Eliot Armand Glenn, MBA Class of 2013 and Harvard Kennedy School MPA Class of 2015
I was saddened and troubled to hear about the homophobic comments made by Jonathan Haidt during the Professional Responsibility course this January, but I must admit that I was not surprised.
Although I gained quite a bit from my time at Stern, I was repeatedly confronted with homophobia in ways that deeply discolored my experience there.
In fact, one of my first interactions with the school was during accepted students weekend, when after mentioning offhandedly that I was homosexual, another student responded, “Oh! That’s how you got in!”
Similarly, it was not uncommon for my male classmates to ask me to my face whether I was the active or passive partner during sex. Those I saw most often typically inquired more than once. Another classmate once asked me if I had formerly been a woman.
The term “gay” was often used as a pejorative for anything bad. I heard heterosexual men speak about other gay students “taking it up the ass.” And one time, when I arrived late for class, a fellow student asked me if I was “too busy having butt sex to make it on time.”
Heterosexual male classmates would routinely flirt with me in an uncomfortable manner, often getting drunk and jokingly grabbing at my body in blatant ways. One even became extremely intoxicated one time and jumped on top of me on the dance floor, straddling me like he was riding a horse. I didn’t ask for any of this, and it didn’t make me feel welcome or desirable; it made me feel like the butt of a joke.
Then came recruiting, where I was told that certain careers or companies just weren’t “gay-friendly.” I spent time looking at LGBT workplace indices to ensure that companies I applied for had some modicum of openness, but many of those who visited the school weren’t listed on the index, implying that they were unreceptive. At a recruiting event for Booz, an employee said in front of all of his coworkers, “Most of the partners don’t care if you’re gay.”
“Most?” I asked.
Beyond all of that, there was the simple fact of non-belonging. All school social events took place in heterosexual bars, where my classmates got drunk and made out with one another on pool tables. I sat idly by, a non-sexual observer who unintentionally made his heterosexual male peers nervous.
And this was just first year.
At the time, I was a student like any other, trying to manage an overload of schoolwork, extracurriculars, and recruiting obligations. I had little additional mental capacity to reflect on my identity, and yet, I was confronting it at every turn. Sociologists often say that such cognitive dissonance is responsible for minorities’ lower test scores: that such feelings of inferiority and non-belonging can cloud focus and result in bad grades.
Luckily, I still graduated with distinction.
Regardless, I wanted to help you understand the context in which my Stern education took place and the role that my sexuality played in forming that context. My identity was a force field around me, something beyond my control that prevented others from getting too close. Try as I might, everyone could see and feel my difference—recruiters, peers, teachers, even myself.
It is in the context of this sort of experience that I want you to imagine hearing comments such as those made by Jonathan a few weeks ago. Put yourself in the shoes of someone separated from his peers by a gulf of difference, someone trying to situate themselves comfortably when they are a circle among squares.
To hear your sexuality referred to as “repulsive.” Compared to something most acknowledge to be “disgusting” or amoral (although I personally believe incest should be legal). Or even worse, to hear it referred to as “genetic,” as if it were a form of cancer or a mental disorder.
Then a disingenuous apology followed by a heteronormative diatribe.
pornography appealing to men that shows two women
Please note the subtlety: “men” is meant to imply “heterosexual men,” a common and exclusionary assumption that all men, real men, or normal men are attracted to women. Gay men are an aberrant exception—not part of the natural spectrum of male sexuality—but something outside of it, something we can ignore for the purposes of “scientific” inquiry when a “social psychologist” looks at “evidence.”
There is something else to keep in mind. Representations of Lesbians often emphasize their value as sexual eye candy for heterosexual men. Such characterizations cheapen Lesbian relationships, undermining their legitimacy and objectifying women. Imagine if the only manner in which your relationship could be recognized by society, by the media, by your professors was as something “sexy” or “kinky” or “arousing” rather than something loving—a valid mode of partnership. Such is the tradition of belittling that Jonathan chose to emphasize to the class in order to prove—what was he trying to prove?
there is some [pornography] showing two men but much, much less
This comment about pornography was meant to prove the naturalness of distaste for homosexuality: the validity of Scott’s (the film’s “protagonist”) revulsion at homosexual sex. What a thing to prove!
As my friend and classmate Josh Cohen pointed out previously, can you imagine if the professor had taken class time to prove how easy it might be for someone to be disgusted by another minority—say Blacks or Hispanics? The administration never would have tolerated it.
That a professor could take class time to legitimize antigay animus is beyond my comprehension. For all Stern’s talk of “Business and Society,” for the time we took during launch to envision a better world — is this the sort of society you intended? Is this that better world?
Also, as a factual matter, I have trouble believing the professor’s assertion. About 5-15% of porn depicts gay men according to the best source I could find. And gay men, with their higher-than-average disposable incomes, are known for their consumer power. I’d actually like to see some figures on this issue if Jonathan has them.
If he doesn’t (my suspicion), then I’d like to question the utility of making such a bold statement. Is it not irresponsible and misleading? As a “social psychologist”—as an academic—should he not have better information at his disposal before wading into sensitive waters, misleading the class, and making LGBT students uncomfortable? Should he not be more conservative in his claims? Avoid speaking where he lacks expertise?
My experience with Jonathan is that he is seldom so responsible. I remember the first time I heard him speak in Dolly Chugh’s LIO class. His speech on “hiving” was littered with uninformed clichés about Eastern religions that showed only the most cursory acquaintance. As someone who had studied the topic at even merely an introductory level, it was hard to wrap my head around the fact that this person who trafficked in stereotypes was being presented to me as an expert.
Such distortion is the flavor of Jonathan’s work, though. His books and his speeches are exercises in overreach, sensationalism, and caricature. But perhaps this is “something about which reasonable people can disagree.”
The most troubling aspect of all, though, is not the words and not the intention.
The most troubling aspect is the laughter. Jonathan used his position of authority to make the class laugh at LGBT people. What took place in that auditorium was no less than public ridicule—a shaming of people like me. Jonathan invoked a heteronormative trope that he knew would evoke laughter, and then he paused as the class was encouraged to make light of the embarrassment felt by Turchese and by the other queer students present.
I want you to imagine being one of those students. Watching your sex life being put under a microscope, being likened to what most regard as sin, being objectified as mere pornography for heterosexual men. When you already come to class every day and face a student population that sees you as nothing more than your sexuality.
Moreover, Jonathan’s comments were a dog whistle to the LGBT community. They might seem innocent to the heterosexual community, but queer students are familiar with these old-hat tropes. They prod at our identities in sore places.
This sort of language cannot be allowed to predominate in Stern classrooms. Professors must be held accountable for fostering an inclusive learning environment for their students.
It is not that they can’t make mistakes, but rather than when they do, they should apologize. Sincerely. Publicly. And they should learn why they were wrong. Perhaps the entire Stern community could use a lesson in sensitivity where minorities are concerned. There are trainings that can help to accomplish this.
NYU lies in the heart of the Village just down the street from Stonewall, where the gay rights movement began. It has a part to play in that proud legacy.
Moments such as these define your leadership, Peter, and they define our community. They will determine whether students, staff, and alumni hold you and the school in high regard.
This moment in particular will determine for me, and for most of the LGBT Stern alumni, whether there is a place for us at the table. Whether Stern values our contributions, our diversity.
I hope the answer is “yes.”