Column | Dec. 10

Rejecting complacency

It’s been discussed and debated countless times within the past few decades. This very newspaper has published an ample amount of editorials concerning it. And I, privileged and protected by my middle-class American upbringing, began to push the issue out of mind, attributing it to the lingering prejudices of the generation before mine.

I thought the gay rights movement was on the brink of victory, with other LGBTQ groups following close behind. The statistics (70 percent of those aged 18 to 32 supporting same-sex marriage) made it seem as if the attitudes were already won and that the laws would inevitably be penned. Even as a member of the LGBTQ community, I considered stories of brutal beatings and other hate crimes far removed from my own experience. Princeton has an LGBT center, as do many other universities, but I presumed that they mostly dealt with support issues  such as coming out, self-acceptance or the occasional homophobic slur or joke. I recognized that strong anti-gay sentiments still existed in America, but the last place I ever expected to find them was in the country’s most prestigious university, among some of the nation’s most intellectually gifted students.

And yet the weekend before Thanksgiving, I was suddenly made aware of how much — despite the LGBTQ community’s recent triumphs — must still be fought for, even here at Princeton.

The line outside a crowded Terrace the Saturday before last had degenerated into more of a mobbed clump, with me somewhere in the middle and waiting to get in. Over my left shoulder I heard some homophobic, derogatory remark — seemingly directed at no one in particular — accompanied by laughter, which I assumed was simply a joke made in bad taste. Next thing I knew, though, I felt someone dragging me down by the back of my collar. I turned to see an arm, and then a leg, thrust behind my knees to expedite my fall. A heated exchange between us, his friends quickly pulling him back, a word to the bouncers to keep him out, and then I was inside. At the time, I was furious that the assault was not only unprovoked but also blatantly purposeful.  It wasn’t until later in the week that I guessed the mystery student’s motive.

As I recounted the story to a friend, still indignant that I had done nothing to prompt the incident, he fit the pieces together for me. I had experienced, for the first time in my life, a seriously negative reaction to my sexuality. It’s never my intention to broadcast my sexual orientation, as I assume it’s never most people’s, but I would be lying to myself if I pretended there weren’t any indications of it in my style or mannerisms. This particular night, I wasn’t exactly the epitome of heterosexual with my unbuttoned Henley and my studded loafers. That, coupled with the offensive comment I half-heard right before I found a hand on the back of my collar, provided a likely explanation for why I was the target of this drunken man’s violent outburst.

Aside from a few cuts on my neck from my chain, I emerged from the confrontation with no real injury. Drunken man “X” did give me valuable food for thought, however. After asking around, I discovered that, although not common, confrontations such as mine were not as rare as one would hope; hints of homophobia exist behind the scenes on the Street and on campus. The LGBTQ community is not as accepted by our generation as I believed, and dangerous manifestations of homophobia have not been entirely stamped out in even the most young and educated spheres of our society. To be frank, I am astounded. And I am embarrassed by Princeton.

When the national number of those in our age group supportive of diverse sexual orientations is as high as 70 percent, the student body at an institution such as Princeton should virtually be universal in its endorsement of sexual diversity. With entire classes devoted to discussing the de jure social liberations of race and gender and the continued struggle for de facto equality, I am surprised any form of unsubstantiated hate could persist. And while I am confident that such sentiments are not prevalent on campus, they are less tempered than I believed. There is still a fight to be won.

Our student body cannot fall into the same mindset of complacency that I held. Princeton’s administration and LGBTQ center have implemented the necessary policies to promote sexual orientation equality, but the actual revolutions of attitude must originate within the students. We must be actively aware of our peers and their prejudices and, instead of tolerating hatred, educate and inform against it. Homophobia has no more sound of a foundation to lean upon than racism or sexism, and as a progressive and innovative student body, we can ensure that no form of discrimination, whether within ourselves or within our friends, is allowed to remain standing.

Mitchell Hammer is a freshman from Phoenix, Ariz. He can be reached at mjhammer@princeton.edu.

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