I should be doing homework right now. I’m in the middle of the worst midterm period I’ve had during my eight semesters at Williams and have a major job interview coming up as well. Yet here I am, writing an op-ed, because somebody did something that is supposed to offend me. This happens too frequently on our campus, and I’m tired of having to deal with it.
You all got the e-mail. Last Friday, President Falk, Dean Bolton and College Council Co-Presidents Francesca Barrett ’11 and Nick Fogel ’11 notified the student body that posters for two queer-related events on campus had been defaced. As a member of the Dively Committee for Human Sexuality and Diversity, I helped promote one of the events, the public lectures by well-regarded cartoonist Alison Bechdel, which was co-sponsored by several academic departments and the president’s office. The posters were viewed by some to be provocative, even offensive – both of which are certainly valid opinions. However, I feel that they were no more sexual than posters I have seen promoting a number of other student events and groups.
The language found on the posters was undoubtedly homophobic and has no place on this campus. But I am still torn as to how to react. Part of me does not want to deign to respond to such ignorance, even to condemn it. But if I say and do nothing, I am allowing myself to be once again silenced, and I am failing to assert my rights as a member of this community.
My first reaction upon hearing what had been written on the posters wasn’t anger; It was laughter at the sheer ignorance of the message and at the assumption that this anonymous message could seriously offend me. To whoever wrote the message, a) you clearly know nothing about the average lesbian’s sex life, b) some of my best friends and closest family members are men, and c) I have survived too much negative commentary from my family and from my church for a few words on a poster to bother or scare me.
My second reaction was to chastise myself for being so desensitized. Words matter because they reflect attitudes. I am just as much a member of this campus as any other student, faculty or staff member, and I deserve the same amount of respect. To allow any such language to go unnoticed, no matter how public or private, transforms Williams into an unsafe community, a place that whispers “you are not welcome” although it wouldn’t dare say it to your face.
I’ve faced this dilemma before at Williams, both in 2008 when a racial slur was found on someone’s whiteboard and in 2009 when a homophobic word was scrawled on a wall in Mission. In both instances, students banded together to protest and real changes were made. That kind of reaction, though, should not have to happen so frequently.
To deface a poster is to be a coward, to deny ownership of one’s thoughts and feelings. Rather than promoting free speech, it smothers dialogue before it can even begin. The Williams community should be able to have real, open conversations about homophobia and other issues without resorting to extreme measures. Part of that burden of starting those dialogues needs to be shifted from the Minority Coalition (MinCo) to those groups or individuals who are offended. The political correctness at this school can be overwhelming and serves to silence those who may be offended by posters like Alison Bechdel’s. I know what it’s like to be silenced, but the only way to fix it is to start talking, not to lash out.
The Dively Committee and I would have welcomed feedback on the posters in any number of non-anonymous forms: e-mail, WSO, even counter-postering. Despite my opening paragraph, I love procrastinating: Shoot me an email and I’m glad to have coffee with you and hear you out. We may not be able to agree, but at least by talking face-to-face we will remind each other of what is most important. We are all stressed-out Williams students and as such, we deserve to learn in a safe, positive environment to the extent possible. We all have a responsibility to each other to create that environment and to let each other finish our homework in peace.
Casey Lyons ’11 is a chemistry major from Olney, Md. She lives in Milham.