05/21/2012 01:59 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Ravi, Romney, and Anti-Gay Bullying: What a Difference 50 Years Makes

The Dharun Ravi verdict and sentencing represents a dramatic shift in society's view of anti-gay bullying and of bias crimes against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. Just compare what Ravi did to Tyler Clementi to what Mitt Romney did to a nonconforming student at his prep school in 1965, according to five of his classmates who spoke to The Washington Post. Ravi spied on his gay roommate and humiliated him, or as the charge stated, intimidated him. He was convicted of several crimes.

Mitt Romney and his buddies not only bullied a boy who some perceived to be gay, but engaged in what very much looks like an antigay assault, holding down the crying boy while Romney cut his hair. It was what we would today call outright gay-bashing. Romney not only didn't face any criminal penalty but there were no ramifications for him at his prep school. At the time, such acts were sloughed off with a "boys will be boys'" mentality. Today, we've been seriously debating whether a student who intimidated -- but didn't physically assault -- his roommate should have received 10 years in jail and be deported versus a lighter sentence.

Of course, the fact that Tyler Clementi committed suicide had a major impact on the Ravi case, and it's perhaps unfair in that respect to compare the two. But where they can be compared is on the fact that there are laws in place -- bias crimes statutes to be precise -- that simply were not on the books in the 1960s, protecting gays. Even if law enforcement wanted to file charges against Romney, there would be no bias crime, which is what ultimately could add years of prison onto any sentence, including in Ravi's case.

And no matter what the charges, no jury in 1965 would take seriously antigay bias. Such bias was simply acceptable, even encouraged in society. As I described in a previous post, in Romney's teen years the entire country, gripped in Cold War hysteria, was still in the midst of a homosexual panic, seeing gays as dangerous and subversive.

That's obviously changed greatly, to the point where the President of the United States supports marriage equality. What we're grappling with now is the extent to which hate crimes laws which protect LGBT people should go in prosecuting those who break such laws. Many have believed that Ravi was wrongly convicted. But in fact, as I argued two months ago, the jury did its job.

Ravi had ample opportunity to take a plea that would have kept him from serving any time and the chances were good he'd not be deported. Ravi's attorneys were hoping that the attitudes nurtured in the time of Romney's teen years were still with us, putting their faith in a homophobic justice system. We've seen case after case over the years (and still today) where "gay panic" was used successfully to defend a criminal -- excusing the crime because the defendant's homophobia was supposedly understandable in a society where homosexuality is not accepted by many.

That was a miscalculation on the part of Ravi's attorneys. The system worked. But that doesn't mean Ravi should have had the book thrown at him (and I expressed that emphatically back in March as well).

New Jersey Superior Court Judge Glenn Berman called Ravi's actions "cold, calculated and methodically" planned. The judge also made clear that he never used the word "hate" and that the law is not a "hate" crime law but a bias crime law. In addition to 30 days jail time he fined Ravi $10,000, which will go to groups aiding victims of bias crimes. Hopefully, an immigration judge will follow the judge's recommendation that Ravi not be deported. (Since his prison term is less than two years, deportation is unlikely.)

We can debate whether the judge was too lenient or made the right call -- I think he did -- but this is clearly much more than what 18-year-old Mitt Romney got for allegedly doing far worse. And it shows that we've come a long way in our understanding of bullying and bias against gays.