The Advocate July/Aug 2022
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Millennials Aren’t the Fragile Victims We’re Made Out to Be

Millennials Aren't Fragile Snowflakes

Students on college campuses are blamed for stifling free speech by not allowing certain speakers the space to further rhetoric that often translates to violence against marginalized communities. These millennials, perhaps unlike generations before, are unwilling to stand by while individuals who create a brand on hate speech further dangerous language on their campuses. A protest against these speakers, which ultimately shuts down their speeches, is not a violation of free speech.

A legal right to speak freely about your beliefs, however bigoted them may be, is not a right to a microphone or an honorarium. It is a right to express those beliefs and not be imprisoned because of them. It also must not infringe on students' right to protest. These students want safe spaces to be able to learn without having to maneuver around violent presentations.

There is a misunderstanding of safe spaces as bubbles in which college students want to prevent dialogue and remain disconnected from alternative points of view. This understanding is fundamentally flawed. The college students protesting speakers aren't trying to stop dialogue or avoid hearing differing points of view. It’s because they’re aware of what these speakers have to say that they’re protesting it in the first place.

These diatribes from anti-LGBT, sexist, or white supremacist speakers are not new. What they have to offer are recycled, bigoted talking points from yesteryear. These viewpoints are built into the very foundation of our country, a system that has long viewed minority groups with contempt.

These protests are about a redistribution of power. Both historically and currently, those in majority groups that hold power have been able to dictate when, how, and where these types of conversations take place. Conversations on race, women, LGBT people, and other marginalized community groups, such as the disabled or undocumented, have always been controlled by those in power.

Academic spaces that take this history into account and create safe spaces allow for minority groups and allies to set the parameters for the conversation to be had. Safe spaces create space for people who aren’t typically heard. Safe spaces give warnings about topics that can be triggering for individuals with past trauma. They require intentionality in language and a commitment to inclusivity.

These spaces allow for people to engage with differing viewpoints but engags in a way that doesn’t continue violence against minority groups. These venues also don't allow voices that have no interest in actual dialogue but only in furthering ideologies that harm minority groups.

This is not silencing. Individuals are free to share their views, but spaces of academia are not required to give them a platform. It feels like silencing because those in power are used to being able to spew whatever violent rhetoric they want, wherever they want. 

Still, somehow, this effort to prioritize minority groups is painted as fragility. These criticisms of students are not limited to the mainstream but are increasingly prevalent in LGBT spaces. Cynthia Belmont, a professor of English and gender and women’s studies at Wisconsin's Northland College, took to Salon to air her grievances with her queer students who she characterized as “fragile, easily triggered.” Belmont is worried queer culture has lost its edge, offering as evidence examples of LGBT people being critical of Caitlyn Jenner’s “Dude Looks Like a Lady” Instagram post and students offended by drag performances that allegedly included triggering material.

Belmont isn’t the only LGBT person who feels younger LGBT people are ruining the fun. These same criticisms come from mother RuPaul, who believes we’re too focused on identities. In a recent interview with Time, RuPaul said intent is what’s important.

“When it gets down to survival, you have to pick your battles, and you don’t pick battles with your allies. And I think, as the Trump era moves on, your allies and your enemies will become more and more evident. The people who are mulling over certain words will have to ask themselves, ‘Is that word coming from a place of love, or coming from a place of hate?’” he said, pointing to a highly criticized joke Bill Maher told in which he used an antiblack racial slur.

Still, intent doesn’t negate impact, and Maher’s decision to use a slur, as a white man, deserved the scrutiny it received.

Both RuPaul and Belmont are part of the queer community and are certainly not trying to harm anyone, especially not folks within their community. Their criticisms come from a place of love and concern as elders who have paved the way for LGBT millennials. Still, their insistence on not being self-critical on how speech can be weaponized, even if unintentionally, is detrimental to a truly intersectional movement.

Language is powerful, and its use has tangible ramifications. It’s why I value the work I do as an activist and use public speaking and writing to further my advocacy. It can be used to tear down or to lift up, to divide or to create community. To dismiss language that has historically demonized marginalized groups, because it’s from self-identified allies, is wrong.

For many, this idea of infighting seems to be a distraction from our true enemies outside our ranks. But allies are not infallible and should be called out when they make mistakes. While it is important to have a unified stance against those who seek to actively do us harm, it is also important for us to have our own house in order. Unity can only come if we are aware of all of the intersections in our community and bring those margins to the center.

I spent a week in North Carolina volunteering as a keynote speaker and mentor to LGBT college leaders from around the country with Camp Pride. The 40 student leaders would most likely be similarly labeled as fragile or victims. They are anything but. Camp Pride gave these students tools on examining privilege and power and how to utilize it in their roles as leaders. The space created that week took into account the various topics that could be triggering for attendees, and because of that created a respectful learning environment.

These are the types of spaces many LGBT millennials wish to create. This doesn’t make us fragile, though it does mean we are sensitive to the lived experiences of those who aren't typically considered. It’s these same students who are the first to put their bodies on the line in direct action and stand up for what they believe in.

LGBT millennials don’t have it all figured out. But we’re willing to make mistakes, learn from them, and do better. We wish to live in a world where we can combat white supremacy, sexism, and anti-LGBT animus both within and outside our queer community. We aren’t satisfied with a status quo that encourages us to bite our tongues when what we need to do is speak truth to power. That’s not fragility, that’s bravery.

Eliel Cruz is a writer and activist whose work has been found iThe Washington Post, Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and more. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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