A funny thing happened at the tailgate last weekend. As the festivities were winding down, my friend and I were waiting for someone to pick us up when a group of guys my friend knew drove up and offered her a ride. As they were leaving, she asked them if there was room for one more person. But instead of stopping to pick me up, a guy in the back seat rolled down his window and yelled, “HOMO!”
As I watched them drive off laughing, I wasn’t so much angry or embarrassed as I was confused. Even after my mortified friend asked to be let out of their car immediately and returned to apologize, I was still stunned at the absurdity of what had just taken place. Being both black and gay, it is very fortunate that up until that point in my life, I had been able to avoid blatant racism or, since coming out, homophobia. I was shocked to experience my first encounter of “hate speech” at the place that has been only a source of encouragement and support for me: Yale.
In the days following the incident, I’ve had to ask myself if Yale is the place I thought it was, and how exactly we can work to create an environment where no one would consider such actions acceptable.
I’m not trying to blame Yale for the ignorance of some caveman in a Chevy. For the most part, in fact, I feel secure — almost invulnerable — to incidents like the one I experienced. Yale and its students seek to create an environment where people with different ideas can feel free to express themselves to others. Indeed, it is often these lively exchanges that provide many Yalies with their most significant opportunities to gain the worldly, fully-constructed perspectives we like to pride ourselves on.
Yale even stands strong where its closest peers fall short. While Harvard’s law school is lifting its JAG ban to keep federal funding, a ban that rebukes the military for its discriminatory “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, Yale is awaiting a Supreme Court hearing to defend its own JAG ban. Jeopardizing hundreds of millions of dollars in funding surely demonstrates the Yale community’s commitment to encouraging diversity and not condoning discrimination of any kind. In fact, it is somewhat ironic that on the very day my bubble was burst out at the Yale Bowl, Connecticut’s landmark civil union legislation went into effect. If there were any place that should be impervious to ignorant harassment, it would be Yale. Unfortunately, the truth is that no such place exists.
I suppose I was naive to believe Yale could entirely avoid prejudice. I’ve been lulled into believing that, at least at Yale, we have moved past this type of behavior. An incident like Saturday’s, however, reminds us that in order to keep prejudice and harassment at bay, a candid and honest dialogue must be ongoing — even at Yale. Just because I can now grab my boyfriend and get a civil union at City Hall doesn’t mean that we’re all on the same page when it comes to respecting each other and our differences.
While Yale is the last place it should be okay to jeer someone for being gay, the person who did so was so confident his actions were acceptable that he had no problem disrespecting another student in front of any number of his peers. It is the fact that the individual assumed his actions would be met with impunity that worries me most. If he is so bold as to behave this way here, imagine how much more brazen he’d be where the standard of understanding is not nearly as high. If we are to graduate the type of respectful and socially conscious Yalies we tell the world we do, we must do better. If we are to realize hopes for an open and understanding environment where differences can be discussed and analyzed, not ridiculed, we have to provide forums where this dialogue can be held out in the open — not just late at night in our common rooms.
Rather than chalk this incident up to some boys who had too many swigs of Natty Light, we should see this as an opportunity to discuss our differences in a manner that is much more constructive. Protesting hateful performers who come through Toad’s, though necessary and important, is just one step in combating the narrow, unproductive attitudes that some people here apparently hold.
Pretending that we, in our privileged bubble, are immune from intolerance only ensures that the currents of misunderstanding and fear remain to grow deeper. A constant reassessment of where we are as a community that everyone — not just those who feel the brunt of mistreatment — takes part in is essential if we are to live up to the reputation for social justice that Yale’s community has earned over the centuries. I am confident that this dialogue can grow to include everyone, even those who frequent tailgates.
If we are not up to this challenge, then as a senior nervously anticipating his exit from this place we all call home, I must say that my expectations of the “real world” will grow grimmer. Today, yet another employer is holding a discussion over dinner to assure students how welcoming their workplace is of “diversity” and “tolerance.” It’s a shame that I already find myself trying to stifle my skepticism.
Tre Borden is a senior in Calhoun College.