Earlier this month, Yale Law School alumni Samuel Alito LAW ’75 and Brett Kavanaugh ’87 LAW ’90 met with Brian Brown. Brown — according to his biography on the National Organization for Marriage website, of which he is president — “is widely regarded as one of the nation’s foremost advocates for preserving marriage, recognizing its importance to men and women, children and society as a whole.” Translation? Brown opposes the rights of LGBTQ people. Indeed, he’s said that the rights of queer people aren’t rights at all, that homosexuality is “degrading to the human soul” and that same-sex marriage is an affront to the very nature of reality. Seems like pleasant company, but I guess Sam and Brett would be better judges (justices?) of that than I would.
It gets better. Masha Gessen, a writer for The New Yorker and, in my estimation, a queer icon, wrote a column last week describing an interview she had with Brown in May of 2016. “Is there a way that my family and yours can live in peace in the same society?” Gessen asked Brown while the two sat backstage at the World Congress of Families. “I don’t know,” Brown replied. “He smiled — awkwardly,” Gessen writes. “And then he said, ‘No.’”
“Hours later and having put distance between us, the calm, almost casual way in which he said ‘No’ made me feel like I was suffocating.”
This was a rare moment in which the proverbial mask came off. It’s one thing to advocate against a certain group via law and politics, but it’s another thing entirely to state, in no uncertain terms, that a group could not, and should not, exist alongside yours. Or is it?
It’s one thing to say that a group cannot, should not, exist alongside yours, but it’s another thing entirely to believe that a group cannot, should not, exist at all. Or is it?
Let’s set those questions aside for a moment. Gessen and Brown’s exchange called to mind instances in my own life in which people have told me how they really felt. “Diversity and the Yale Daily News just don’t mix,” a former editor at the News told me after I said that I was interested in bringing in more people of color to write for us. And yes, he was — you didn’t even have to ask. “I’m just interested in seeing Gillibrand win because she’s pretty,” a professor commented to a fellow student when talking about the 2020 primary race. He was, too. “She just got that job at Facebook because she’s a woman,” a fellow student said to me and a friend in a moment of anger. Him, too.
I once struck up a conversation with a highly respected professor in the English Department, a prolific writer and winner of awards, a so-called public intellectual. Because I thought he’d be interested in speaking with me about my thesis, I explained to him that I had been conducting research into the intellectual history of conservatism through the Mellon Mays Fellowship, a program designed to increase the number of minority students going into academia. “You mean there isn’t enough of that already?” he asked me in between bites of a grilled cheese sandwich. I looked down at my tomato soup, ashamed. And yes, of course he was — really, did you even have to ask?
After reading the Gessen piece, I thought about the implications of Brown meeting with Alito and Kavanaugh. I thought about the implications of a man, one who believes that queer people and straight people can’t exist alongside each other, meeting with two of the most powerful men in the country. After reading the Gessen piece, I thought about that former editor working with black and brown writers, working with me. I imagined what it must have been like to see us through his eyes. I imagined what it must be like to look at someone and think all the while “you and this institution, you don’t mix.” I thought about that professor and his comments about Kirsten Gillibrand, about all his female students and advisees and how he must treat them, perhaps without his even knowing or being aware of it. I thought about that peer, that angry and bitter and jealous peer, who, if he chalks up a woman’s success in Silicon Valley to her gender, must attribute the success of black and brown people to their race and perhaps attributes my own success to not being white. I thought about that professor, looking at the one or two black colleagues in his department and thinking “Yup, that’s enough.”
“You’re a snowflake just like the rest of the Yalies!” my digital detractors will exclaim as they froth at the mouth, their fingers bent and gnarled after years of internet commenting and trolling. That’s a column for another time, but for now, I borrow the words of the inimitable Alyssa Edwards, drag queen and fellow Texan: “Don’t get bitter, just get better.” Always and forever, Adrian J. Rivera. More seriously, don’t be homophobic, sexist or racist? Just a thought? Maybe?
Some people will read this and think “People are homophobic, sexist and racist? We been knew, sis!” Indeed we have, but let this serve as a reminder. Let this serve as a warning for those who are quick to dismiss little incidents like these that are perhaps indicative of more consequential beliefs, beliefs that manifest into everyday practices and attitudes, beliefs that affect others. Once upon a time, and this really is another column, I would look past comments like the ones I’ve just described, dismissing them as one-offs. I needed thick skin, I told myself. But now, to paraphrase Maya Angelou, when people show me who they are, I believe them. I think about how those comments fit into a person’s larger worldview, and I don’t forget them. We have to watch out for ourselves, for each other and most importantly, in the words of Jay-Z, we have to “watch the throne.” Get to watchin’.
ADRIAN RIVERA is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. His column runs every other week. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .