either by the idiot black preachers in North Carolina raising their hands to God and inciting their congregations to hate.

Some people evolve. Like Obama. Like the NAACP. Others don’t. Mitt Romney. The most Reverend Ruben Diaz. The Holy See.

The only big ugly secret about black homophobia is that it’s just like white homophobia, only with a different color scheme. The epidemic is particularly virulent in fundamentalist churches and in communities (and nations) of all races where people are poor and angry –– and their spiritual immune systems are already compromised, no matter how loud they pray.

It’s tempting to focus our attention there. That’s real homophobia –– queers getting denounced from pulpits, hatred formalized in anti-gay laws that almost always lead to attacks and gay-bashing. If not executions.

But hatred is almost as insidious when it’s that casual kind of bigotry people indulge in because jokes need their butts. It’s nice to have somebody around that you can kick for a laugh. Reduce in size to pump up your own ego, which so often feeds on the shame and humiliation of others.

It’s why Dharun Ravi doesn’t feel guilty for the death of Tyler Clementi, his roommate at Rutgers. He’s not a homophobe. Not him. It was just a prank, setting up that webcam. It’s not like he chased Ty into traffic wielding a baseball bat. Or pushed him from the bridge.

I remember myself at 18, and the panic and horror I felt when the door to my dorm room popped open and my roommate walked in and saw me messing around with a girl. She retreated as fast as she could and was actually pretty cool about it, saying to put a note or something on the door next time. But there wasn’t a next time, not in that room anyway. I was too ashamed.

I can’t imagine what I would have done if I’d found out other people had actually watched. Seen me fumbling with a girl almost for the first time. Me touching her, her touching me. If my roommate had spread the word to 150 of her Twitter followers making fun of me, I would have been desperate, too. Especially if she continued to issue invitations promising more fun to come.

Ravi posted, “People are having a viewing party with a bottle of Bacardi and beer in this kid’s room for my roommate” and “Be careful it could get nasty” and “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.”

The word “rape” springs to mind. Where the point isn’t the physical attack, the sex, but the dominance and humiliation. Because let’s be honest. Ravi knew what he was doing. Had a clear intent to diminish Tyler, make him less than human. Multiply his shame with the number of witnesses. He didn’t need a pulpit to assemble a jeering mob.

It worked. Tyler apparently viewed Ravi’s Twitter posts 38 times. Tried to tell the school administration and take appropriate action. He asked for a different roommate. Tried to tell himself it wasn’t that big a deal. But it didn’t work. He couldn’t live with the humiliation. Killed himself. Was pushed.

If Ravi lied about what he did and tried to cover it up, erasing tweets, getting rid of posts, it wasn’t from shame. It was just because it would be an awful lot of trouble.

It’s worth saying his homophobia had nothing to do with his ethnicity, though India doesn’t exactly embrace queers. In fact, this kind of jolly American bullying shows his perfect assimilation into a country that talks a lot about equality, but doesn’t really aspire to it.

Queer activists are no better. Half our failures are because our campaigns have been blinded by race or class. The exit polls on the Prop 8 debacle in California showed African Americans had been important movers in dumping same-sex marriage. But was the problem that black people were somehow intrinsically more homophobic than white ones, or that our wise gay leaders saw those differences, believed they were more than skin deep, and abandoned the fight? They rarely shape campaigns for poor neighborhoods, especially ones that are full of minorities. As if they never vote.

It’s time to for us all to admit that equality shouldn’t just be a goal for the LGBT community, it should be our whole strategy. We should see everyone as a potential partner, as capable of change. In fact, we should demand it. The NAACP has opened a door. We should dash through it. Celebrate.