October 7, 2012
The Yale Political Union kicked off the fall semester with two high-profile guests characterized by their extremely polarizing viewpoints. Rick Santorum, former presidential candidate, is known for his vehement opposition to gay marriage and gay rights, and for his support for government policing of people’s private sexual lives. Camille Paglia, self-proclaimed “dissident feminist,” is a known transphobe whose acidic tongue has supplied more fodder for homophobic hate sites than for the blogs of feminist communities with which she claims an affinity.
When word broke that Santorum and Paglia would be gracing the podium of the YPU, people who felt threatened or erased by their views met the news with outrage. Many members of the queer community and several other groups on campus were of the opinion that these figures (Santorum especially) should not be speaking on campus. The protest group “the Y syndicate” handed out pamphlets protesting Santorum’s speech, quoting him on issues such as his thoughts on homosexuality, and encouraged audience members to walk out. A queer graduate student group showed up to the debate with protest signs and attention-grabbing outfits. Many members of these groups simply didn’t attend the debate, and withdrew from the campus-wide conversation out of frustration or fear. Members of the YPU and others responded by claiming that Yale has a duty to represent a wide diversity of political opinions in the name of sparking open discourse and upholding free speech.
However, silencing dissent with the claim that “free speech trumps all” doesn’t do justice to the needs and concerns of students on Yale’s campus who felt threatened by this choice. While free speech is extremely important in this country and at Yale, it’s important to recognize that as a part of the country as a whole, Yale is a small, private, curated space with a large global influence. This distinction underlies the fundamental difference between letting someone speak and giving someone a platform on which to do so. If Santorum or Paglia were to show up and start speaking in a public space without being too disruptive, we would allow them to do so, and the discussion of their First Amendment right to be there would and should end there. However, inviting them into our private institution to share their views in a structured, respected venue grants them a platform, a means of disseminating their views and reaching out to an audience. By giving Santorum and Paglia a platform, the university, while not necessarily endorsing their views, edges us towards acceptance of their views as a normal part of the accepted institutional framework for discussing queer issues.
The YPU’s guest list history further reinforces this notion, with past guests including but not limited to a representative from the National Organization for Marriage, an organization trying to “protect” marriage from the inclusion of same-sex couples; Ann Coulter, conservative pundit who claims that the Chick-Fil-A incident and Don’t Ask Don’t Tell are not “anti-gay”; and Karl Rove, who made sure that anti-gay amendments appeared on state ballots in the 2004 election. With the recent avalanche of conservative speakers, the discussion of queer issues on campus inevitably backslides, which is unacceptable in an age where queer visibility across the country is better than ever. When gay marriage is already a reality in several states, and gender identity is already a part of many states’ civil rights protection laws, bringing in speakers who don’t even believe that trans people exist is regressive, unproductive, and damaging to the queer community both here on campus and in the larger United States. Queer students at Yale deserve better than this; they deserve to feel safe here.
In particular, the university’s tacit acceptance of Santorum and Paglia’s misinformed perspectives as valid contributions to our institutional framework for discussing queer issues skews our campus discussion away from the facts; within the YPU’s structure, the discussion veers into a world of hyperbole and theatrics removed from productive debate. One of the more glaring inconsistencies of Camille Paglia’s speech came when she addressed Cher’s trans son Chaz, known as “Chastity” Bono. Disregarding the fact that his legal name and pronouns have been male for many years, Camille Paglia stood up onstage in LC and told a roomful of students that “Chastity” Bono was a “girl in denial” and that “every cell in her body [was] female.” When she completely disrespected Chaz’s identity by misgendering him and claiming to know more about his body than he does, I didn’t think about free speech. I didn’t care. All I cared about was that she told me that my trans friends didn’t exist, that their identities were meaningless and that their struggles were silly and undeserving of respect.
Sitting in the audience for Santorum’s speech I, along with other audience members, felt a similar sense of powerlessness and frustration. Rick Santorum said to hundreds of people in Woolsey Hall that there was “no proof” that the legalization of gay marriage would be “good for America,” even though a YPU member pointed out that according to the statistics Santorum himself had presented, more marriage could only be a good thing. I was outraged. How dare he tell the hordes of people present that the gender of one’s spouse determines whether or not one’s marriage is a valid way to improve society?
After attending these two YPU debates, I found that my frustration was based just as much in the YPU’s programming choices as in the structural inadequacies that kept me from protesting them. Attempts to create open discussion based in fact and accountability were ultimately hindered by YPU’s structure and format, which creates a hostile climate that is not conducive to open discussion on queer issues.
The structure of a typical YPU debate is as follows: The guest speaker gives a pre-prepared speech in favor of or against the resolution for approximately 30 to 40 minutes, after which three members of the YPU give shorter, also pre-prepared speeches, two of which oppose the guest’s view and one of which supports it. After all the pre-prepared speeches are over, the floor is theoretically open, and any member of the Yale Political Union is free to speak. People who wish to make a speech consult with one of two floor leaders (there is one for the Left and one for the Right), who then communicate with the Speaker of the Union. The Speaker then calls on whomever he or she chooses, alternating between negative and affirmative speeches.
There are several problems with this model: first, people who are not members of the Yale Political Union cannot speak, a move which silences dissident voices outside of the organization. Second, Union members who are knowledgeable about the subject often are not active enough or old enough (freshmen traditionally cannot speak until after the Freshman Prize Debate) to get the speaker’s attention. This is especially problematic with debates involving queer issues, because misinformation only ever damages the cause.
For example, Santorum presented an avalanche of statistics that seemed to “prove” that children are best off with one mother and one father who are married to each other. However, these statistics were correlated and not necessarily causal, something Santorum himself admitted, though he added, “that doesn’t mean they’re not [causal].” Many of the statistics he cited about “non-traditional” families faring worse were the result of class, racial, and sexual orientation-based prejudices.
Camille Paglia perpetuated outmoded, one-dimensional stereotypes about queer people, saying that lesbian couples have innately lower sex drives than straight people, and that gay men want to have sex with anything that moves (she even, unironically, made a reference to the U-Haul trope). The student speakers at these debates were no more informed, particularly those responding to Paglia’s speech. The resolution was “Resolved: Embrace Gender Roles” and students arguing in the affirmative said things like “women have motherly tendencies because women are the ones who have babies.” Madelaine Taft-Ferguson, chair of the Party of the Left, addressed the rampant transphobia present in many people’s remarks in an excellent, concise response speech, but I felt that she did not adequately tear down Paglia’s assertion that binary sex is a consistent biological phenomenon. I raised my hand throughout the night in an attempt to debunk this myth, but the Speaker ignored me because I was a freshman. No member of the YPU who spoke that night expressed my view, and I felt frustrated and ignored. How productive and diverse can a discussion really be if the YPU dictates who can discuss and clarify and correct and who must sit and silently worry or fume?
Perhaps the most damaging part of YPU’s structure is that the format does not provide debaters and their audience with actual information or education surrounding the resolution; unlike other debate formats, speakers do not cite facts from a list of provided or self-collected resources, nor do they consult encyclopedias or dictionaries. Rather, the YPU is a forum for people to test out abstract political philosophies without being held accountable to their sources, a structure that, though thought-provoking for more abstract resolutions, becomes frustrating, hurtful and downright dangerous when applied to discussions of queer issues.
The Union is a valuable and important political forum here at Yale, one that I am proud to be a part of; however, queer lives and identities are not an appropriate subject for abstract philosophizing, especially by people who do not identify as queer. Until the Union adopts a more education- and information-based format, it should avoid guests and resolutions that directly create damaging, misinformed discourse about queer lives and rights.
Sarah Giovaniello is a freshman in Yale College. She is a contributing writer for Broad Recognition.
This article does not necessarily reflect the views of Broad Recognition.