Today, Indian-American Dharun Ravi was sentenced with the surprisingly light sentence of thirty days in prison for stalking his roommate, Tyler Clementi, eventually leading to his suicide. I don’t think many people have examined the fact that the homophobic bully Mr. Ravi is Indian, but as an Indian-American I think that this is a concern worth exploring and discussing because it is an issue that should concern all Indians in the diaspora.
Homophobia is an extremely troubling issue within India. According to a recent survey, 73% of Indians believe that homosexual acts should be illegal. 83% believe that “homosexuality is against Indian culture.” 76% of parents are not comfortable even bringing up discussions of homosexuality with their children.
Indian-Americans are a woefully understudied demographic in America, despite our growing prominence in American society. There is no real study on homophobia within Indian-American community. For the most part, the best that Indian-Americans can offer is observations and speculation. Unlike many other Asian-American communities, Indians are relatively recent arrivals to America, like Dharun Ravi’s family. As such, our social and traditional connections to India are still strong, either through our grandparents, our parents, or ourselves.
Social indicators provide useful information about the social characteristics of Indian-Americans. As the New York Times reported, unlike other demographics, Asian-Americans are tending to marry within their race. Indian-Americans stand out amongst this trend as the most likely to marry within their race. The image below is taken from Dr. C.N Le’s data on interracial marriage amongst Asian-Americans.
I personally feel that this is a good indicator of the general social outlook of Indian-Americans; a clear tendency to self-segregate within their own communities, to embrace assimilation within American culture but only to a certain degree, particularly where professional concerns are relevant. Civic and political participation, aside from notable exceptions like Bobby Jindal, is not a very visible element of the Indian-American community.
How is this relevant? I feel as though the Indian-American community is very strongly socially rooted in the heavily stratified, family-oriented, and patriarchal tradition of India in a way that mimicks the stories of any number of new ethnic arrivals to America. It may not be common knowledge, but Indian-American parents still seek out marriage arrangements for their children based on the caste system; simply browse to any Indian matrimonial site and you will still see caste as an important qualifying feature.
The younger generations of Indian-American immigrants, of which I am a part, are part of a vivid and brilliant community of new arrivals to America, highly educated and present in any number of professions. At the same time, Indian-Americans are connected to the traditions and norms of Indian society in a very clear and present way, homophobia being a very strong part. South Asian LGBTs attest to the fact that Indian LGBTs live in fear of their parents disowning them for coming out of the closet.
It goes without saying that the horrible crime of Mr. Ravi does not bear on the Indian community as a whole, and none of us is liable to apologize for him. At the same time there’s something unmistakably familiar about his sexual ignorance, one borne out in the poll cited above. As a product of his culture, it isn’t difficult to see where the discomfort and ignorance of Dharun Ravi towards his roommate came from. I hope that the case of Mr. Ravi is not ignored by the Indian-American community as a bad apple and this generates serious discussion on the social outlook of the Indian diaspora and the way Indian parents talk to their children about sexuality.
About MeNews producer. Blogger on politics and culture of the Middle East, specializing in issues of public diplomacy.
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