The Thistle Volume 13, Number 1: August 29, 2000.

Straight From the Closet

ďThat is sooo gay!Ē
I went for four years without hearing it at MIT. And then, just a few days ago, there it was, from a fellow student. Everyoneís favorite junior-high epithet, right here at home.

Letís get something out in the open: Iím a wimp. (You could even say Iím a pansy.) As a result, I said nothing. Why? Did I feel ashamed of myself, just for a moment? (Even if I didnít then, I certainly do now; not for having an opinion, but for failing to speak up for it.) Perhaps I thought she might never have considered the insult-word ďgayĒ and the homosexual-word ďgayĒ to be one and the same. Perhaps I simply wanted to avoid the discomfort of confrontation.

How can she think thereís nothing wrong with what she said? Maybe she doesnít think itís a big deal. And to me, itís not a big deal. I can go to my friends, say ďwow, you wouldnít believe what this person said,Ē get a little sympathy, and go on with my life. But I know itís not that way for everyone.

Is it that hard to imagine yourself in someone elseís shoes? Can an MIT student fail to understand that this world includes LBGT (Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay, and Transgender) people, many of whom feel scared and alone, afraid to come out?

Surely she knows someone who is (or might be) queer. How must that person feel, hearing people use the word ďgayĒ to represent all that is stupid and bad? I canít understand why I didnít speak up.

You might argue that, if thatís the worst thatís happened to me here, then clearly Iím doing well. And Iíd agree that Iím lucky. MIT has a strong nerd community, in which people donít always adhere to the social norms of the outside world (to say the least). Itís ok to be interested in academics, itís ok to like computers, and itís ok to stray from the assigned gender norms. Yes, this includes dating members of the same sex. :-)

Still, most MIT students grew up in a society that does little to keep us from hating or making fun of homosexuals (or at least homosexuality ó you decide whether the distinction is meaningful). We have learned that itís ok to make fun of effeminate men and boys, and to tease tomboyish girls and short-haired women. As a result, we see homophobia right here on campus.

Last Spring, Kevin Choi (í01) sent an email to class lists, looking for people to study with. In response, he received a message of hatred and disgust, complete with a reference to the well-known murder of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming. How could the person who sent the response have thought his message was in any way defensible? Why did he want to send it in the first place? Heís an MIT student, so he knows heís in the top n% academically; why must he attack others? And why does so much of our society let people think that ďyouíre gay and Iím notĒ means ďIím better than youĒ?

MIT took this incident seriously, applying appropriate disciplinary action. As an institution, MIT usually upholds its policy of nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation. When I say ďusually,Ē of course, Iím thinking of ROTCís infamous ďdonít ask, donít tellĒ policy, the canonical example of sexual-minority discrimination at MIT. MIT has done some work on this issue at the national level, but I havenít heard much about it recently, and the policy remains in place.

Most MIT students wonít notice the ďdonít ask, donít tellĒ policy, just as most wonít receive email such as the one described above. We are lucky to live in the Boston area, with a large and well-established queer population. In addition, MIT has a variety of student groups, and the administration is generally supportive.

As an LBGT person here, you will probably live a comfortable life, feeling little threat or danger. This is great, and you should enjoy it; have fun, date, learn, take lots of PE classes (ok, thatís just my personal recommendation), and live your life. Know that we are lucky to be part of a community that provides such comfort and strength. Please remember, however, that MIT and the world may not be as nice as your friends, and there is still much work to be done.


The Thistle Volume 13, Number 1: August 29, 2000.