Character Sketch: Dharun Ravi

Associated Press
Dharun Ravi, center, is hugged by his father, Ravi Pazhani, as they leave court around noon in New Brunswick, N.J., Friday, after hearing the verdict.

AS AN Indian-born devotee of computers and ultimate Frisbee, Dharun Ravi hardly seemed like the type to intimidate someone to the point of suicide. But in the days after his Rutgers University roommate, Tyler Clementi, jumped from New York’s George Washington Bridge in September 2010, media coverage depicted the Ravi as the instigator of a particularly sadistic form of anti-gay bullying.

It quickly emerged that Ravi had set up a webcam that caught Clementi being intimate with another man, and had prompted other students to watch. One conclusion seemed easy to draw: Clementi took his own life out of humiliation at being observed and outed. This basic story line came to its logical conclusion Friday, when a New Jersey jury convicted Ravi, now 20, of invasion of privacy and of a hate crime called bias intimidation.

Yet even before Ravi’s trial began, the picture changed. In a lengthy, detailed story on the case, New Yorker writer Ian Parker depicted Ravi as being unsettled enough by his roommate’s homosexuality to complain electronically to his friends - but not enough to confront him about it. He wasn’t especially homophobic, Parker suggests; Ravi was an awkward kid, just three weeks into his freshman year of college, who acted in asinine ways at just the wrong times. The author recounts a long text message that Ravi sent to Clementi some minutes too late: “I’ve known you were gay and I have no problem with it. . . . I don’t want your freshman year to be ruined because of a petty misunderstanding, it’s adding to my guilt.’’ Tellingly, the jury that convicted Ravi found that, when he first set up the webcam, he didn’t intend to intimidate Clementi; still, the likelihood that Clementi felt targeted was sufficient to convict.


Left unanswered was whether other factors contributed to Clementi’s decision. Regardless, this tragedy came as sad counterpoint to a YouTube campaign, then gathering force, to encourage gay teens to persevere - and to the ever-rising acceptance of homosexuality with each new generation. It’s still not clear how stark an exception Ravi was to that pattern. But he was typical of his generation in one way. Whatever his prejudices and anxieties might have been, they played out online. With fateful results.