In the wake of the conviction of a former Rutgers University student on criminal charges of invasion of privacy and bias intimidation based on sexual orientation toward his then-roommate Tyler Clementi, how can institutions respond to issues of harassment of LGBT students on college campuses?
On Sept. 22, 2010, Clementi, an 18-year-old freshman at New Jersey’s Rutgers University, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge after his college roommate, Dharun Ravi, had set up a webcam to spy on him kissing another man.
A jury found Ravi guilty of all 15 counts he faced regarding invasion of Clementi’s privacy and bias intimidation — a hate crime.
Ravi, 20, faces up to 10 years in prison and possible deportation to his native India even though he has lived legally in the United States since he was a little boy. His attorneys have said they will appeal.
The case sheds light on many negative situations that LGBT students often face in colleges and universities around the country.
“The case shows the harassment, the homophobia that is still evident on college campuses. It also shows how young people today have a really different viewpoint on privacy and how the Internet is being used to bully and harass people who have a different sexual orientation or different gender identity,” said Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride.
Campus Pride (www.campuspride.org) is an organization for student leaders and campus groups working to create safer college environments for LGBT students. It noted in a news release, “Verdict in Rutgers webcam spying case ends trial but will not end daily harassment of LGBT college students.”
While many celebrities have made “It Gets Better” videos encouraging gay youth, Windmeyer reminded people, “It doesn’t get better just by picking a college.”
“Campuses need to exercise responsibility pro-actively because lives can be saved,” he said. “Campus Pride’s mission is to help campuses create safer, more LGBT-friendly learning environments. We have a national index, which is a benchmarking tool that has grown since its launch in 2007 in its ability to help campuses create safer, more inclusive practices, policies and programs.”
After the verdict, Rutgers issued this statement: “This tragedy, which will forever affect the lives of the families involved, deeply touched the Rutgers community and the world. Freedom of expression, tolerance, the right to personal privacy and the open discussion of ideas are integral parts of any university community. This sad incident should make us all pause to recognize the importance of civility and mutual respect in the way we live, work and communicate with others.”
Information provided by Rutgers noted there has been “a long and rich history of supporting LGBTQ students on campus, dating back to the founding of the Homophile League in 1969, the second oldest gay student group in the country.”
Windmeyer said having an LGBT student group is not enough.
“Why should it be that the gay students have to take the responsibility for creating their own safety?” he asked.
Campus Pride has a research team that conducts campus climate studies, which an administration can then use to created safe zones and gender-neutral housing. They also have Stop the Hate training programs as well as Camp Pride, an intensive leadership camp for LGBT students and straight allies who want to learn how to become leaders and advocates for change at their schools. There also is an adviser boot camp for faculty, staff and administration.
Dr. Sean Massey, a research associate professor at Binghamton University who does research around sexual behavior and sexual health, said that most students arrive at college unprepared for the independence that comes with college living. Giving LGBT college students resources and safe spaces is good, but to effectively address the roots of a problem such as Ravi’s antagonism toward Clementi based on Clementi’s sexual orientation requires starting open dialogue at a much younger age.
“We need to educate youth in terms of diversity and accepting diversity and difference,” said Massey. “Teaching people proper ways to treat each other is something we need to deal with much earlier than college.”
In 2010 New York State passed the Dignity for All Students Act, which takes effect on July 1. It “seeks to provide the state’s public elementary and secondary school students with a safe and supportive environment free from discrimination, intimidation, taunting, harassment and bullying.” Sexual orientation and gender identity and expression are included in the language.
Behavior will not immediately reflect law, so there is work to be done — especially in states that don’t have such laws.
“We need to teach our youth there has to be respect and appreciation for diversity and that sexual diversity is as valued in our society as any other kind,” Massey said. “I’m not expecting the revolution to come tomorrow, but whatever we do we can’t lose track of where the actual pathology, the actual problem behavior is. That’s what we have to confront.”