Members of our community who object to being harassed by homophobic words and actions often get harassed again, accused of making a big deal of a small thing. Some of us who object to this pattern are circulating, this week, open letters to the community decrying an atmosphere that does not feel safe. I wanted to add my word to those letters. I want, in particular, to say why homophobic harassment is not a small thing.
Sometimes when members of my staff talk to people who have made homophobic remarks (as an example), the people who have made these remarks will be surprised that we are taking it seriously. They will talk about how it was common in high school, how they sometimes call their friends “faggot,” just as a joke, while they are fooling around. That they didn’t really mean anything by it. This is often, I think, perfectly true: these people are not making it up as an attempt to avoid trouble. And so gay people (our friends, our neighbors, our teachers, ourselves) are daily reduced to a kind of epithet, a thoughtless insult.
Part of the reason this is bad is direct, immediate, and not hard to understand. We hear it, our friends hear it, and are hurt right there, instantly. Dignity is shaved away, and we feel categorically dismissed, turned into a thing. We have all felt this way as the result of any insult: all our complex insides, our life, our interests and struggles, the complexity that is the same as everyone else’s, is suddenly shoved aside, and we are just a category. The thoughtlessness of such things is not a defense: it is in fact the crime.
Homophobic remarks and small acts of homophobic harassment are immediately and humanly bad in this way, like any insult. But they are currently bad in other ways, because of the cultural moment at which we find ourselves.
It is still legal to do bad things to people because of sexual orientation. Indeed, there are many places in our culture, such as the military, where we are in fact required by law to oppress people because of their sexual orientation. And so harassment easily slides into something bigger: firing someone from a job, for instance, or denying them some basic service. And then, after a deceptively short step, we have Matthew Shepard, and many others, killed or maimed because somehow it didn’t seem to matter. The oppression of citizens on the basis of sexual orientation is a blot on American culture, an actual, plain evil, with plainly evil effects.
I think that there really is an unbroken chain of cause and effect from the homophobic remark to the death of Matthew Shepard. We may have to think to see it, but at Williams we are supposed to be doing that every day, thinking out how the world is made so that we may be better citizens. Harassment is especially unforgivable at Williams, where we pride ourselves on our intimate community, on our exploration of the world, and on the safety we grant to people trying out thoughts and saying new things. That is what education of our sort is all about. And so we should know that dehumanizing anyone is a terrible thing, for everyday and not so everyday reasons. We are supposed to be thinking.
Some of the progress we need to make is very straightforward. Victims of harassment need to report those incidents; they need to have courage while they are criticized and harassed for doing so. The Security Department and The Dean’s Office need to follow up on these reports, and educate and punish where necessary. This is the foundation, as the exertion of federal legal protection was an important foundation of the civil rights movement. The protection of the oppressed is always a fundamental responsibility of authority, and I am entirely committed to this protection. It will have an effect as time goes by.
But the real progress, which builds on this foundation, cannot come solely from discipline. It must come from a growth in the awareness of the whole community, a real learning about the evil of homophobia, a real understanding that we cannot tolerate that anyone in our community should feel in danger here, exposed to evil glances, words and actions. Such things are death to the cordon of safety we draw around the College, the cordon that creates the environment of learning. Danger to any is a danger to all.
This greater learning is actually harder than the investigation of incidents. It takes broad discussion, the commitment of years. And so I am glad to see the open letters, the support of the CDC, the CUL, the faculty, and College Council. But statements of support alone are not going to solve this problem. It takes real understanding, which we need to teach each other in daily ways, every day. Luckily, that is what we are good at: it is what we do. And so if we try, we should be successful.