LGBT icon Ellen DeGeneres once mused, “Do we have to know who’s gay and who’s straight? Can’t we just love everybody and judge them by the car they drive?” This was obviously a joke, but it contained a kernel of wisdom.
After coming of age in a time of gay oppression, with her show canceled after she came out as lesbian, DeGeneres knew that the full potential of American values could never be realized until all people, regardless of sexual orientation, were treated alike. So in a fair world, this means sexuality should be irrelevant to a student’s education.
Many modern campus progressives reject that vision. I recently realized just how far the LGBT left has strayed from this egalitarian mentality when I received a curious invitation from administrators at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, from which I’m set to graduate this May. The note invited me, a gay man, to attend a special “Rainbow Graduation,” an event supposedly “hosted every year to honor our graduating seniors within the LGBTQ community.”
I wasn’t flattered to receive this invitation, I was mortified. Self-segregated celebrations are the exact opposite of the egalitarian vision of gay rights I believe in, where all Americans ought to be treated the same, with sexual orientation little more than a footnote in our public life. Yet identity politics ideology has become so pervasive on college campuses and the progressive elite that they’re blinded to the individualism gay advocates once stood for. Now, they champion regressive groupthink.
How else could one possibly justify such a spectacle? The annual event regularly features keynote LGBT speakers, and is attended by LGBT students and their guests. Additionally, awards are given out to LGBT student leaders, sympathetic staff, and program participants. Interestingly, a “Spectrum” award is given to a student deemed most influential within the self-segregated LGBT residential community on campus.
These types of events send a chilling message about how progressives view LGBT students. Are we incapable of standing out from the student body on our own merits, rather than our sexual proclivities? What’s more, it reinforces the odd notion that sexuality alone is worth celebrating. No one should face discrimination or violence for his identity, but we also shouldn’t act like the sheer act of being gay is an accomplishment. It really isn’t, even if some people still do have to overcome additional obstacles due to their orientation.
And it’s not as if the modern university is such a homophobic, repressive place that students need solace to enjoy a graduation ceremony. The intention may be to provide “safe space” for LGBT people to celebrate, but in reality there is almost nowhere in the world safer or more accepting for gay people than an ultra-left campuses like UMass. In the absence of any real necessity, such a spectacle seems performative, not productive, like just another liberal attempt to cultivate the victim status that has become the new campus currency.
But it’s a stunt that could have real consequences. This type of approach sets gay people back, because actual acceptance comes through assimilation. These kinds of events, decorated with rainbows and featuring controversial progressive speakers, only make gay students stick out like a sore thumb. But LGBT students are your neighbor in the dorm room next door, the classmate you borrowed a pen from, or the TA who taught your freshman seminar—and you might never know it. That’s, frankly, how it should be.
Efforts to make a spectacle out of sexuality, which should really be irrelevant in an education setting, only set assimilation efforts back. This is a recipe for failure. After all, the most effective arguments for gay marriage were made in the court of public opinion not by railing against the traditional institution, but through framing same-sex marriage through the lens of widening a venerable social norm to include more everyday Americans. Ultimately, this was successful.
Yet the developing strain of identitarianism consuming the advocacy class threatens this progress. It has the potential to further polarize LGBT issues and ostracize LGBT people from American life, when what we really should do is attempt to spread a message of mutual tolerance. In their effort to pursue equality, progressives may set us all back.
The “Rainbow” graduation at UMass isn’t some one-off event. Rather, it’s emblematic of a nationwide trend: Colleges around the country have special LGBT student centers, graduation ceremonies, and even self-segregated LGBT dorms. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to solve this backwardness, but I do know that even DeGeneres wouldn’t dare call it progressive.