The Dharun Ravi Trial: What Exactly Is Hate?

Dharun Ravi and his legal team -- the same legal team that had him refuse to take a plea -- are now taking his case to the media, trying to capitalize on the view, shared by many, that the verdict is too harsh because Ravi could get 10 years in prison and be deported. Found guilty of spying on Rutgers student Tyler Clementi and of hate crimes charges, Ravi, along with his team, is clearly hoping, as he pursues an appeal, that he can get sympathy from a public that doesn't understand hate crimes laws and which is not very sensitive to anti-gay bias.

In other words, just as his legal team put faith in what they hoped was a homophobic judicial system by refusing a plea that would have spared Ravi jail time, they're now putting faith in what they hope is a homophobic American culture.

"I wasn't biased," Ravi told the Newark Star-Ledger. "I didn't act out of hate and I wasn't uncomfortable with Tyler being gay." On ABC's 20/20, Chris Cuomo -- who, at least from the preview, is clearly in Ravi's camp, not showing even a modicum of objectivity -- asks Ravi if he hates gay people. The answer -- shocker! -- is no.

Wow. Try asking George Zimmerman if he hates black people. He'll tell you no, too.

And no, I am not in any way comparing Ravi and his crimes to the brutal shooting of Trayvon Martin by Zimmerman. What I am saying is that no one admits to hate -- it's a bit of a highly charged word -- and hate crimes laws are not meant to simply be used against those who act out in what we all see as a viscerally hateful, slur-spitting, violent way.

Let's start here: we all hate or have hated gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people. Most of us have not wanted to kill them or hurt them. But we've all hated them. We were all raised hating gay people, in a society that hates gay people. It's the cornerstone of our major religious faiths, which are adhered to by the vast majority of Americans.

I'm gay, and I grew up hating gay people. I grew up hating myself. My church, the Catholic Church, told me I had to hate the sin -- even though I couldn't separate the sinner, myself, from it.

It took me a lot of years to get over hating gay people -- and I certainly hadn't finished by the age of 18, the age of both Tyler Clementi and Dharun Ravi. I sometimes wonder, in my darkest moments, if I truly have gotten over it even now, and I bet many of you, particularly those of you who are not gay, might wonder the same thing in those dark moments.

As I said, hate doesn't mean I wanted to exact violence on gay people. It means I had a bias toward them. I believed them to be something not normal.

And that is what hate crimes laws are meant to address and help change over time in our society. Bias charges are attached to a crime -- any crime, not just one of violence -- in which part of the motivation was based on the idea that this person, the victim of the crime, is not normal or equal to others.

When Dharun Ravi says he doesn't hate gay people, he obviously means in the sense of wanting to exact violence against them, the more visceral idea of hate. But it is clear from everything that came out in the trial that he was not comfortable with gay people, and his attorney even admitted this in closing arguments (even if Ravi claims differently now). "An 18-year-old boy, a kid, a college freshman ... had an experience that he wasn't ready for," Ravi's attorney told the court, regarding having a gay roommate. "And he didn't know how to deal with it because he was a kid." Ravi didn't want a gay roommate.

Ravi is now claiming he couldn't take the plea because he couldn't admit bias against Clementi. Yet, the charge, bias intimidation, is something that is pretty clearly revealed in trial: if Tyler were not gay, and if he were not with another gay man in his room, none of this would have happened.

It's more likely that Ravi didn't take the plea because the prosecutor couldn't completely guarantee he'd not be deported, even though it looked good for him. He decided to roll the dice, and lost big. I have argued that the verdict was just even though I don't believe Ravi should be deported, nor that he should get 10 years in jail. I'm hoping the judge and immigration officials will be fair.

But let's not lose sight here of what bias is, what discrimination is about, and what exactly constitutes hate, which we all grow up with toward many groups. We'd not be talking about this as a "prank" if Ravi had said he didn't want to have a black roommate and then spied on his black roommate with a webcam and tried to embarrass him based on something connected to his blackness. We'd not be calling it a prank if Ravi had targeted his Jewish roommate to mock him for being Jewish.

I keep hearing from those who say, "Well, if Clementi were with a girl and this happened, no one would call it a hate crime." Precisely. This is not about the sex, and it wasn't thus a sexual prank. It was about Tyler's identity. It was about mocking him for being gay. That is bias, and it's part of the hate we all grow up with in a society that hates gays. The crime Ravi committed should not be punished severely or with deportation, but any way you slice it, it was motivated by that bias we all share.