The Breakthrough Voice 8th November, 2016

Rethinking Free Speech.

‘What do you call an annoying gay man? A pain in the arse.’

Why should jokes even make a difference, right? They’re meant to be in good humor. I shouldn’t feel insulted or hurt if such jokes trivialize my identity, and if I do, then it is because I’m just ‘too sensitive’. Isn’t college a difficult enough time, for me to not have to navigate through a barrage of comments, questions and jokes? Does it make me an unpalatable ‘minority’ if I feel insulted at obnoxious questions concerning my identity? No, I refuse to sit down and explain how ‘sex’ takes place between non-straight couples, and I refuse to be called over-sensitive at this refusal. For a change, I will think about myself, to protect myself from ideas and expressions, which hit at my dignity.  

When young students enter university spaces, they’ve left their homes for the first time, on a path to self-discovery. This is a time when they get to shape and develop their personalities, and it is for this purpose that we value the need to have a free exchange of ideas, opinions and expressions. But perhaps, in doing so, we ignore the impact of such ideas on LGBT students. College campuses can often spiral into spaces with rampant homophobia, often through ridicule and outright hostility towards students from the LGBT community.

LGBT youth, facing the stigma and shame attached to their identity, are going through a much more difficult time than their peers who conform to the norm. The abuse and violence against them need not just be physical (the absence of which is often heralded by liberal institutions as a success towards achieving some sort of substantive equality on campus), but also verbal and emotional. Often, they face the brunt of homophobic humor, caustic comments or even obnoxious questions, which seek to dehumanize them. Opinions are expressed not just in private spaces, but often, openly on campuses, and even in classroom, where prejudice and stereotypes come into play in discussions and discourse. As members of such ‘liberal’ institutions, we must ask ourselves whether the existence of such speech is necessary, and if it is, then how do we seek to support those individuals who will get most impacted by the same. Personally, when I think about contentions like ‘is homosexuality a disease’, I don’t feel comfortable with people expressing their ‘opinions’ on it, as if one’s identity should be subject to debate and contestation?

It may be said, that if not raised, bigoted opinions go unchallenged and unanswered, thereby perpetuating and furthering ignorance about such issues on campus. But, on the other hand, when raised, these very opinions hamper the development and speech of LGBT individuals. In an ideal world, we may presume that ‘LGBT-rights warriors’ will stand up and provide countering opinions, but we need to account for the possibility that if such expression is allowed without moderation, then it comes at the stake of endangering the educational, social and mental development of such students on campus. Interestingly, many queer students end up facing acute mental health issues, and very few get the privilege of going to therapists and counselors to help them out. Many queer individuals, who I have come across in my life, have faced depression and anxiety, and have suffered for years trying to deal with such toxic environments.

What we also need to create in our institutions is empathy. We need to understand how and to what extent our actions may affect LGBT youth, to realize the nature of their lived-experiences and to work towards creating a space where they feel safe. Without assuming their strength to withstand any sort of discrimination, we need to introspect on how and what subtle forms our discrimination can take, and how we can work towards creating a culture where we refrain from expressing certain opinions, even though we have the ‘right to do so’. In a situation where the law does not provide for any form of substantive equality, we should work even harder to create an atmosphere of acceptance, and of love.

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