As you enter my office, directly across from the door is a bulletin board and on it is a little sticker. It has the words â€˜SAFE ZONEâ€™ in large purple letters over an inverted pink triangle background.
It was given to me by the Spectrum group at Case which, according to its website seeks to â€œprovide an environment where GLBTQQIA (gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersexed, and allied) persons can socialize, learn, and grow.â€?
The sticker on my bulletin board is meant to be a signal that a student who fits into any of those categories can let me know without fearing any adverse or hostile reaction from me.
I have to say that I feel a little sad whenever my eye falls on that sticker. Have we come to this, that we have to publicly announce zones of safety for people for no other reason than their sexual orientation? Shouldnâ€™t that be something that is taken for granted? The fact that it is not is a sign of how far we are from creating a tolerant society.
I have never quite been able to understand why some people get so upset by other peopleâ€™s private lives. Yes, I can understand that because of your own religious beliefs or culture or upbringing or whatever there are certain things that you personally might not approve of. But you are always free not to do them. But why should the private lives of other consenting adults, even total strangers, matter to you?
And yet, it seems that many people are concerned about just such things. To me, one of the more disturbing features on last Novemberâ€™s election was the adoption of so many anti-gay measures across the nation. In Ohio Issue 1, that sought to prohibit gay couples from getting some of the benefits that married heterosexual couples take for granted, was adopted by 62% to 38%, an alarmingly large margin.
It seems pretty clear that there are at least two groups who currently run the risk of open discrimination â€“ non-heterosexuals and Arabs/Muslims. It seems to be perfectly acceptable to say disparaging things against either of these two groups without being shamed or called to account.
When it comes to Arabs, for example, Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ Hall of Famer Ann Coulter recently in her column referred to veteran journalist Helen Thomas as â€œthat old Arab.â€? James Wolcott speculates as to the outrage that would ensure if that kind of language was applied to other groups. And Coulterâ€™s fellow traveler on the Third-Tier Punditâ„¢ circuit Michelle Malkinâ€™s approval of the internment of ethnic Japanese during World War II and her advocacy of racial, religious and nationality profiling now is another example of this appalling tendency to select specific groups for discriminatory treatment.
Back to the issue of â€˜safe zonesâ€™, I am not naÃ¯ve. I know that people who are not â€˜straightâ€™ run the risk of being discriminated against, or much worse, in the broader society and that they are justified in being cautious about who knows about them. But it is a little disheartening that even in a university there is this fear of intolerance. A university should be different, even though it is populated by the same kinds of people as elsewhere, because in the university there exists something that does not exist outside in any organized way and which should act as a uniting force that overcomes the friction and divergence that can be caused by differences.
This unifying force is the love of learning and a respect for academic values that universities are built upon. If we immerse ourselves in that shared love of learning, then we will find that people who are sometimes very different from us can be the very sources of our own intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth.
In a university you will find people who are different in many ways, not just in terms of their sexual orientation. It is such individual differences that make life so interesting and enjoyable and these same qualities have been the fuel for some of the most creative people that ever lived. Our society, and our universities, should find room for all these people and not seek to shred them of their distinctiveness and make them conform to some idealized â€˜norm.â€™
In other words, we need to make the whole university a safe zone for everyone.