A Plate of Privilege, with a side of not - Colton Haney

Looking at me from a distance, you’d think I was the epitome of privilege in this country, and on many levels, you’d be right. Let’s count. I am a:

(1)  white

(2)  cisgender man

(3)  tall

(4)  only child

(5)  in a well-to-do family

(6)  multi-generation American

(7)  educated in some of the best private schools in the country

(8)  with an Ivy League degree.

As if I needed to add to the stereotype of the stuck-up privileged kid, I was a first-team defensive all-state lineman in high school. “How blind must this kid be to the world around him?” you might ask. Well, to put it lightly, I also happen to be attracted to men, which gives me a unique perspective on the privilege I have.

Growing up as a flamboyant little boy in hetero-centric society, I didn’t always feel like I fit in. Beyond my confusion from being told I existed in a heteronormative binary (essentially arguing that I did not truly exist), I faced moments of exclusion rather frequently growing up. Even though not being invited to a sleep-over with other boys, or being told to stop “acting gay” on multiple occasions might not seem terribly hurtful, they were destructive to my confidence and outlook as a child. I didn’t know that I was acting in any sort of manner; I was simply acting as myself. I was slowly, but surely being taught to think that who I was and how I acted was “wrong.”

Having come out almost five years ago, my sexuality has served me little disadvantage given the socially liberal bubbles I have been encased in. I was not naïve to the fact that there are outwardly homophobic people out there, but I had never personally come into contact with them, nor were the attitudes of these individuals accepted or even considered in my circles. However, during those few times when these attitudes did creep silently into one of my bubbles, I remembered that anti-LGBT sentiment does exist, even in the library lounge chair next to me.

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In the middle of my junior year, I was presented with one of these moments. I was aimlessly scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed when I came across a sponsored article: “Love Letter to a Lesbian.” I clicked on it, expecting the article to be one that told the author's story and offered words of support, much like the It Gets Better Campaign. Unfortunately, the article was a bait and switch, and went down a path of condemning homosexuality after the author, Jackie Hill-Perry, described her story of finding “redemption” in her religion, allowing her to discontinue her same-sex attractions. Hill-Perry then began to go through the biblical justification of why her past life, much like the “lifestyle” of millions of people across the world, was “sinful, abominable, and unnatural.” She justified this by referencing passages that are typically cited by religious hate groups, including Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13.

As someone who identifies as agnostic, I do not personally believe in the “God” of the bible I was raised on, or believe that we will ever find the true “answer” that conventional religion attempts to provide. While I hold this position, I do not condemn others who have religious beliefs and worship their respective deities. I only oppose such practices when individuals use religion to publicly shame or condemn another individual's fundamental nature. Why does someone else’s desire to be affectionate to another individual infringe upon your right to lead your own happy life? It was only a mere fifty years ago that the U.S. Supreme Court legalized interracial marriage nationally. Had the same religious justifications been used to attack interracial marriage, would Hill-Perry support that argument too, or would she question herself?”

Having been significantly worked up over this article, I went back to my home page to see why an anti-LGBT article appeared on the news feed of someone who was openly and proudly gay. Just above the word “sponsored” appeared the name of a religious group at Cornell. Needless to say, I was in shock.

I convinced myself that the article reflected the beliefs of one or two members in the organization, rather than reflecting the position of the group as a whole. I then reached out to their leadership and introduced myself, stated my background, and explained how seeing this article sponsored to my feed was jarring. After some respectful back-and-forth with the group’s president, it became clear that this article did reflect the group’s stance. In his final email to me, the president stated: “With that said, [our organization] does stand behind the message that this article conveys— and I personally rejoice in God's universal offer of grace and love upon repentance to him from for my sins.”

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In that moment I realized I had just found a group that actively believed my sexuality was a choice and that my inherent sexuality was condemnable. I was awestruck. No matter how nicely it was stated, hate is hate. Having someone directly tell me that they believe my identity is morally wrong and “sinful” hurt me to my core.

As I reflected upon this experience, I was surprised that a seemingly tame interaction of outward bias towards me affected me to the extent that it did.  If this cordial email was this impactful on me, what must one of my friends that is a person of color feel when they are called a racial slur from a group of people in a car driving by? Or a trans person that is stalked or even assaulted just for walking down the street? Don’t some of these individuals face this type of hate on a weekly, if not daily, basis? My list of questions seemed endless. It was through questions like these that I quickly recognized how my immense privilege in other areas protected me and thus made me previously unaware of the feeling of being actively discriminated against.

While I in no way enjoyed being condemned, having this experience gave me a taste of the far greater discrimination individuals of minority groups face with frequency. During difficult conversations, I find myself straddling the line between being a person of immense privilege and a person who understands what it means to be discriminated against because of who he is. I can understand why a heterosexual individual with all of my additional identifiers would be blind to the importance of these issues, but I can also understand the hurt of a minority student grappling with this lack of understanding.

We all have the ability to empathize with others on the feeling of exclusion. Regardless of its severity or source, we all know what it was like to be on the outside. If we simply remind ourselves of this when engaging with others of different beliefs, colors, creeds, and backgrounds, we all can reach a level of compassion that not only makes our communities stronger, but our nation and world stronger.

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Colton Haney

Cornell University class of 2017