Be part of the solution
Last month, Rutgers University freshman Tyler Clementi jumped off the George Washington bridge after his college roommate publicized surreptitious video of the 18-year-old having sex with another man. This tragedy, just one of at least four other similar suicides in the last month, comes in the context of a recent study that:
“documents the experiences of over 5,000 students, faculty members, staff members, and administrators who identify as LGBTQQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Questioning, & Queer) at colleges and universities across the United States.”
The findings are troubling:
- 23 percent of LGBT respondents were significantly more likely to experience harassment when compared with their heterosexual counterparts (12 percent) and were seven times more likely to indicate the harassment was based on their sexual identity (83 percent, 12 percent, respectively).
- 66 percent of respondents who identified as gay or similar were most often targets of derogatory remarks, while 53 percent of lesbians or similar were most likely ignored deliberately or excluded. 44 percent of queer respondents were most often stared at or singled out as resident authority due to their identity.
- LGBT respondents more often seriously considered leaving their institution, avoided LGBT areas of campus, feared for their physical safety due to sexual identity, and avoided disclosure of sexual identity due to intimidation and fear of negative consequences.
The above is a small portion of the complicated findings outlined by the study, especially in regards to the lived experience of transmasculine and transfeminine respondents, and respondents at the “intersection of multiple identities” such as LGBT respondents of color. I hope you’ll take the time to read and consider the complete findings.
What can be done?
Although targeted directly at colleges, some of the “best practices” identified in the study to help LGBT people feel safe and welcome may also be applied to our larger community:
- Develop inclusive policies. In other words, we need to explicitly welcome LGBT people into our communities.
- Demonstrate institutional commitment. We can, in our workplaces and social groups, integrate LGBT concerns into our practices. Here’s what the study says:
“Even the simplest steps, such as creating inclusive wording on documents, creates brave space in which LGBTQQ individuals are free to be themselves. Due to the high rate of harassment/discrimination experienced by people who do not fit the socially constructed categories of sexual identity, gender identity, and gender expression, procedures that directly respond to acts of intolerance are especially needed.”
- Respond appropriately to anti-LGBTQQ incidents/bias. Don’t put up with it. Defend your friends and your loved ones. When you hear something hurtful, ask the speaker what they mean and why they feel the way they do. Let them know that you don’t agree and that you won’t participate. Prepare yourself now to do the right thing.
A matter of freedom
This issue affects us all. I believe that our communities benefit when we are free to be the people we’d like to be. The freedom for each of us to pursue our happiness, to feel safe, and to openly engage in civic discourse is widely regarded as foundational to the American experiment. As long as our political, social and commercial institutions encourage some Americans to feel like second-class citizens, and to tolerate policies that justify and accommodate bigotry and intolerance, none of our rights are secure.
As long as there are groups of people who cannot enjoy the same rights as other Americans – like marrying the person you love, or practicing your religion (or being free to not practice religion), or speaking your mind, our rights are only protected insofar as they align or are permitted by the values of the powerful and the popular.
This isn’t real freedom for any of us.
For those of us who feel sufficiently free within this arrangement, it is only because we are fortunate to conform closely enough to the broader culture to be content. In other words, the yoke doesn’t chafe us too much. I am like this, mostly. I fit comfortably enough into mainstream American culture without too much chafing or blistering. After all, I enjoy sports, most action movies, and the opposite sex. I look and talk basically like most male Americans of my age, race and class. If, as Robert Frost says, freedom is “being easy in the harness,” then I guess I’m fairly free.
Still, the harness doesn’t fit me perfectly. There are places where it is too tight, other places where it hangs loose. This shouldn’t be a surprise. We don’t all want the same sorts of things. Nor do we find purpose and meaning in the same places. In short, there are many ways to find happiness.
Unfortunately, some people insist that their way of finding happiness is the best or most appropriate for everyone. Those of us who value the many ways to be free must all work together to build a harness that allows for people to be easy in it.
We must work for this not only because it is valuable – and part of the American character – to expand access to freedom, but also because it solidifies our own rights and freedoms. If power and popularity are what determines what we can and can’t do, then we are only free so long as we agree with either those in power or with what is popular. That’s too tight a harness for me.
It gets better
In the meantime, there are a growing number of resources available to the LGBT community. Check out Dan Savage’s recently launched YouTube channel where grown-up members of the LGBT community tell stories about how things got better for them over time.
Here in Las Cruces, there’s a new LBGTQ center, the only one in New Mexico. Read more about it here. At New Mexico State University, check out the Sexual and Gender Diversity Resource Center. Reach out to these groups (and others, like PFLAG), if you can. I bet there’s some way you can help.
Take care of each other
At the end of class, at the end of each week, I exhort my college students to be careful and to take care of each other. Many roll their eyes, but I think deep down they appreciate my concern. It’s easy to get wrapped up in our lives and concerns and to lose track of those around us who might be struggling. To that end, I feel deep sadness for Dharun Ravi and Molly Wei, Tyler Clementi’s classmates who posted the video that likely contributed to him killing himself.
I understand the outrage that many people feel toward them – I feel that too. But, without being able to read their minds, I can’t help but believe that they didn’t hope or anticipate this outcome for Clementi. What did they hope would happen? Surely no good; that’s certain.
But they’re foolish people, hardly more than children. That’s not the same as being evil. Their lives, along with the lives of their friends and families, are changed forever as a result of their mean-spirited and foolish actions. They should be punished for whatever are the names of the crimes they committed.
But, if I’m being honest, I too have been cruel. I’m endlessly thankful that no one has yet taken my bad behavior seriously enough to hurt themselves. I consider myself warned.
I hope that we can see this tragedy as a call to not only dedicate ourselves to protecting and expanding the freedom of all people, rather than just those whose behavior we prefer, or is preferred by the powerful, or is popular with the majority of Americans, but also as a reminder that we have a responsibility to take care of each other. By working to increase access to freedom for everyone and by taking care of each other, we can become a part of the solution.
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