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I can’t remember when freedom of speech didn’t matter to me. Perhaps it was from growing up with activist parents who were Socialists and civil rights workers, or perhaps it was the repressive nature of my Catholic school education juxtaposed with the martyrdom of the saints who were willing to die for their beliefs. It’s hard to say. But every time I have been arrested in my life, it has been in one or another protest—exercising my rights as a citizen to speak out—from my high school years protesting the waning days of the Vietnam War to the 1980s and 90s in ACT-UP die-ins in New York, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.
In September when a YouTube video allegedly defaming Mohammed sparked violence throughout the Middle East, Ban Ki Moon, the United Nations Secretary General, stated that freedom of expression has its limits.
He was not talking about the violent protestors, but about the filmmaker.
On the last Friday in September, Samantha Pawlucy, a high school sophomore in Philadelphia, where I live, went to school on casual Friday wearing a pale pink T-shirt with white lettering that read: Romney/Ryan.
When she entered her geometry class, her teacher, Lynette Gaymon, told her that theirs was a “Democratic” school and she had to remove the shirt or leave the class, saying the shirt was akin to one reading “KKK.” When Pawlucy refused to either remove her shirt or leave the classroom, Gaymon taunted her and encouraged her students to do the same. She even went into the hallway and told others to “look at what she’s wearing.”
After a week of attacks, Pawlucy was forced to transfer to another school.
In the U.K., a move to remove the word “insulting” from Section 5 of the Public Order Act of 1986 has been underway since May and under immediate review since mid-September. A wide array of groups has protested the word which makes it an offense to say almost anything that can be construed as insulting or controversial. On Oct. 15, gay writer and actor Stephen Fry tweeted, “Insults aren’t very nice, but should they be illegal? Amend Section 5.”
I’m with Fry in querying where we draw the line on free speech. The events in September across the Middle East were incredibly disturbing. Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai called on the U.S. to “punish the filmmaker” who had made the offensive YouTube video, “Innocence of Muslims.” Yet Afghanistan is one of the world’s most repressive nations with regard to free speech—as well as with regard to the rights of women, lesbians and gay men.
Free speech issues should be paramount for all LGBT writers. Yet more and more often I see queer writers with an expectation of free speech for themselves, but not for others.
Alas, free speech doesn’t work that way. What represses some represses us all. Jane Addams, one of our great lesbian foremothers in America and one of the most important activists the U.S. has ever known, a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931, was adamant about the importance of free speech in times of war and peace.
Addams noted, “The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself.” Addams was speaking categorically, not individually, so perhaps it would have been more correct to say “one’s self,” but the point is clear: free speech is for everyone, even—and perhaps most especially—the speech we don’t like.
Think of all the people who hate what we have to say as LGBT writers and activists. The mind boggles. Think of all the places where our very being is anathema: In Jamaica, gay men and lesbians are beaten, raped and killed on a regular basis. In South Africa, “corrective rape” of lesbians has become a new trend. In Iran, Ahmadinejad claims we don’t exist, yet gay men were executed last year in that country for being gay. In Gaza, the world capital of honor killings, lesbians are murdered by their own family members for the shame of loving other women, even as the Palestinian hierarchy protests repression from Israel.
As long as horrors like these exist, we must speak out against them—we must exercise our rights to free speech.
But therein lies the conundrum, of course, because in doing so, we may offend. We may, as Ban Ki Moon suggests, cross the boundaries others would place or have placed on our freedom of expression.
Fundamentalists of all stripes—Islamist, Christian, Orthodox Jew—are revulsed by our very existence as queers. So when we speak our truth, our existence, our right to live and love to their unholy power (or their immorality as Addams frames it), we are cast (as Karzai cast America as a whole after the YouTube video incident) as infidels and blasphemers.
In the late 1980s, I was living part of the time in London. As it happened, I was in North London the day the police came and took Salman Rushdie’s then-wife, writer Marianne Wiggins, into protective custody after a fatwah was issued against Rushdie because of a few scenes in his book The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie has a new book out about his time in exile, Joseph Anton: A Memoir. An interview I heard with Rushdie on NPR a few weeks back ran counterpoint to the latest furor over alleged slights to Mohammed in the Middle East. The irony was palpable.
Rushdie’s memoir is a compelling book—it details the anger and tedium and life-altering drama of such an experience, but it also delves into the entire concept of literary license and speech as we know it. Or wish we knew it.
I remember those days in London with such clarity, because I had never experienced such cognitive dissonance with people I knew to be otherwise rational. Yet I knew several Muslim writers at the time who, when asked their opinion on Rushdie, never skipped a beat when they responded that yes, he should be executed. And as they spoke, it was impossible for me not to remember the abject fear on the face of Rushdie’s wife, Marianne Wiggins, a writer whose work I thought was at least as brilliant as Rushdie’s, as she was led into the waiting car. (Fear and hiding would destroy their marriage as Rushdie explains in Joseph Anton.)
I doubt many of those rampaging through the streets over the ten-minute anti-Muslim video had actually seen it, just as I doubt many of those who wanted Rushdie dead had read his book. And therein lies the peril. As the protestors burned down theaters, I wondered what the theme was—other than the same tired “death to America” trope of course. Was the idea to burn out the very idea of speech that wasn’t sanctioned by religious fiat?
Queers find themselves on both sides of the free speech question. Those of us who are writers want the freedom to write and say what we want. I know I do. Yet a preponderance of LGBT people have become part of the larger wave of those who would limit free speech. Because while we want to be able to say whatever we want about “them,” we do not want “them” to say whatever they want about us.
But what about hate speech, we argue?
What about it? What constitutes hate speech and what constitutes free speech? That’s the question being posed before Parliament right now in the U.K. in deciding whether or not to rescind the offending—or protective—”insulting” from Section 5.
But what about Chick-fil-A and Michele Bachmann and Fred Phelps and anyone who says anything we don’t like? Several queer friends said they would never watch Jon Stewart again because he claimed the free speech argument for Chick-fil-A’s CEO. But they still shop at Wal-Mart, because the Walton family has been less overt in its condemnation of queers—they just give money to anti-gay causes sotto voce.
It’s a slippery slope, this free speech argument, because it impacts us so directly and so definingly. How can we have a broad, discursive, expansive literature of LGBT life without free speech that might offend the straight world? Conversely, how do we quell our own innate desire to shut down the speech of anyone who equivocates on our perception of ourselves as LGBT people?
Yet isn’t that the sine qua non of the debate? Noam Chomsky, philosopher and perhaps America’s last remaining true progressive, is succinct and unequivocal about this. Chomsky says, “If we don’t believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don’t believe in it at all.”
But one writer friend disagrees. She insisted that the Muslim film was the very definition of Oliver Wendell Holmes’ delineation of shouting fire in a crowded theater. Yet there are limitations to that theater, and it can’t be everywhere in the world, all the time. Plus, if that film is indeed “fire!” it presumes that we expect certain groups of people to be so intolerant and so out of control, that they can’t help themselves: if you draw a cartoon of a turban that looks like a bomb about to go off, then people will have to riot and destroy and kill. Not just the cartoonist/satirist, but anyone else who happens to be in the way of their rage.
The fact is, the YouTube video was not shouting fire in a crowded theater. That narrow interpretation of what is not protected by the First Amendment explains very clearly—because Holmes was a jurist of genius—what can and cannot be said. Yelling fire in a crowded theater will cause a level of pandemonium that could very well result in people being killed. We’ve seen it happen. But the world is not a theater. And we are all capable of self-restraint when enraged by speech. Lesbians and gay men were not dragging Chick-fil-A’s Dan Cathy out of his house and beating him to death, nor has he had to go into hiding for the next decade because of what he said. Because most of us can indeed control our actions, no matter what slight has been visited upon us individually or collectively.
So yes, there are indeed limits. Which means in the parts of the world that exalt free speech—which are becoming fewer and fewer—we need to be careful to protect it, even when it galls us.
No one wanted neo-Nazis marching through the largely Jewish enclave of Skokie, Illinois, but the ACLU had to support their right to free speech. Why? Because free speech is rarely what we want to hear. It’s usually something that will offend someone, somewhere. Speech we all agree on hardly matters. It’s when conflict arises that speech takes on a taint.
And that’s what queers have to remember as we seek to narrow free speech further and further ourselves in our quest for political correctness and some level of tolerance. Free speech is complicated—it’s rarely black and white and it rarely has a single component. Adrienne Rich wrote extensively about self-censorship. How women self-censor, how lesbians do. The marginalized are used to not speaking, to being wary, to carefully framing our statements so as not to offend the majority. But self-censorship is a form of silence.
If Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy says something about queers that we don’t like on a radio show, well, that’s actually his right. Just as it is then our right in response to boycott his restaurants and tell people why. Most of us learn causation as toddlers. So why are we surprised as adults when it’s all around us?
I’d love to silence the Fred Phelpses and Maggie Gallaghers and Dan Cathys out there. I’d even like to silence the guy—whatever name he’s using now—who made that YouTube video. But then I’d also have to silence Salman Rushdie and myself. And I don’t want to do that.
Free speech is a privilege few people have. When Malala Yousafzai—a 15-year-old Pashtun activist speaking out for the rights of girls to be educated in Pakistan—was shot in the head by the Taliban on Oct. 9, the limitations of free speech were clarified for many in both Pakistan and around the globe.
Malala had been speaking out for years—she had been awarded the International Children’s Peace Prize, she was chair of the District Child Assembly in the heavily restrictive Swat Valley where she lived. She’d been an activist since the age of 11. She’d risked her young life for four years out of 15. And as she lies in a U.K. hospital where she was airlifted for treatment, we don’t know if she will recover. The entire top of her skull was shattered and will have to be rebuilt to protect her young brain. But how much damage to that brain remains unknown.
And what was her crime, again? Speaking out in a world where women and girls opening their mouths in protest is anathema.
In the West we are horrified by this crime against this young girl. But what about the lesser crime against the girl in Philadelphia, who was exercising her own free speech rights in a country where girls can go to school and free speech is a supposed given? I’m sure I would have liked to rip that T-shirt right off her if I had been her teacher. But then I would have had to do the same to all the students wearing T-shirts whose slogans I supported. Better to turn the T-shirt into a teachable moment about divergent views and, ahem, free speech.
It’s wearing, this free speech argument. I want it and I don’t want people who say things and believe things I find objectionable to have it—yet as Addams stipulates, that’s immoral at its core. As Voltaire wrote, “Think for yourselves, and let others enjoy the privilege to do so, too.” And Walt Whitman’s comment that “the dirtiest book of all is the expurgated book” was made before his own work was banned. It’s difficult to imagine in 2012 how Leaves of Grass was ever deemed obscene and banned, but the fact is, queer writers have a history with being censored. Free speech? Not for us.