In 1971, Merle Miller, a writer, author, former editor of Harper’s and Time magazines, and World War II Veteran, became one of the most prominent Americans to publicly come out of the closet. He did so in one of the most public of ways possible in the pre-Twitter days: by writing about it in The New York Times Magazine. “What it Means to be a Homosexual” is a bold and moving article in which Miller stood up to homophobic commentary recently published by a fellow author, and challenged contemporary notions of being gay. In the article’s later-published book form On Being Different, Miller provided a stark, one-sentence summation that perfectly encompasses the anger that sparked his decision to come out:
“I am sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about me and my friends.”
More than forty years later, the LGBTQ community has undeniably made tremendous progress in securing equal rights and protections under the law, thanks to pioneers like Merle Miller. We’ve gained ever-growing widespread acceptance as increasingly more of us live our lives out and proud, enabling more and more of our family and friends to dispel the lies told over the years about our identities. Despite our progress, the era of Trump has crashed new waves of uncertainty upon us. Transgender rights –as basic as using the restroom- continue to be attacked in many areas across the country, and a Republican-controlled government brings real possibility of passing the First Amendment Defense Act, which would legalize discrimination against LGBTQ individuals on the grounds of religious freedom. The battle for marriage equality is over, but a majority of states still do not have laws on the books protecting LGBTQ individuals from discrimination in private sector employment; The 115th US Congress certainly doesn’t seem keen on considering the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act or the further-reaching Equality Act any time soon. The reinvigoration of homophobia and transphobia on the national level and the normalization of the alt-right in the 2016 election serve as stinging reminders that despite our progress, we still have a long ways to go to ensure our equal status as Americans.
For many within our LGBTQ community, the battle for equality is one and the same as that of people of color, Muslims and other members of religious and cultural minorities, immigrants, those with undocumented status, and other marginalized groups. Trans rights are Black rights. Gay rights are Immigrant rights. Women’s rights are Muslim rights. Those whose identities place them within intersecting systems of oppression face battles that are all the more encumbered in the days and years ahead.
Our community and our allies have largely given fierce opposition to the rhetoric of, and actions taken by, Trump’s campaign and his administration. Sure, one in seven LGBT voters went for Trump. For the large majority of us, though, one thing is certain: We are still sick and tired of reading and hearing such goddamn demeaning, degrading bullshit about our friends and us.
The hate speech that Milo Yiannopoulos and the Berkeley College Republicans will bring to campus on Wednesday is undisguised, unabashed, misogynistic, xenophobic, transphobic bullshit. It is demeaning, degrading bullshit that amounts to the self-loathing behavior of a closeted high school bully. The only difference, of course, is that Milo is out too, and I haven’t heard of any high school bully recently signing quarter million dollar book deals to spread his hateful rhetoric. The claim members of BCR make that Milo’s views are needed for us to “fully develop intellectually” is utter nonsense. Any valid conservative principles actually worth debating are lost under his hateful polemics that dehumanize large swaths of our campus community. While members of BCR are free to use their “critical thinking skills” to discern substantive content among Milo’s invective, I’ve used mine and have deduced that a man who can’t treat many of my friends with basic human decency doesn’t deserve any rational consideration whatsoever.
Members of BCR state that Milo is simply using “humor and satire” while sharing his views. I wonder, was it with humor in which Rick Santorum shared his views in 2003 and compared homosexuality to child molestation and bestiality? Is Milo’s “levity” the same that Ronald Reagan used in treating the early days of the AIDS crisis? Here’s a tip: If you want to be treated with respect or have your “outstretched hand of friendship” shaken, don’t personally insult someone or their friends. Hatred, however “humorously” delivered, does not constitute valid intellectual opinion and will not be received kindly.
Milo is a lucky man to be alive in the time and place that he is. Before the last few decades, instead of crowds of conservative far-right wingers who give him adulation, he would have had crowds that crossed the ideological spectrum calling for his imprisonment. That still holds true today in over 70 countries throughout the world, and he’d likely be put to death in a few of them. In the 1980’s he and his friends might have been victims of the AIDS epidemic, instead of having readily available PreP today, which, if he uses it, gives him a near zero percent chance of contracting HIV. Milo is a shameful man with little recognition of the past and present world in which he lives. His verbal abuse and denigration of marginalized communities while flaunting his homosexuality sickens me. His hypocrisy cannot be overstated.
This, of course, is regardless of whether or not Milo actually believes a single word that he’s saying. There is a large part of me that believes he is also trolling his audiences, does not actually hold the positions he states, nor cares to have a certain opinion on any of the matters on which he speaks; he’s simply filling the niche of the gay alt-right conservative to fill his Trump-like need for attention and taking home Louis Vuitton handbags full of cash while doing so.
With all of that said, and despite his vile nature, I believe his event should go on as planned. Many in the LGBTQ community and others have been pressuring campus administration for the cancellation of the event. I have promoted these efforts among friends and colleagues so that others with similar positions can join them, but ultimately it is a position with which I disagree. I have had many conversations about Milo’s event over the last month with friends and colleagues that span the spectrum of our diverse community; Many share my opinion that attempts before and day-of to cancel his event feeds his narrative and only serves to further promote his firebrand status.
I recognize the privilege I hold as a cis-gendered, Christian, American, white, gay man living in our bright blue dot in 2017 that affords me this position. My background and relative privilege undoubtedly shapes my view on his event, just as the respective lack of privilege does so for others. More importantly, though, I must recognize that the beauty of the First Amendment is also its imperfection. The same rights that Milo and BCR are choosing to reprehensibly exercise this week are the same ones that the Gay Liberation Front exercised to carry momentum of the gay rights movement in the aftermath of the Stonewall riots of 1969; they are the same ones that Merle Miller exercised in calling out the demeaning bullshit and lies that were being rabidly spread about him and his friends; and they are the same ones that enabled Harvey Milk to organize a community of marginalized Castro Street residents to win a seat on the San Francisco Board of Directors in 1977. All of these First Amendment-protected actions have paved the way for how I can live my life today. I would be a hypocrite for calling for its limitation.
On the issue of hate speech, the First Amendment has been challenged in cases that very closely mimic Milo and his “Dangerous Faggot” tour. Notably, Terminiello v. City of Chicago (1949) involved Milo’s mid-20th century parallel, a Catholic priest spewing hatred of various racial groups to a crowd of Christian veterans. In this case, and others before and after, our fundamental and uniquely American value of freedom of speech has been upheld. I believe any undermining of these protections will limit still-marginalized communities and their allies in resisting the systems of oppression that perpetuate. Yes, our nation’s progress has been unacceptably slow for many, but our numbers are growing in resisting them. We will resist them again in full force on Wednesday.
During Milo’s event on Wednesday night, I hope the protests outside of the Student Union stay peaceful. I hope there are no incidents of gun violence like what occurred at the protests for Milo’s University of Washington event. I hope the protests are loud, obnoxious, and audible from Pauley Ballroom, and our presence is known. Here’s what I also hope: I hope an epic dance party that celebrates our individuality and values of diversity breaks out in front of Sproul Hall and Memorial Library (just think, if Gaga weren’t doing the Super Bowl, she might’ve been available!). I hope the White Horse, the nation’s second oldest queer bar, not far from campus down Telegraph, has the biggest Wednesday night crowd it’s had in decades for its scheduled drag king show. I hope that members of BCR and Milo think, if only for a moment, of the human impact of how they choose to exercise their freedom of speech. And I hope they know that they may have won the most recent battle, but they are losing this war.
After Wednesday night, I hope members of BCR who disagreed with the decision to invite Yiannopoulos publicly disclose their opposition in an Op/Ed, and out themselves as supporters of Berkeley’s values of equity and inclusion, saving some face for BCR as a whole while doing so. I also hope our ASUC Senators, who meet this semester to set next year’s RSO funding allocations, consider diverting the Berkeley College Republicans’ requested money for next year –and every year after, until the last complicit current member this year graduates– to help offset the additional costs of Wednesday’s event that “will be borne entirely by the campus”, as Chancellor Dirks stated last week; “Contribution to the Cal community” is a stated guideline for ASUC funding allotments, and BCR’s decision to hold this event will undoubtedly be a negative financial contribution. Should BCR still be awarded mandatory student fees to use next year, I hope there is a concerted effort among Berkeley students to exercise their rights held within the ASUC Constitution to file student objections to their money being used to sponsor BCR as a consequence for their decision to hold this event.
In every way we can, on Wednesday and beyond, I hope that we can make our voices heard that Berkeley is, and everywhere should be, a place where hatred and bigotry is outnumbered and outmatched. Freedom of speech is as moral or immoral as those who use it; Through the lens of history and the passing of time, the moral will always win. For Milo and BCR, it’s not looking good.
Andrew Bremer is the executive director of Queer Grads at Berkeley and serves on the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on LGBTQ Communities.