Fordham Law

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

Sonia Katyal on WNYC, March 14, 2012

Media Source

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.'"

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.