Last month, University LGBT students – with the help of the Spectrum Center – won the right to host the 2011 Midwest Bisexual Lesbian Gay Transgender Ally Conference. According to the Daily story (University to host LGBT conference, 02/19/2009), Spectrum Assistant Director Gabe Javier feels that the University of Michigan is a great place for the conference to be held in part because the Spectrum Center has “a great set of allies all across the University that can really make the conference feel so much more different”.
For those wondering what an “ally” is, it’s a term used to refer to people who are not part of the LGBT community themselves but support LGBT individuals and their movement for equal rights and acceptance. The Spectrum Center actually has an Ally Training program on campus that aims to educate allies and create dialogue between them and people in the LGBT movement. Based upon this and the general perception of the University as promoting a liberal, tolerant environment, it would seem that this campus is as good a place as any.
But despite the degrees of tolerance afforded members of the LGBT community on campus, I can’t quite shake the feeling that we aren’t as tolerant here as we think we are. And while our campus certainly does have a large number of allies who support the LGBT movement, it appears to me that a strong current of non-acceptance runs through not just the country, but the University population as well.
As an ally of the LGBT community who believes that gay people should have the same rights as anyone else, I watched with dismay as the country rejected the idea of equal rights in the 2008 presidential election. California, Florida and Arizona passed ballot proposals to abolish gay marriage. It’s easy to think that these anti-gay sentiments are held by people in distant parts of the country, or at least people who aren’t high-minded, worldly and tolerant college students. But I have reason to believe that our campus isn’t necessarily the bastion of tolerance we might think it is.
Where’s my evidence, you ask? Well, I run into negative attitudes toward the LGBT community all the time. I’ve engaged in discussions with students in classes, at social gatherings, in dorm cafeterias and other places on campus. When a group of college students are having a discussion, it’s not uncommon for these talks to turn into policy debates — and when those debates focus on the issue of gay marriage, I’ve often found myself running into some version of the following statement: “I don’t have to support that lifestyle.” Sentiments like this may not seem outwardly offensive – they don’t say that gay people should be kicked off campus or should stop living in sin – but they hint at a subtler and yet equally powerful form of bigotry that I increasingly find myself running into on campus.
The tendency seems to be for individuals who oppose the LGBT movement to express opposition to the idea that we need to “accept” LGBT individuals. They seem to think that as long as they aren’t openly and actively hostile to homosexuals, they’re fully entitled to “disagree” with LGBT individual’s lifestyle choices. In the strictest sense, they’re right – no one is, or should be, forcibly required to hold certain opinions. We are allowed to disapprove of interracial marriage or people of other races entirely, people of other religions or people of another gender. But just because we have the right to withhold our “acceptance” doesn’t mean we should. And in all those examples, society has by and large moved toward accepting these different groups of people. To think that the LGBT community is any different – or any less deserving of our acceptance – is absurd.
This distinction between active discrimination and passive discrimination (in the form of denying acceptance to LGBT people) shouldn’t exist. Discrimination is discrimination, and while statements such as “I just don’t approve of a gay lifestyle” seem to consistently pass the societal “tolerance test”, would someone who said “I just don’t approve of a Christian lifestyle,” or “I just don’t approve of a Jewish lifestyle,” be met with such regard?
The good news about the LGBT struggle is that it seems fairly inevitable that such bigotry will one day be placed in the same category as most other forms of discrimination. But with the Midwest LGBT Conference on our campus still two years away, the best thing you can do is challenge notions of passive intolerance toward gay people so that when the conference does arrive, maybe we can demonstrate that the University of Michigan is indeed an ally of the LGBT community.
Robert Soave is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.