Submitted by the Graduate Queer Alliance
The Stony Brook University Graduate Queer Alliance is the University’s first graduate queer organization. The Graduate Queer Alliance is an all-inclusive group for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer people and their allies to create a sense of community for those in sexual and gender minorities.
We at the Stony Brook University Graduate Queer Alliance (GQA) believe that a university should provide an open forum for controversial ideas to be discussed and debated. We encourage open dialogue as a way to evaluate evidence, formulate opinions and communicate those opinions to others. However, not all ideas are morally fungible. Some are, in fact, harmful, and at a liberal educational institution, injurious ideas are rightfully criticized and not given an unquestioned platform to be presented. A different mechanism of presentation is required if ideas are deemed potentially harmful, and this mechanism holds to a higher standard the rigor with which they will be subsequently evaluated.
The “debate” that happened at the Student Activities Center auditorium at Stony Brook University on April 16 flies in the face of the kind of dialogue encouraged at a public institution, especially dialogue funded with public money. The topic of the debate was, “What better explains morality, God or science?” At its surface, it seems like a complex and controversial topic (that myopically assumed only two answers), but is, nevertheless, one that students should engage. The problem with this debate was not the topic, but the people debating the topic.
Michael Shermer, who is an author and has a monthly “Skeptic” column in Scientific American, was arguing for science, and Frank Turek was arguing for God. The latter is a prominent conservative Christian with what might be considered extreme perspectives on certain issues, especially homosexuality. Given our current political climate and the background of Dr. Turek, it was inevitable that this topic would be engaged during the debate. Turek’s positions are clear and in the public sphere. Although the LGBTQ* spectrum includes more than just gay people, gay people were the explicit focus of the presenters at this debate. In fact, Dr. Turek has written a book deriding gays and suggesting doom for countries that accept them in any way, shape, or form (as how the book was advertised by the moderator).
During the debate, Dr. Turek informed the audience that he has met many former homosexuals but never a former African American. He incited a clear divide between African Americans and gays by claiming that one is a more legitimate minority than the other. He also stated that gays have a choice in their sexual orientation, implying that they could choose not to be gay and therefore avoid discrimination, unlike African Americans who cannot choose their skin color. He discussed how a “homosexual lifestyle” was deadly, and when pressed by Dr. Shermer to define said lifestyle, he refused out of respect to the audience, citing the implied vulgarity of the answer. This refusal came following his 20-minute debate introduction where he showed Nazi propaganda videos and discussed torturing and murdering children in Nazi death camps. His implication was that the “homosexual lifestyle” is in some way worse and more discourteous than these genocidal war crimes.
In addition to this nonsense, Turek was openly and unabashedly Islamophobic, sexist and misogynistic. He misrepresented the views of a variety of other groups as well, and mocked and denied the theory of evolution the same week that scientists at Stony Brook discovered humanity’s oldest stone tools.
Turek’s propaganda is so far from the truth that it should be self-evident in the 21st century and especially to the millennial generation that currently attends Stony Brook that a speaker who holds these beliefs should not be given such a prestigious platform to speak in the first place. This is not an issue of free speech, not least because the views that Dr. Turek expresses have already been evaluated and exchanged in public forums countless times, and it has been concluded that they are indeed wrong and harmful. We do not tolerate people who advocate for ridiculous things like racial segregation in schools an unquestioned platform to speak, despite the fact that they are allowed to express those views in other public forums. A public school administration would rightfully fight the expression of bigotry like this on a college campus, so why should someone who speaks just as hatefully toward gays and other groups be treated differently?
We may live in a country and a world where many of people do in fact agree with Dr. Turek. However, this does not change the fact that what he is saying is factually incorrect and truly harmful to students. Again, disagreement and debate on social and moral matters, even when there is a common set of facts, is the crux of a liberal university culture. Free and open debate should be encouraged, but not when what is being said is so clearly wrong and so clearly harmful to others.
The nature of the university demands that there be a mechanism to discuss all views, as objectionable and repulsive as some of them might be. In fact, one might argue that exposing these views to the public might allow them to be subject to an enhanced degree of criticism, which would not happen if they were censored. This is why the GQA endorses the idea that more speech and dialogue about this sensitive matter, not less, is the solution when there are conflicting interests at play. The goal is a “positive sum game” where all viewpoints can be presented and evaluated in a manner consistent with our school’s values.
When Columbia University invited the Holocaust-denying former president of Iran, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, to speak at the school, there was of course protest, and rightly so. However, the event was widely publicized and constructive criticism of the event happened both before, during and after. Indeed, the president of the Jewish organization Hillel signed a declaration of support for the event (and at the same time criticized the school for not giving students more notice for the event). As far as the LGBTQ* community at SBU is concerned, Turek’s views towards us are similar to Ahmadinejad’s towards Jewish people. Turek actively denies the existence of LGBTQ* people, and (at least it should) go without saying that this nonsense should not be tolerated. President Lee Bollinger of Columbia, in introducing former President Ahmadinejad, spoke out against his intolerance in Iran to his face. On the other hand, the event at Stony Brook was organized with support from the School of Social Welfare, which extolled Turek and New York Apologetics. The event was not advertised to students, even though it used public resources. No notification to the campus was given that this event was taking place and LGBTQ* services was not informed, despite the homophobic reputation of one of the speakers.
Stony Brook is a prestigious research school, with a rich history of activism and liberalism. It is incumbent upon the administration at all levels to ensure fair and open dialogue without bringing harm to any community on campus. In some cases, Turek’s homophobic comments were met with roaring applause, demonstrating the level of misunderstanding and lack of empathy for LGBTQ* and other minorities at Stony Brook. This becomes significant as we live in a benighted age when institutional homophobia and queerphobia hide behind supposed freedoms of expression and religion, guaranteed in the Constitution. Turek’s hate-speech instigates and nourishes a culture of homophobia and should simply not be tolerated on campus without the appropriate actions taken to put it into context.
At the Graduate Queer Alliance, we believe in free speech, we believe in the freedom to practice one’s faith, we believe in diversity. We support these things even if opinions are different from our own. However, we are vehemently against pointless bigotry of any sort. Together with other LGBTQ* groups and other clubs and organizations on campus, we are passing resolutions against Turek’s hate-speech. At our weekly meeting, we passed a resolution demanding censure of the School of Social Welfare’s decision to host this event in the dark, in a flawed manner, and with public funds. We will ask for an apology from the administrator(s) involved in bringing Dr. Turek and his homophobia to campus without following proper protocols that should be second nature when dedicating time and resources to an event at a university. We ask for the Offices of the President, the Dean of Students, the Graduate School and the University Senate to reiterate the university’s commitment to providing an inclusive environment for all students, especially LGBTQ* folks, to flourish and grow. More dialogue on this manner will not simply meet needs of LGBTQ* students, but will teach all students about how an academic culture of freedom should operate. We open our meetings to provide a safe space to members of the university community to heal from Dr. Turek’s bigotry and encourage further discussion on this matter.