feeling sort of intolerant, myself

When Barack Obama was inaugurated for the first time back in 2009, he wanted very badly to be the conciliatory one, the person who would somehow entice everyone to play together. His relationship with the LGBT community was still a little if-fy, and he hadn’t yet “evolved” to unabashed support for marriage equality. We knew we couldn’t count on him to lead on this issue. I wasn’t sure what he would do about ENDA, the federal legislation that would prohibit discrimination in employment, (first introduced in 1994); and then there were still issues of public accommodation and housing. All of which, in 2017, is still up for grabs.

(And it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future, as Mr. Trump looks for ways to thread the homophobia needle; at this moment, he is expected to uphold the non-discrimination executive order, but issue another supporting faith-based bigotry, a nice little work-around for those who wish gay people would go away – a prime agenda item of his VP, and consistent with the Hobby Lobby decision of his SCOTUS nominee. Whatever Trump’s current declared intent, we all know that could change, given his short attention span and shifting priorities.)

Anyway, in that first inaugural, so intent was President-elect Obama on creating a space for everyone, he invited purpose-driven Rick Warren to pray during the ceremony.

Rick Warren, you may remember, pastor of one of the largest churches in the world, had been opposed to equal rights for the LGBT community for a long time, had been outspoken about his opposition to marriage equality, had compared homosexuality to incest and pedophilia, had mobilized his massive and massively conservative congregation’s political muscle to oppose LGBT rights, and had supported Ugandan leaders, who advocated the death penalty for gays and lesbians.

All of which is to say that I, with a whole lot of other LGBT folks and allies, was incensed that this enemy of gay participation in the world would be honored on the dais of a presidential inauguration.

According to CNN, an Obama spokesperson said “This is going to be the most inclusive, open, accessible inauguration in American history.”

In conversations about that with others, some folks noted it was important to “bring all sides to the table,” and when we objected, they mocked the LGBT commitment to “the diversity we always talk about.”

How can you value diversity and be so intolerant?

My answer then and now: the opposite of gay is not anti-gay. The opposite of gay is straight. Diversity means inviting gay and straight and folks all along the non-binary spectrum of sexual identity into participation and conversation; it does NOT mean giving airtime to bigotry. And it certainly doesn’t mean giving an honored moment on a historic day to the mouthpiece of those who would oppress any part of the American populace.

We are under no obligation to hand the mic to bigotry or give credibility to willful ignorance. Yes, the constitution prevents the government from suppressing their opinions, but that doesn’t mean we have to endorse it or amplify it, as if bound by whatever ridiculous distortion of “tolerance.” President-elect Obama was being nice — to a flaw; I think nice is overrated and often counterproductive.

I mention this because there was a news item this week about Steve Bannon, the white supremacist leading the Trump White House. It turns out he is a graduate of Virginia Tech, a noble university, and the source of Flint’s earliest and strongest allies in the poison water epoch. (Full disclosure: my partner is a VT grad; go Hokies.) The news article was about a letter circulating on campus and gaining thousands of signatures, asking the administration to create some distance between VT and Bannon. Perhaps they could at the very least issue a statement that white supremacy isn’t the aspiration VT wants for its students? But the administration has so far declined.

Quoted in the Collegiate Times: “Why would Virginia Tech go out and make a statement disavowing anybody? It doesn’t make sense to me, I don’t understand the logic and the reasoning of what you’re asking,” Owczarski (Assistant VP for University Relations) said. “Who are we to determine any of that stuff? He is who he is. We’ll allow his actions and his works to speak for themselves — as we do with all our alums.”

But apparently that isn’t exactly the case, as VT has previously commented at length about folks of whom they are especially proud. In that context, perhaps declaring yourself un-proud as a university is an equally fair and reasonable thing to do.

But here’s the other thing: the Collegiate Times, under a photo of Bannon, identified him as an “award-winning filmmaker.” I searched the google and couldn’t find reference to any award. But even if he had won Something Somewhere from Someone for some work, identifying him in this way lends credibility to his platform, which the VT student/faculty letter calls “sinister and reckless.” With which many of us would agree.

Now, Virginia Tech surely isn’t the university ever to face this – or to face it now. I imagine even the Ivy Leagues have former students they’d like to disown. (My own alma mater — the University of South Carolina– also graduated Lee Atwater, the political architect of the Reagan years.) Critics of education may suggest without the slightest hint of irony that such a disowning would not be good for academic freedom, as if they give a nickel’s worth of damn about academic freedom. I, personally, think it would be helpful if American institutions that are supposed to promote critical thinking would exercise and model it, make it their purpose to tell us where they see it failing.

Now, here’s why it matters. It is possible that you, my people on the left, are being regularly challenged by friends and trolls on the right, who admonish your intolerance of “opposing views.”

So I want to tell you that you have no obligation to give space to bigotry or to consider right-wing hatred as a legitimate opinion worthy of the public discourse. Even tolerance (about as minimal a bar as there can be) doesn’t require us to give bigotry a platform, or to normalize it, or even to acknowledge whatever accolades it may be awarded from its own ilk (unless the point is to discredit the unrighteous award-giver).

Diversity means valuing all the richness and variety of creation; it has nothing to do with equal time for haters.

Conciliation isn’t our obligation right now. Truth and clarity are.