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As a writer and educator, I strongly believe in the importance of free speech. So, when Dennis Prager came to the University of Wyoming to spew disgusting, damaging lies, I was proud to stand silently promoting my values with other faculty and students. While our group peacefully held signs, other UW students laughed in our faces, mocked the queer community and, ultimately, walked past our protest into a building to hear a man paid to say things like “consent is optional” and “rape victims are lying” — statements that harm the people of this country we all share and live in.
Later that night, I couldn’t stop thinking about how demoralizing it is so many UW students found our signs expressing desire for safety and respect for queer and trans students, women, people of color, immigrants, and others to be “funny.” People took selfies and videos, giggling and pulling faces. What’s so hilarious about wanting people to be treated well? Have basic human decency and good morals become acceptable objects of ridicule?
To be clear, I wasn’t protesting because I didn’t think Prager should be allowed speak. I protested for two key reasons.
1. ASUW should absolutely not have used student money (which comes from a student body that includes those who are queer, who are people of color, who are assault survivors) to support someone who openly denigrates those groups. This is a clear demonstration of the role power and access can play in free speech. People who say “Black Lives Matter” get death threats. People who say “lesbians are only gay because they’ve been abused by men?” They’re given money to come speak on a college campus.
2. I was also protesting because my moral code firmly draws the line at supporting and aligning with bullies. I am against deliberate harm to others. I’d like to think most people are, but lately, I’ve seen far too many people, the attendees of this event included, that are far less concerned about the harm they might be enacting than that someone has the right to enact it. Why is that the chosen priority? Can’t there be a third way?
Speaking of bullies, while we stood, three students showed up dressed clownishly in rainbow and tie-dye gear, blasting songs such as “Born This Way” and “Same Love” next to our quiet protest. Were they trolls? Were they members of Turning Point USA, as I personally suspect because I recognized them from another event? Or were they students who did not get the silent protest memo? I don’t know. If they were trolls, they were intentionally, cruelly mocking gay people in a town widely known for a horrific hate crime against a young gay man.
It hurt to the bone.
I felt deep pain and humiliation listening to songs that were created to empower an attacked minority group be stolen and used as weapons against us. Hearing the music and watching the long line of students file into the building, the messages felt clear: despite my commitment to my students, UW and Laramie, I was not wanted in this community. My pain was a joke to them.
We protesters held signs that quietly said what we thought about the rhetoric of Prager and his views. We didn’t bully his supporters. We didn’t repeatedly devalue their existence the way they did ours, which for many is an existence that has been under violent threat in the history of this country and in Laramie itself. How many conservative white students will be homeless, sexually assaulted, jailed, deported, beaten or killed merely for who they are? How many of them have ever had to worry about that kind of violence on a daily basis?
This isn’t about special feelings, snowflake-ness or even about free speech. Honestly, it’s not even about Prager.
This is about who we choose to align ourselves with — about choosing to align ourselves with the people the bullies pick on, not the bullies themselves.
This is about our morals as people in local, national and global community, communities called to embrace empathy, radical love and justice for all its members.
This is about building up the world we want — a world that actively takes care of its people and doesn’t destroy them.
Neutrality is not an option. This is about sides. Take one.