Residence Culture Clashes: Reform, Not Just Inform
Queer education is not the only solution to uncomfortable situations in residence
10 Apr, 2012 5:43
On September 22nd, 2010, Tyler Clementi committed suicide by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. His roommate, Dharun Ravi, had recorded Clementi, a gay freshman at Rutgers University, via webcam while conducting homosexual activities in his room. Ravi uploaded posts about his recording on the popular website Twitter alongside messages such as, “Yeah, keep the gays away,” and “Anyone with iChat, I dare you to video chat me between the hours of 9:30 and 12. Yes, it’s happening again.” Clementi viewed these ‘tweets’, understood the full extent of Ravi’s surveillance, and ultimately chose to take his life. On March 16, 2012, Dharun Ravi was found guilty of 15 criminal charges for his role in the affair, including invasion of privacy and witness and evidence tampering. As such, he faces the possibility of incarceration and deportation to his home in India.
While altogether tragic, this event simply highlights the stark intolerance that Clementi faced during his transition from high school to university life. Sadly, this problem is being experienced by thousands of youth across the world and, while not always ending in suicide, it stunts the social development of gay teens, and leeches their quality of life. In colleges around the world, homophobia is on the way out, but as Clementi’s suicide shows, the path to universal tolerance is beset with pitfalls and impediments. As such, the current standards are simply incapable to meet the needs of those who require aid and further strategies must be implemented.
Core to this change must start with the residences, where the bulk of student relationships are formulated and where Tyler Clementi was driven to take his own life. While McGill residences have done a superb job of fighting intolerance through the implementation of ‘safe spaces’, it is important to keep improving. And although treading on sensitive waters, there should be some effort to identify potential conflicts between roommates early during the year and take appropriate steps such as relocating those who would have a problem with a queer roommate. While education about these issues is important, it is equally crucial to avoid creating potentially volatile situations, as shown by Clementi’s suicide. Granted, some might consider these issues private, frank discussion either between roommates or with the residence administration creates a safer living space and reduces levels of awkwardness between roommates. In effect, all students benefit from this arrangement.
After Clementi realized his actions were being recorded by Ravi, he filed a report to his resident assistant and requested a different dorm room. His comment, “Roommate with webcam spying on me/want a single room,” was included with the request. However, administration did not respond to this request until it was too late. For this reason, university administrators must acknowledge complaints such as these much more promptly. While it is very difficult and time consuming to move residents into different rooms, solid lines of communication must be open for harassed students to know that their voices are being heard and work is being done to investigate and resolve their situation. Had Tyler Clementi received a faster and more sympathetic response to his request, he might still be alive today. To this end, McGill has been largely successful in handling such matters, but sadly such a state cannot be said for other institutions where clear responses are just as important.
Ultimately, the dilemma of social norms and comfort levels is undoubtedly a tough situation, more so for the transition between secondary and post-secondary education. As shown by Clementi’s untimely death, education cannot be the only answer to these problems and concrete changes to how the university is run must be made. Most importantly, while the university is free to hold workshops and discussions that reduce homophobia, it must also take steps to deal with a situation where roommates are uncomfortable with each other. Changes need to be made on campus not only to prevent suicides like Clementi’s, but to improve the lives of students struggling with alienation, social acceptance and discrimination.