Know the facts: Combating anti-LGBTQ hate speech on campus

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Image credit: Josh Johnson

Know the facts: Combating anti-LGBTQ hate speech on campus

October 31, 2018

The rise of the Alternative “Alt” Right has injected itself into the bloodstream of American politics, contaminating our democracy with it’s viral sting. Characterized by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a movement of white resentment, the fundamental ideology of the Alt-Right is a recharacterization of Civil Rights era stereotypes—promoting a vision of the United States that is universally white, European, cisgender, and heterosexual.

After the devastating murder of eleven members of the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27th and the recent State Department memo aimed at erasing transgender and intersex people from existence, it's time to discuss the impact of hate speech on creating a climate of physical violence against minorities across America. 

Alt Right dogma grew substantially during the 2016 election and has been emboldened by the increasingly anti-LGBTQ policies and xenophobic rhetoric of the Trump administration. In an effort to grow the movement, the Alt Right frequently targets young people and vulnerable populations as soft targets to radicalize and gain membership. Consequently, the movement has taken a seat in college classrooms across America. 

American universities are largely depicted as liberal and multicultural environments that encourage diversity and free thought. While the classroom serves as a hub for discussion, these sanctuaries of free speech often make college campuses susceptible to fostering Alt-Right rhetoric. While many conservatives argue that liberal universities are censoring their speech, Georgetown University’s Free Speech Project suggests that there is “limited evidence that conservatives are being unfairly targeted”. In fact, our age-old definition of free speech often serves as a defense of Alt-Right ideology by calling into question the legitimacy and existence of marginalized populations in the name of open discussion.

As a queer and non-binary student studying political science at a state university, I have shared classroom space with a number of students who identify with the ideology of the Alt-Right. I have engaged in political discussions with vocal supporters of Alt-Right figurehead Richard Spencer. I have heard snickers of disgust from the back of the classroom when discussing transgender politics. I have witnessed professors encourage students to argue in favor of neo-Nazi sentiments under the guise of educational discourse.

It’s important to note that as a white person, I have immense privilege occupying a seat in the classroom without feeling threatened based on my race. Yet as an member of the LGBTQ+ community, I am scared to enter a discussion anticipating the need to defend my gender and sexual identity from students whose core beliefs are an assault to my existence. It is incredibly challenging to navigate a learning environment when the beliefs of your peers are rooted in your personal marginalization.

Hateful language directly correlates to an increase in physical violence and suicidal behavior, especially among marginalized populations. In many cases, hate speech directly incites and causes violence. Lest we forget the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia—an event rooted in racism and xenophobia—that led to the murder of Heather Heyer. Earlier this week, a similar hateful rhetoric, this time rooted in anti-Semitism, was expressed by the man charged with murdering eleven at the Tree of Life Synagogue. When not policed, hate speech leads directly to physical violence and distress among marginalized communities. 

Data from the Trevor Project indicates that 40% of all transgender people report having made a suicide attempt, 92% of which attempted suicide under the age of 25. Further, research from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention states that rejection, discrimination, and victimization are the three major factors leading to suicidal behavior among transgender adults. Hate speech as a form of discrimination directly lends itself to transgender suicidality.

Last year, in a speech at the University of Connecticut (UConn), conservative speaker Ben Shapiro declared in front of a crowded room of spectators that being transgender is a mental disorder. Shapiro was invited on campus by the UConn College Republicans. Allowing this factually incorrect stereotype to be perpetuated on campus creates substantial harm and legitimate danger for transgender students.

College campuses must do more to protect marginalized students from oppressive hate speech while also protecting the First Amendment rights of all students. In order to do this in the long term, the First Amendment must expand upon the Clear-and-Present Danger standard of jurisprudence to include mental, psychological, or social harm against minority groups that directly correlates with physical harm and suicidal behavior.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the First Amendment “protects speech no matter how offensive its content.” With this important liberty in mind, we have a responsibility to foster a positive learning environment for all students. In order to do so, we must investigate and address the clear and present danger hate speech poses to marginalized people in an educational setting.

Leah Juliett is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador senior at Western Connecticut State University studying political science. They are the Founder and Executive Director of the #MarchAgainstRevengePorn. Leah is a 2018 GLAAD Rising Stars Grant recipient and served as the Youth Engagement Coordinator at GLAAD.

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