Much as it kills me to be positive (these columns are easier to write when I’m tearing someone down for using scare quotes inappropriately), I’m impressed with how most of Yale reacted this past Oct. 11. When the National Organization to Gain Acceptance for Your Sins (NOGAYS) sent out an e-mail implicitly comparing homosexuality to Nazism and posted similar fliers on National Coming Out Day, Yale was justifiably distressed at so brazen an attack on its own. Though most people focused on turning this into an opportunity for constructive speech (siiick), there were some who called on the University to discipline those responsible for their obnoxious, but legitimate, expression (less siiick). These demands are a threat in their own right, and so long as we’re hopped up on dialogue, Yale needs to speak out for speech.
Folks who felt threatened by the e-mails and posters shouldn’t worry; Yale is still really, really gay. Like, totally gay. There’s a reason these kids wanted anonymity: They knew they’d face condemnation from the Yale community, in which homophobia is frowned upon almost as much as Nazism. That isn’t to say that Yale has evolved beyond labels (Sam is labeled “straight”), nor that everyone here is comfortable with two guys holding hands. But at least folks here keep their prejudices to themselves — they bottle it up and let it fester deep inside their dark, withered souls. That’s how a civilized society works.
But even if Yale is gay-friendly, there are a lot of places that aren’t, which is why every Yalie interested in advancing gay rights should read that e-mail very carefully. It’s tempting to forget that much of America views homosexuality as a choice instead of an immutable identity. Some of these people come up with clever acronyms and less clever posters, but it’s the rest that activists will have to convince — after all, there’s no way people will extend marriage’s privileged legal and cultural status to what they perceive as a deviant sex act. It’s looking less likely that judges outside Massachusetts and Jersey are going to have too much coffee and decide legislating from the bench would be hi-larious, so these rights will have to come about the old-fashioned way: convincing the voting public of their merits.
Appealing to some higher power to wail on people who hold offensive views won’t work in the real world, and it certainly shouldn’t work at Yale — although some individuals don’t agree. In his letter to the editor (“Administration should out sender of hateful e-mails,” 10/13), Andrew Beatty states, “The perpetrator should not be punished, as freedom of expression is a valued characteristic of Yale,” before inexplicably demanding that our administration “track the sender of the e-mail and … out him or her to the Yale community.” Peter Hamilton’s column (“Lack of accountability is disturbing,” 10/17) is worse. He decries the disservice Yale is doing to its student body “by keeping … this homophobe enrolled in this school” and complains, “It also seems that unsolicited hate speech in your inbox is just ‘expressing your opinion.’ ” (Ha, I knew I’d find obnoxious scare quotes sooner or later.) He asserts that “hate speech should never be tolerated … by an institution as good and high-minded as Yale.”
If this were how Yale worked, I would have been expelled a while ago. Specifically, last April. Fortunately for me and for Yale’s integrity as an institution of higher education, Yale necessarily tolerates every form of speech and expression — it’s how it remains so “good and high-minded.” Outing this anti-gay posse, to say nothing of expelling it, poses a real threat to the free exchange of ideas at Yale, without which Yale isn’t much more than IMs and Toad’s (which could be fun). That’s why it was heartening to read Queer Political Action Committee coordinator Hugh Baran reason, “I’m not as interested in punishing the individual as having a real conversation about why something so outrageously anti-gay is possible.” Same for Dean Trachtenberg’s saying Yale won’t take any disciplinary action against the perpetrator (“ITS finds anti-gay e-mailer,” 10/16).
I consider all of us at Yale lucky that our administrators have their heads on straight, to say nothing of our fellow students. The urge to use disciplinary action as a weapon against those who espouse unpopular ideas is, frankly, a menace, both to the University’s mission and to democracy itself. Hamilton complains about the “conspicuous absence of disciplinary action”; I just appreciate the fact that Yale was willing to use this to work toward something better.
Sam Heller is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on alternate Fridays.