I grew up in the suburbs of Baltimore, Maryland, in a fundamentalist Christian community called The Lamb of God. What began in the mid-1970s as a small group of born-again hippies who played music, prayed together, and proselytized to whoever would listen about Jesus’s unconditional love and mercy, descended into authoritarianism in the 1980s after its founder linked up with the broader charismatic renewal movement that had been sweeping the nation. The Lamb of God’s doctrine became explicit—Christianity good; Islam, feminism, secular humanism, and Marxism bad; and the rules strict—complete submission of all members to the leadership, and of all wives to their husbands.
My father was one of the five male leaders, or “coordinators.” My mother, though she had at one time been considered for the corresponding female role of “handmaid,” was never officially appointed to the position. This meant that she was excluded from the leadership’s official meetings, segregated by sex, in which coordinators and handmaids would discuss the goings-on of their underlings—who was having marital problems, who was doubting the faith, who had transgressed and seemed to be straying—and come up with plans to deal with the problems. It was a culture of purity policing, struggle sessions, and shame.
My siblings and I attended The Lamb of God School, a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade institution with a student enrolment of about a hundred kids, give or take. We spent much of our school days in prayer and worship, learning how to properly fear God and how to be perfect.
In 1995, at the end of my sixth-grade year, my mother decided that she’d had enough. The community had just been investigated by the Catholic Archdiocese for “cult-like practices,” prompting a revealing exposé in Baltimore Magazine, and The Lamb of God’s foundation was beginning to crack. When the leadership got word that the wife of one of its coordinators was questioning its authority, they did what they could to nudge us out. My father, who’d taught geography at the school and served as its superintendent, lost his job due to “budgetary issues.”
That summer, my parents packed up our house and moved our family to a new town—and a new life. No more prayer meetings, no more Christian school, and eventually, no more contact with the friends whom I’d known since infancy.
We were excommunicated.
In The Lamb of God School, there hadn’t really been an in-crowd; bullying and exclusivity were sinful. Thus, I never knew how different I was from most boys my age. In my new public school, I learned quickly.
“Are you a boy or a girl?” a popular kid named Doug asked me in front of our science class.
“Everyone is talking about you,” said Shantel, during homeroom. She opened a book from the school library. Inside was written, “BEN IS A FAG.”
Jacque penned me a letter: “We all know your dirty little secret.”
The timing was stunning, really. Only months before, in The Lamb of God, I had learned all about homosexual pedophiles, and about the plague that our just God had smote upon them. In Bible class, “sodomy” was even one of our vocabulary words. Not to mention that I had recently entered puberty and was coming to realize that I was, in fact, the terrible thing my classmates said I was.
I was gay.
As a survival tactic, I meticulously de-feminized myself: I cut my hair short, deepened my voice, modified my gait, wore baggier clothes, and, at least publicly, quelled my artistic interests. I became the boy my peers required me to be.
Meanwhile, my thoughts were so distressing—thoughts that I was evil; that God had abandoned me because of who, or what, I was; that He would take away everything I loved the most, starting with my mother—that the necessity to be a “perfect” Christian became even more paramount.
To cope, I began to binge-drink alcohol, either alone or with the more rebellious kids in my neighborhood.
And I prayed—for God’s forgiveness and for His mercy from further retribution. Sometimes I prayed all night long, kneeling beside my bed while my younger brother slept nearby. The words would become so jumbled in my head, they’d start to sound like gibberish. Thus, I would have to repeat them over and over again until I had finally gotten it right, lest God refuse my requests on the grounds of disrespectful incoherence.
Eventually, I started praying so often, my mother had to take me to a shrink.
“God is really busy. He doesn’t have time to listen to all of your prayers,” the man said during my first appointment, as if I were an idiot. “Besides, you’re only 12, how much could you be guilty of at your age?”
I said I thought I might be gay.
“Can I tell your mother?” he asked.
“No,” I said.
But he told my mother anyway.
In high school, the praying got worse. By that time, my parents had gotten divorced, my father had moved to another state, and things at home were chaotic. Tuning out the heretical thoughts—sexual thoughts, angry thoughts, envious thoughts, human thoughts—became a full-time job. I soon became plagued by visions: blasphemous images, like serpents intertwined with crucifixes and penises, flooded into my mind out of nowhere. Many years later, once I was formally diagnosed with a type of obsessive-compulsive disorder called “scrupulosity,” I would learn that these “intrusive thoughts,” along with repetitive prayer and other rituals, are a common symptom of the illness. But at the time, I was terrified. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
When I was 16, I got a job as a busboy at a local seafood restaurant. I started hanging out with coworkers who smoked a lot of pot. The first time I tried it, I was hooked. The bad thoughts dissipated. And even if a few slipped through, they weren’t so terrible—almost funny, really. It felt like I didn’t have to pray as much. It even made the idea of hooking up with men seem less scary.
But during my senior year, the pot stopped working. In fact, it was starting to make me paranoid. My friends turned me on to Vicodin, Percocet, and OxyContin. Those, too, brought little relief.
I graduated from high school in May 2001. That August, I began my first semester at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. On September 11th, I arrived home from English class just in time to watch the North Tower collapse. As the news replayed the images of the attack, I felt like what was occurring on screen was also happening on my insides. At the end of that first semester, I dropped out of college.
The following February, I went to Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The trip is mostly a haze, but the memories I do retain are vivid: losing my virginity to a man from San Francisco, and a cocaine binge that, two weeks later, would trigger a manic episode so severe, I would become psychotic and require hospitalization. Since I was delusional and also talking about seeing things, like penises fucking crucifixes and serpents exploding from my heart, I was diagnosed with schizophrenia and pumped full of anti-psychotic medications. A hellish year of multiple trips to the psychiatric ward would follow.
In February 2003, I ran into an old friend from high school at the grocery store. I was drunk, unemployed, and my mother had just kicked me out of the house. My friend said she was doing a cosmetology apprenticeship at a local hair salon but would soon be leaving to go work in youth ministry full time (I know, the irony). Did I want to take her place? I said sure, why not.
One afternoon, in late May, I was blow-drying a client’s hair when I overheard a young woman talking to my boss about her recovery. “I’m six months clean and sober today,” she said proudly. A short while later, the woman walked outside to smoke a cigarette. I followed her.
“Excuse me,” I said.
The woman turned around. Globs of hair color dribbled down her forehead.
“I need help,” I said.
Her eyes lit up.
That night, she took me to a 12-step meeting, and I got sober.
* * *
Over the next few years, I avoided drugs and alcohol, my schizophrenia diagnosis was rescinded, and I was properly diagnosed with OCD. Doctors prescribed Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors, which helped with the symptoms (the weight gain, I could have done without). But efforts to reconcile my sexuality with the fire-and-brimstone doctrine of my childhood continued to prove futile. As I saw it, the seriousness of my “perversion” meant that, in all other areas of my life, I had to be as close to perfect as possible if I wanted any real chance at salvation.
Of course, I was also questioning the faith itself, becoming more skeptical, which felt dangerous. In the romantic sphere, I had a few short-lived dalliances, but mostly I had anonymous sex with strangers I met online.
In my mid-20s, I had my first real relationship with a man named Jeff. We dated for about two years, even moving in together. But Jeff was HIV-positive, and I was too immature to handle the various ways his status complicated the relationship. In early 2011, I broke it off and moved out.
Around that time, the push for marriage equality gathered fresh steam among Democrats, but I couldn’t have cared less. I was prepared to live my life alone. I truly believed, deep down, what I had always been taught about gay people: that we weren’t capable of real romantic love, only hedonism.
But then, on a late-summer night, when I was 28, I met a man at a Baltimore gay bar, and everything changed. Within a few months of dating, we had fallen in love, and a future of new possibilities opened up for me. Suddenly, the political stakes felt real.
On election day 2012, I stood outside of a local elementary school, holding a sign above my head that read, “Vote Yes on Question 6,” the amendment that would uphold same-sex marriage in Maryland, which the state legislature had approved the previous February. Nearby stood my opponents, a small gathering of men, representing the 109,000 Marylanders who’d petitioned the state secretary to submit the new law to a public referendum.
“Vote for equality!” I shouted to the passersby.
“In Jesus’s name,” shouted my opponents, “vote ‘No!’”
On election night, we gathered at a music venue in downtown Baltimore where, just after midnight, we learned that we’d won, 52 percent to 48 percent. For the first time in US history, marriage rights had been extended to gay couples by popular vote. Balloons rained from the ceiling. We Are Family blasted from loudspeakers.
Driving home, I felt so elated, I thought my car might take flight. I wanted to keep chasing that feeling—the feeling of hope and empowerment that came with fighting for social justice. By that time, I’d been a hairstylist for nearly a decade. As the cool November air rushed through my car windows, I resolved to do something more with my life.
In January 2013, I attended a transgender rights rally at the Maryland State Capitol. Afterwards, I visited the offices of Republican congressman, urging them to vote for a bill that would protect trans people from discrimination in employment and housing. The bill wouldn’t pass that year, but my passion for social justice would grow.
In October 2014, I got married. Two months later, over Christmas Eve dinner, I admitted to my husband how unsatisfied I was with my career, and how desperately I wanted to go back to school to study journalism and human rights.
“You need to go for it,” he said.
Within weeks, I was enrolled at my local community college, which I attended part time (while working full time) for a year. Then, in April 2016, I was accepted to Columbia University. That December, one month after the 2016 election that brought Donald Trump to power, my husband and I moved to New York. My first semester would begin in January, the week of Trump’s inauguration.
That the greatest strides in the history of the gay rights movement had coincided with the beginning of my life with my husband—our chance meeting, our oddly conventional courtship, our dreamlike wedding and European honeymoon, and, undergirding all of it, my newfound belief that I, a gay man, had just as much of a shot at a normal and happy life as any straight American—felt preordained, almost divinely so. I walked taller, feared anti-gay bigotry less, and, more often than not, saw my glass as half-full. Trump’s victory had appalled me, but also roused my urge to become more political: Like many gay Americans, I wasn’t willing to see everything we’d won get undone by an anti-LGBT administration.
I was also energized by the opportunity to leave my too-purple hometown for the solid-blue wonderland of Manhattan—and to attend Columbia, one of the birthplaces of 1960s radical liberation. In this scary new world of Trumpism—MAGA rallies, “alternative facts,” evangelical prayer circles in the Oval Office—the university would be my safe space, where I would #RESIST along with other likeminded, peace-loving liberals.
As soon as the semester began, I hit the ground running. In my Readings in Human Rights course, I researched the ongoing efforts of American Christian groups to criminalize homosexuality around the globe, and published an article about it in the Huffington Post. For Columbia Daily Spectator, I wrote about the ongoing stigmatization of HIV-positive gay men, as well as a profile of the trans activist (and writer in residence at Columbia’s Barnard College) Jennifer Finney Boylan. Between classes, on the steps of Low Library, I shouted in protest of Trump’s Muslim ban. On the quad, I performed salat al-‘asr (afternoon prayer) in solidarity with Muslim students. It was thrilling, all of it. I felt like I’d finally made it.
The first time I realized Columbia might not be the bastion of radical liberalism that I’d hoped was the night I attended an information session for a student-run LGBT organization. I imagined that this was a hive of activity, which would need my help on any number of initiatives, what with Trump in power and a right-wing evangelical serving as his second-in-command.
As it turned out, things were rather chill. On the group’s agenda was slumber parties, at which they would watch movies and decorate posters for their rooms. The 1968-era Columbia SDS, this was not.
Memorably, it was the first time I heard LGBT people exclusively referring to themselves as “queer.” It was also the first time I heard people state their pronouns when they introduced themselves—not just trans people, but LGB people, too.
About halfway through the semester, during a TA-led session of my Contemporary Islamic Civilization class, I found myself participating in a discussion of gender norms in the Muslim world. Someone, either a student or the TA, suggested that Muslim society is harsher on effeminate gay men than it is on masculine women.
“That’s because it’s more acceptable for a woman to act like a man than it is for a man to act like a woman—since societies often believe that if a man behaves like a woman, he is degrading himself,” I said, basically quoting a line from Madonna’s feminist anthem, What It Feels Like for a Girl. A reductive statement, but true, nonetheless. (I can’t say for certain whether I was this lucid or succinct. As with many of the quotations contained in the essay, they reflect my best recollection of words that were spoken.)
A female student’s hand went up. “Excuse me,” she said, “but there is nothing easier about being a woman in society than a man.”
Heads swiveled toward me. “Right,” I muttered, “I…”
A tense silence ensued.
“Let’s move on,” the TA said.
My heart pounded. What had I said wrong?
When the discussion section ended, I gathered my things and caught up with the student in the hallway. “Excuse me,” I said, “I’m sorry, but I was just curious to hear more about why you objected to what I said.”
“Um, I don’t know,” she answered impatiently. “What was it you said again?” She genuinely seemed to have forgotten the whole thing.
I attempted a good-natured shrug. “Oh, it’s not important,” I said. “I’m Ben, by the way.”
She smiled flatly and walked away.
In retrospect, it was an innocuous exchange. At the time, though, I was disturbed by it. I saw myself as an accepted member of this progressive world I’d embraced. But even when (as in this case) pronouncing a fundamentally feminist point of view, my perceived identity—white, male, and conventionally masculine in gender presentation—I’d frequently be perceived by students as privileged, and, therefore, ideologically suspect and out of touch. During my time at Columbia, people around me would interpret my words in a way that was the exact opposite of what I’d intended; or they’d cast any kind of nuanced, heterodox perspective as an argument made in bad faith. For “cisgender” white dudes like me—no matter my life experiences, my sexuality, my history of adolescent gender-nonconformity, or the complexity of whichever topic we happened to be discussing—it was best to toe the radically progressive line, using only Party-approved language … or shut the fuck up.
Being accused of wrongthink by a woman felt particularly disorienting to me. Since I was 13, I’d been primarily raised by my mother and my two older sisters, and nearly all of my closest friends were females. I couldn’t remember a time when I wasn’t fiercely passionate about women’s equality. For a young woman to suggest, in front of a room full of people, that I had said something regressive, even sexist, left me feeling ashamed. For as long as I could remember, women had gravitated toward me because I was “safe,” “kind,” a “good guy,” and “like one of the girls.” I believed that my homosexuality allowed me to see life through a dual-gendered lens. But I came to learn that none of this mattered. I would be reduced to the identity that my peers had assigned to me.
As I walked to my next class, I couldn’t let go of the fear that I had done something wrong.
That I was bad.
That I would be punished.
I began to pray: Forgive me, God.
I said it again and again.
* * *
The summer after my first semester, I landed an internship with the LGBT-rights organization GLAAD. There, I worked on the Trump Accountability Project, at the time a fledgling initiative that reported on the new administration’s LGBT-related policies. (With Trump out of office, it is now known simply as the Accountability Project, which, according to GLAAD’s website, “catalogs anti-LGBTQ rhetoric and discriminatory actions of politicians, commentators, organization heads, religious leaders, and legal figures, who have used their platforms, influence and power to spread misinformation and harm LGBTQ people.” The project became the subject of criticism earlier this year when reporter Jesse Singal publicly—and properly—contested the addition of his name to the catalog.) During that summer, I helped GLAAD fight back against Trump’s transgender military ban and the numerous “bathroom bills” that were being pushed through state legislatures around the country, and I marched with GLAAD in New York City’s annual Pride parade.
Within a few days of starting work, I became aware of how consumed the other interns (early 20s, most of them) were by their identities and by online culture. I also began to see the connection between “gender ideology” (as some now call it) and narcissism, and between extreme forms of trans activism and homophobia. (Note that I said connection, not equivalence.) I was struck by the way these younger colleagues seemed to conflate gender identity with gender expression, and how obsessed they were with their appearances—their clothes, their hair, their makeup—and their digital personas.
“You don’t have to take hormones to be trans,” one of the trans-identified interns declared. “You don’t have to do anything.” Though I remained silent, I felt that a lot of trans people, whose wellbeing depended upon their access to hormones, would beg to differ.
It was also at GLAAD that I first heard the terms “nonbinary” and “cisgender,” and, before I knew it, “cis-supremacy.” And it was the first time that I was pejoratively referred to as “cis.” It’s a nominally neutral term used to describe a person whose gender identity aligns with their biological sex. But it’s also an implicit slur, often directed at gay men with traditionally masculine—thus, “assimilationist,” toxic, and regressive—traits.
At the time, I didn’t have the perspective necessary to challenge this new label that had been assigned to me—by, say, pointing out that I’d adopted more masculine traits when I was young as a survival tactic, due to bullying; that my experience with gender is deeply personal; that I am persistently curios about the overlap of gender and sexuality, and about the complicated histories of sexuality across cultures; and that I don’t rely on my appearance to express “who I am,” and instead use words and actions to express ideas and convictions.
I became terrified of transgressing—of either offending another intern (“How can you like Katy Perry when she totally appropriates black culture?” I was asked during my second week) or screwing up someone’s pronouns. But it finally happened one August afternoon, when I said to Morgan (not their real name), who identifies as trans and prefers the pronouns they/them, “Hey girl, you ready to go to lunch?”
Morgan scrunched up their face. I babbled, “I’m so sorry, I call all of my friends, ‘girl!’”—which was the truth and probably had something to do with the fact that most of my friends were women.
It also may have had to do with the fact that, apart from their hairy legs and short haircut, everything about Morgan screamed “woman”—from their wardrobe, to their breasts, to their high voice, to their stature, to all of the other myriad ways on which humans’ evolved intelligence has come to depend as a means to distinguish females from males.
“That’s such a cis gay man thing to say,” Morgan scoffed. And when I didn’t respond, they said it again.
There was one cisgender intern who identified as straight—we’ll call her Sarah. Sarah had wanted to work for GLAAD because she has a sibling who identifies as transgender; and among her priorities in life is creating a world in which her sibling can live safely and happily.
All summer long, I listened to other interns bully Sarah. Sometimes they accused her of being ignorant about queer culture. Sometimes they just accused her of sounding dumb.
One afternoon, Sarah posted a selfie on Instagram in which she wore her best friend’s sweatshirt. “I miss my BFF so much, I’m wearing her clothes,” read the caption, followed by a string of pink heart emojis.
That’s sweet, I thought.
“That’s queerbaiting,” said the interns.
During my last week at the organization, I came across an Out magazine article titled “Dear Gay Men, Stop Telling Women They Can’t Be in Gay Bars,” in which writer Rose Dommu aired her frustration with men who complain about bachelorette parties.
“Women in gay bars are not limited to bachelorettes,” Dommu wrote. “Did you forget that queer women exist? Trans women? Straight women with gay friends or straight women who just like gay bars or drag queens?”
I agreed with the author—that is, until I reached the penultimate paragraph, in which Dommu concludes with a diatribe against gay men: “If you can’t dance to some shitty house song or go down on a stranger just because a woman is in the room, you need to examine what that says about you.”
Not only was Dommu shaming gay men for their musical taste (a total stereotype, by the way: many of us think all house music is shitty), but also for the type of sex they may choose to have. Many gay men still feel ashamed after they have sex with other men, regardless of where it takes place. And one reason we have historically sought out sex in bars and bathhouses—where, yes, it might happen in sight of others—is because many of us don’t feel entirely safe holding hands out in the world, let alone suggesting that we actually put our dicks in each other. Bars and bathhouses were the only places where we could feel entirely free. And in some places, they still are.
After I read Dommu’s article, I opened up about it to Morgan. “I’m so sick and tired of people saying anything about who, how, and where I should fuck,” I said.
Morgan furrowed their brow. “But I think that writer is trans,” they said.
It was a conversation-ender—the suggestion being that I should just suck it up because the writer was a member of a more oppressed segment of the LGBT community. To my mind, the comment also seemed to dehumanize trans people by locating the worth of their ideas in who they are, rather than what they actually think or say. It reminded me of straight people who exclaim how much they love “gay people,” as if we were a monolith—when I can list in 30 seconds a dozen gay people whom I really don’t like at all. Oppressing people because of who they are is dehumanizing. Believing that a group of people should be spared from criticism because they are oppressed represents another form of dehumanization.
Since that time, I’ve noticed that enmity toward “cis” gay men (which often seems a lot like straight up homophobia) has begun to permeate LGBT publications and social media, without any sort of consequences. In a 2020 New Yorker article, for instance, trans/nonbinary writer Masha Gessen (they/them) explained why Pete Buttigieg, the former Democratic candidate for president (and now Joe Biden’s transportation secretary), isn’t “gay enough.”
Gessen analyzed the Buttigieg phenomenon through the lens of intersectionality, a modern theoretical framework that formulates a hierarchy of disadvantage. The greater the disadvantage you suffer, the more immunity from criticism you enjoy, and the more mercy you command from the Church of Social Justice.
Gessen reduced the whole of “queer” America into two groups: the group of queers who can hide their queerness and the group of queers who cannot. The author contends that it’s this categorization that determines a queer person’s political worldviews—worldviews which Gessen similarly reduces to two categories. First is the worldview of queers who “pass,” which says “to straight people, ‘we are just like you, and all we want is the right to have what you have: marriage, children, a house with a picket fence, and the right to serve in the military.’” Second is the worldview of queers who cannot pass, which is “rooted in ideas of liberation, revolutionary change, and solidarity.” Gessen adds, “I am not saying that L.G.B.T. people who don’t pass are somehow morally superior to L.G.B.T. people who do.” But then the author goes on to quote an open letter by a group called Queers Against Pete that describes queers who cannot pass as people “who are clear that LGBTQIA people are directly and disproportionately impacted by police violence, incarceration, unaffordable healthcare, homelessness, deportation, and economic inequality.” Queers who can pass (the “more mainstream” ones), on the other hand, are those who “aim to erase difference.” The suggestion here is that since Buttigieg is not a gender-nonconforming ex-con raising an immigrant child on a socialist commune on Portland’s outskirts, he is, Gessen concludes, an “essentially conservative” “straight politician in a gay man’s body”—and so not up to intersectional snuff for the more authentic half of queer America.
This attitude, which has permeated much of LGBT media in recent years, offers one explanation for the sharp uptick in the number of gay men and women who now identify under the umbrella of “trans/nonbinary.” As I’ve told friends over the last few years, were I to dye my hair purple, start painting my nails and wearing eyeliner, and change my pronouns, I would experience less anti-gay hostility in the “queer” community, since I would have visibly rejected “cis-heteronormativity.” In fact, my change would also be taken as a signal that I’d adopted a whole set of acceptable politics and beliefs, including the belief that people are attracted to others on the basis of their internally felt gender, as opposed to their biological sex.
In the process, however, I would be denying who I really am. While gay men are many and varied, just like every other population, we all share one common trait: sexual attraction to other men, full stop.
For years, I feared homophobic right-wing evangelicals. But these days, I’m equally wary of the progressive activists who push a distinctly homophobic agenda that denies the biological reality of sex—and who claim that what we are attracted to isn’t male or female bodies per se, but rather male or female gender identities. This outlook effectively imagines away the existence of homosexuality, which, in the real world, is of course rooted in physical attraction based on biological attributes. These ideas also serve to instruct gender-nonconforming children (as I once was) that their uniqueness indicates they may have been born inside the “wrong body,” and so will likely have to commit to a lifetime of medicalization if they want to be happy.
Young boys and girls, not to mention impressionable adults, are being led to believe that if, say, a boy likes to wear skirts or put on makeup, he might really be a girl on the inside; or if a girl would rather play football than cheerlead, then perhaps she’s not a girl, but really a boy, or nonbinary. By means of this “progressive” ideology, we regress to a time in which the categories of “boy” and “girl” were defined in a narrow and reactionary manner.
* * *
In the fall of 2017, I took a course called U.S. Lesbian and Gay History, taught by a preeminent scholar in the field, George Chauncey. He was the expert witness in more than 30 US gay rights cases, including Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which struck down laws criminalizing gay intercourse, and Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015, which legalized same-sex marriage nationwide.
During our first TA-led discussion section, we reviewed the readings Chauncey had assigned for our first class, including Karen V. Hansen’s ‘No Kisses is Like Youres’: An Erotic Friendship between Two African-American Women during the Mid-Nineteenth Century.
“It fascinated me to read how socially acceptable it was for the women to behave so romantically with one another,” I said. “Many of my gay black friends often talk about how taboo homosexuality can be in the black community.”
One of these friends was my closest friend at Columbia—a black man who’s lived in New York with his partner (who also happens to be black) for the last 10 years. He openly discusses the heightened levels of homophobia that exist within the black community—a topic that I’d also just seen explored by Lena Waithe in the Emmy-winning show Master of None. When I worked on Maryland’s marriage-equality campaign, I learned that one of our biggest challenges would be in Prince George’s County—one of the wealthiest predominantly-black counties in the country—where black church leaders and activists had rallied against gay marriage.
After I made my comment, a row of white women sitting across from me signaled their discomfort. One spoke up forcefully. “It’s not about it being taboo, it’s because they couldn’t afford to alienate each other within their community,” I remember her saying. “They needed solidarity to fight oppression.”
A young lesbian woman whom I’d become friendly with during orientation week was sitting next to me. “What the hell was that about?” she whispered, surprised by the reaction.
The following week, my friend didn’t show up for the scheduled discussion session, so I texted her.
“Switched to another section—weird vibes in that one,” she wrote.
She was younger than me, much closer to the age of traditional students, and some of the women in the class were dating prospects. I suspected she didn’t want to be seen associating with me. If so, I wouldn’t blame her.
For the rest of the fall session, no one sat next to me.
By the end of the spring 2018 semester, my mental health had eroded. I was depressed and anxious, and my OCD had become unmanageable.
People with whom I’d usually felt safe—including gay people and women—seemed to think I was bad. That I was dangerous. Just another cis white man.
One night, during the fall 2018 semester, I received an email from the university informing me that a student had died (likely by suicide—during the previous school year, there had been a wave of suicides at the school). The email contained all of the obligatory boilerplate—“This is a difficult time, so make sure you use our resources,” and so forth. I clicked on a link to Columbia’s student-run news blog (BWOG) to read about the incident. Beneath the title, in italics, were the words, “Editors note: This article includes mentions of death.”
The trigger warning took me back to a 2007 episode of the View, in which the conservative co-host, Elisabeth Hasselbeck, said that when she read Babar to her young daughter, she tore out the page where Babar’s mother dies. I wanted to ask these student journalists how they planned to endure life beyond Columbia’s gates if they felt they could not even bear to read about death without first being warned. Death is fundamental to the human condition: It’s something that will happen to all of us.
Instead of screaming out my exasperation, I put my objection in tweet form: “When @Columbia @BWOG includes a trigger warning about death … in an article with a title that mentions death,” accompanied by the hashtag #concernedliberal. A few moments later, a writer for BWOG posted a public response, excoriating me for dishonoring the dead and calling me an “absolute piece of shit.”
I felt like I couldn’t breathe. For an hour, I lay on my couch, contemplating how easy it would be to walk upstairs to the roof of my apartment building and jump off. I imagined my body sailing past my living room window on its way down.
A few days later, I admitted to my therapist how paranoid I’d become, how afraid I was of being known on campus as the heartless man who scoffs at suicide. I had even convinced myself that I was going to be kicked out of the university.
I also got honest with him about my suicidal ideation. We eventually had to come up with a plan: At subway stations, I would wait from the top of the stairwell for the next train to arrive, rather than on the platform, lest I impulsively decide to jump onto the tracks.
* * *
In February 2019, my father learned that his cancer, with which he had been diagnosed 15 years earlier, had spread. It looked like it would finally be the end.
In April, I went to see him. I held him in my arms while he wept. He died four days later.
A former headmaster of The Lamb of God School came to my dad’s funeral. At the reception, as he said his goodbyes to everyone, he looked right through me.
In the fall of my last year at Columbia, I took a film criticism course, taught by the former head TV critic for the New York Times, Caryn James.
There, I got to listen to white students complain about how Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman wasn’t woke enough. I got to listen to them talk about how Joaquin Phoenix’s character in Her was creepy and disgusting, how his female-voiced, artificially intelligent virtual assistant had no agency, how she was the victim of his misogyny.
In one class, we discussed the documentary Citizenfour, about Edward Snowden. I said that it was interesting to see Snowden so paranoid about surveillance. People with schizophrenia often become paranoid that they’re being listened to. As it turns out, I said, they might have good reason to be paranoid. I wondered aloud about the implications.
Another student raised her hand and said (again, by my best recollection): “As a psychology minor, I take issue with that. People with schizophrenia have a lot of other symptoms besides paranoia.” She looked at me crossly.
I said, “I know.”
That semester, I signed up for a six-week course called Writing to Make a Difference. It was one of a handful of courses offered by Columbia Artists/Teachers (CA/T), a program that provides free creative writing classes to Columbia and Barnard students, staff, alumni, and affiliates. My schedule was already packed with writing-intensive courses, but I was about to apply to Columbia’s Master of Fine Arts (MFA) program, and since the CA/T courses are taught by MFA students, I thought this might give me a leg up. Also, I genuinely wanted to make a difference with my writing.
On the first day of class—a brisk Wednesday in late October—about 15 people showed up: a mix of undergrads and PhD candidates.
For our first exercise, the instructor split the class into groups of three and told us to share with our partners a specific social-justice issue that we were hoping to tackle with our writing.
“I’ve been really concerned about ‘shame culture,’” I told my group. “I see it online, of course, but also on campus—people being publicly shamed for their ideas. Even if the ideas are problematic, I think it’s a counterproductive method of furthering discourse.” One student, a Jewish man majoring in philosophy, nodded. The other group member, an Asian student, said something I couldn’t quite hear.
“I think that’s a really good idea,” he said when I asked him to repeat himself. I noticed that he was staring at the floor.
After class, as I walked down a fourth-floor corridor of Dodge Hall, he caught up with me. A few weeks earlier, he told me, another student had publicly scolded him for using the term “cross-dressing” instead of “drag.”
“I didn’t know it was bad,” he said. His voice caught.
The following week, the philosophy student would tell me that, during his freshman year, he had been dumped by close friends for using an ableist slur. Specifically, he’d called a music band “lame.”
That semester had begun in unsettling fashion. On the night after my first day of classes, I’d suffered my first serious panic attack in 15 years.
Over the summer, my OCD had become so bad that I finally took advice that had been offered to me by my friend Jenny, a clinical social worker whom I’d confided in about my childhood in a religious cult and the fallout that occurred after my family left it: I began a form of intensive trauma therapy called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. In EMDR therapy—which, in my case, involved holding a pair of vibrating “tappers” while I spoke with my therapist about my past and my most “heretical” thoughts—my therapist and I had determined that my experience at Columbia had retriggered psychological responses (including severe OCD and suicidality) to a degree that I hadn’t experienced since I was a teenager, in the years after my family had left the cult. But in fact, I’d already strongly suspected as much: When you’re raised in a cult, you become skilled at spotting cult-like behaviors (even as you remain vulnerable to their influence), and Columbia was teeming with them, including social groupthink and purity policing.
The morning after a particularly challenging EMDR session, I found an empty seat in Butler Library to read one of the texts that had been assigned for that week’s writing class—a 2016 New Yorker profile of actress Viola Davis, titled, “Viola Davis’s Call to Adventure.” I devoured the article, which detailed, among other things, Davis’s childhood of extreme poverty and the havoc her abusive, alcoholic father wreaked at home. I had long been a fan of Davis, but my admiration for her deepened. The way she spoke about how she channeled her trauma into her creative work moved me. And I immediately wanted to go out and watch all of her movies that I hadn’t yet seen.
My reading of the article was influenced by my academic work that semester, which included a course on African American Literature taught by Robert O’Meally, the director and founder of Columbia’s Center for Jazz Studies. Our reading list included seminal texts by major black figures in history—autobiographies and essays about unfathomable oppression and fierce determination. I’d also been rereading my favorite novel, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, and, for the first time, Song of Solomon, after learning about the writer’s death in early August. On a Thursday morning in November, Professor O’Meally informed the class that Morrison’s memorial would be held later that day at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. When class ended, I packed up my things, hurried down the street to the church, and waited in line with the throngs of mourners. At the memorial, Angela Davis, Oprah Winfrey, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fran Lebowitz, David Remnick, Kevin Young, Jesmyn Ward, Edwidge Danticat, and Michael Ondaatje delivered eulogies. St. John’s is one of the largest cathedrals in the world. Attendance was in the thousands. It felt like some kind of miracle to be counted among them.
But there were also darker thoughts. Over the previous three years at Columbia, ideas about white male supremacy and my inherent complicity in it had been hammered into my head. The experience bore a resemblance to the lessons about homosexuality—another immutable aspect of my identity—that I’d once been taught by my religious mentors.
As Morrison’s memorial proceeded, I began experiencing the feeling that I was a malevolent interloper. Intrusive thoughts rattled my brain: You racist piece of shit, you hate black people. Toni Morrison would spit on your face. You don’t belong here. Get out. When the memorial ended, I hurriedly left, convinced on some level that this white male evil coursing through my body was visible to others.
“What did you all think about the New Yorker piece?” my CA/T instructor asked students the next day.
When I responded enthusiastically, she asked me for specifics about what I liked, which I provided. The instructor said that she was glad I’d gotten so much out of it, but added that it was vital to consider some major missteps that the author of the piece had made.
She turned toward the dry-erase board and uncapped a black marker. The first misstep, she told the class, was the author’s decision to open the piece by mentioning Meryl Streep, a white actress. It was a profile of Davis, not Streep.
Her marker squeaked across the board.
The second misstep was the author’s reliance upon racist tropes about black women—that they are all victims of violent childhoods. Why hadn’t the author centered Davis’s success more—like, for example, the production company that she and her husband had started together?
And speaking of the husband, why did the author include so many quotes from him? This was her story to tell. We don’t need the intrusion of a man’s perspective.
Lastly, she took issue with the section in which the author converses with Davis in her kitchen while she cooks collard greens, a stereotypically black cuisine.
As the instructor listed her grievances on the board, I realized why she had assigned the piece: It was an example of exactly what not to do if we wanted to make a difference with our writing.
“I guess I can see your point about Meryl Streep,” I offered, “but it didn’t affect my reading, only because Davis has talked in the past about how close she and Streep are.”
The instructor gave an unconvincing nod.
While another student spoke, I took the article out of my backpack, realizing that I had somehow neglected to notice who’d written it. The author turned out to be theater critic John Lahr. I picked up my phone and Googled him. A white man in his 70s appeared on my screen.
“What if Davis liked the profile?” I asked the instructor.
“That doesn’t matter,” was the reply.
I looked around the room. No one spoke. So I kept going.
“So much of the article consists of quotes given by Davis—about her past,” I said. “And it’s not like this guy made her cook collard greens. Davis says in the article that it’s her specialty. If that was a part of their interaction, why shouldn’t he include it?”
“These are the things that the author chose to include,” the instructor replied, seeming somewhat flustered. “Just think how much material he probably left out.”
The instructor appeared to be operating under two major assumptions—one, that most or all of the creative choices Lahr had made were born of his maleness and some abstraction called “whiteness”; and two, that it was Lahr’s maleness and whiteness that made the profile not only problematic, but possibly even harmful to black women.
Instead of saying any of this, I acquiesced. “Okay,” I said.
It was time for an in-class exercise. Since the class was so small, we split up into pairs this time. My partner was an undergrad with whom I had yet to interact.
We were instructed to reread the profile together and make a list of all the choices Lahr had made that were problematic. My partner tore a piece of paper from her notebook and began to number it.
“So, the first one would be the inclusion of Streep, I guess,” I said.
She wrote it down and then offered another example, the details of which I don’t recall.
I continued scanning the article—an article about a powerful and successful black woman whose story had, just a day earlier, affected me, a white man, so deeply—for problems.
I looked up at the instructor, who sat nearby.
“I object to this assignment,” I said, more loudly than I had intended.
My classmates stopped working and looked up.
“Why?” asked the instructor.
“Because I would just be making things up.” My heart raced. “Besides, I don’t think it’s right for me, a white man, to try and prescribe the ‘correct’ ways that black women should or should not be written about.” There was so much more I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the words. If I could go back now, I would have added: “What you are teaching defies reason.”
I can’t remember the response. I do remember hearing another student, a young woman sitting to my left, say with sincerity, “I get what you’re saying.” I also remember exchanging a glance with the Asian student, who watched from the opposite end of the room.
I didn’t attend the last two sessions of “Writing to Make a Difference.” I had planned to go, but when the next Wednesday evening rolled around, my legs refused to carry me inside the building. Apparently, they had arrived at the same conclusion as my mind: The instructor and I had very different ideas of what “making a difference” actually meant.
It was during that period, as I was pacing the cobblestone outside of Dodge Hall, that I realized something miraculous had occurred: I’d begun to think for myself.
* * *
In February 2020, during my last semester at Columbia, I was accepted to a nonfiction writing MFA program at a prestigious midwestern university—complete tuition remission, plus a generous annual stipend. I couldn’t believe my luck. I accepted the offer and planned to move to the Midwest in August.
That March, the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York, and all of my Columbia classes went online. Truth be told, I was relieved. The campus was not a hospitable environment for free thinkers.
For a few months, I was hopeful that my graduate program would be different. It was, after all, a midwestern university; and although it had a strong national reputation, it wasn’t in the ultra-progressive Ivy League. But then, in late May, George Floyd was murdered. The entire country, cooped up and glued to social-media streams, went out into the streets, sparking a long summer of peaceful protests as wells as riots and looting. In that climate, free thinking became a difficult thing to do on any campus.
I will never forget the images I saw projected on my television and my Twitter feed: white people washing the feet of black people, just as Jesus washed the feet of the Apostles; the baptisms and the prayer circles at the newly consecrated “George Floyd Square”; the call-and-response sermons of the Black Lives Matter activists as hundreds of white onlookers raised their hands to the sky; and—this one was the most vivid—the struggle session of Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, conducted in Maoist fashion by BLM activists, which ended with the mayor walking, head down, through a crowd of thousands, as they screamed, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” after he’d refused to publicly commit to defunding the police department.
A new religious movement had swept the country. Intersectionality stopped being just one of many lenses through which to study, and hopefully improve, a pluralistic society, and now became an institutionally sanctioned, fundamentalist dogma. One’s morality was no longer judged on the basis of words and deeds, but rather was intrinsic to one’s racial and gender identities. It was officially a race to the bottom of the privilege pyramid—a contest to claim the most oppressed identity.
In June 2020, about a month after I graduated from Columbia, the MFA program at my new school convened a Zoom session for “white allies.” The facilitator was a graduate student representative on the university’s Board of Trustees and a “change agent” for the Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. After viewing the viral How Can We Win? video (in which author Kimberly L. Jones gives an impassioned defense of looting), we were asked to share our reactions with the group. Some of the participants said they felt guilty and sad. One said she thought about the concept of the white savior; about how we could “empower them” (meaning black people) instead of “save them.” The facilitator said that, as an “empath,” it was hard not to cry while watching that video, but she knew that if she cried, she’d only be “centering my whiteness.” She advised the group not to unload emotions on their black friends. “It’s not about you, but it is about you,” she stated, using the paradoxical language that is characteristic of this sort of anti-racist teaching. She added that since she is German, she had been taught from when she was “itty bitty” that she was “bad.” It is a “privilege” she has in “dealing with this”—the this being the guilt, and perhaps self-hatred, that comes with being a proper anti-racist white ally, one who accepts that s/he is inherently bad.
Over the course of my life, I, too, have been afforded a similar type of “privilege.”
For the rest of the Zoom session, we learned about “performative white allyship” (someone who publicly endorses gender-neutral bathrooms, but speaks privately about how they might put women in danger; white women who go on mission trips to Africa and pose in pictures with black babies; influencers who post pictures of themselves at BLM protests); how to be a “co-conspirator” (by risking social standing and accepting whatever consequences might come from one’s participation in the “criminalized act” of “dismantling white supremacy”); how to “correct” the speech of others; how to spend our money (“Does my Chick-fil-A sandwich support the murdering of LGBTQIA people abroad?” we could ask ourselves); what media to consume (“Do I support Louis C.K. even though he’s sexually [harassed] women?” asked the facilitator); how to interrogate places of work, study, and worship (Facilitator: “At a hotel I stayed at, the manager was white and all the employees were black, [and I thought], ‘What the hell is going on here?’”); how to talk to fellow whites; how to protest (“My friends in Chicago formed a barrier between black people and cops,” the facilitator boasted, before reminding us, “It’s not about you, but it is about you”); and the various roles that are available to us in effecting social change (e.g., “healers,” “disruptors,” and “caregivers”). I think the most disturbing part of the whole experience was hearing “y’all” and “folks”—parlance that seems to be common to all of these new puritans—uttered in a thick German accent.
Later in the summer, I learned about an open letter that members of the graduate student body had written to the university’s English department. It included a list of demands: “Hire and Retain Black Faculty,” specifically those who are “actively anti-racist in their pedagogy and scholarship”; “Recruit and Retain Black Graduate Students” (a process, they insist, that “will lead to greater and much needed diversity of thought,” although, to be safe, they ask that current PhD students be able to review incoming PhD student applications and “offer recommendations regarding admission decisions,” lest, I imagine, a black person with subpar politics slip through); “Review Curriculum,” so as to require “all students to become conversant in critical race studies” and all “introductory training at the graduate level [to] include a focus on race, identity, and racism”; and “Address and Combat Microaggressions”—including “microassaults,” “microinsults,” and “microinvalidation”—by training department faculty, adjuncts, and graduate students to “interrogate our own unexamined racist biases” and “engage in ‘microinterventions.’”
In early September 2020, just before the first semester of the MFA program began, there was a department-wide, virtual webinar, through which I met current and incoming students, perhaps a dozen of whom had their pronouns listed next to their names, and the faculty. In the latter category was a popular, Ivy League-educated, award-winning poetry professor who spoke about how difficult it was to be one of the only black faculty members in the department; and a white woman with they/them pronouns who edited the university’s literary magazine (for which I’d hoped to work). When the meet-and-greet ended, my stomach was in knots. I shut my computer and walked into the living room, where I found my husband. “I don’t think I belong there,” I said.
A few days later, I called one of the two nonfiction writing professors who’d accepted me into the program. I described to her the oppressive culture that I’d encountered at Columbia, and explained how afraid I was of running into the same thing in graduate school. She replied by telling me that she, too, was concerned about this new culture of censorship, and admitted that many of her friends and colleagues were concerned as well. She described an incident that occurred at the university two years earlier, when a white nonfiction writing fellow—a man who, if I remember correctly, had worked in the Peace Corps while living in Africa—read aloud his personal essay about the night he reluctantly visited a Washington, DC strip club with friends, where, as fate would have it, he would meet a black exotic dancer who turned out to be from the same African village in which he had lived for years. After the reading, the students were outraged. How dare he appropriate this black woman’s story? How dare he exploit her sexuality for an essay? A petition was signed (I believe it called for the university to condemn the student for the essay, although I’m not sure what the outcome was). The professor said the backlash the author received was awful, and assured me that I could count on her to be a voice of support.
But almost as soon as the semester began (virtually), I found myself either swallowing my words or walking on the proverbial eggshells every time I opened my mouth. I was the only male in a nine-person cohort. My whiteness and my maleness—including my “cis”-ness—made me the embodiment of what was wrong with the world.
The only way for someone like me to assure myself safe passage in this kind of milieu is to stick to an apologetic, self-effacing stance. The problem was that, by this time, I’d learned how diminishing that state of mind was—not to mention debilitating and depressing. I could simply no longer self-censor.
As at Columbia, I wasn’t the “right” kind of queer—the right kind of anything. Every topic was filtered through an oppressor/victim binary, and the human condition was presented as a series of grievances. In adjudicating them, no diversity of thought was permitted. Since everyone involved was inhabiting the same online monoculture, I noticed, there was no real difference between Columbia and this university: It was just a different congregation of the same religious sect, reading from the same prayer book.
Early in the semester, during our writing workshop, a woman, call her Danielle, submitted an essay about her uncle, who died of AIDS in the early 1990s. The essay was excellent—thought-provoking, informative, elegiac. I have no doubt that, should it be published, survivors of the AIDS crisis would appreciate it.
There was one section of the essay that bothered me, though. Danielle, who identifies as genderqueer, wrote that she sometimes wonders whether her uncle might have turned out to be the kind of older white gay man who is “casually misogynist,” “full of racial microaggressions,” and practices the kind of politics that marginalizes women, trans people, people of color, and immigrants. She wrote that, had her uncle lived, he may have turned out to be a totally different kind of “queer” than she.
During her workshop, I shared my concerns with Danielle. I said that this section seemed to present a digression; and that if she really wanted to speculate about what kind of man her uncle would be in 2020, then she should tell us what she means when she refers to this specific “kind” of morally problematic, “older gay white man,” and connect it back to her uncle’s story. Otherwise, the section reads as gratuitous—a drive-by that could alienate many potential readers (particularly gay white men who survived the AIDS crisis). I also added that broad-stroke claims about “cis white gays” had already become something of a cliché.
As I spoke, Danielle nodded politely. Thus encouraged, I got a little more personal, unloading some of the thoughts that I’ve described above. I said that my skin had prickled when I read the part in which she implies that there are different “kinds” of queers—a “good” kind (Danielle) and a “bad” kind (her uncle, potentially). I said that during my time working for LGBTQ rights, and as an undergraduate student at Columbia, I was frequently on the receiving end of thinly veiled hostility from other LGBTQ people merely because I am “cis” and exhibit a traditionally masculine form of gender expression. I told the class that, as a child I was very gender-nonconforming, but in middle school I was bullied so badly that, in order to evade further torment, I obsessively de-feminized myself. I added that I couldn’t help but detect a similar kind of hostility in Danielle’s otherwise deeply moving essay about the AIDS crisis.
When I finished sharing these details, making myself vulnerable in the process, my mouth was dry, and I was trembling. Another student, “Sarah” (straight, early 20s), stated that she had a similar reaction to that section of the essay. My heart rate slowed.
Then a third student, “Maya,” who identifies as queer and uses they/them pronouns, spoke up. Their words were pointed: “Well, I, for one, appreciated what the writer had to say here. All of the 40-plus gay white men I know are full of racial microaggressions.”
The rest of the students mostly remained silent as we ran out the clock and the class ended.
For the next hour, I was consumed by familiar feelings of paranoia. I texted Danielle, stating that I hoped I hadn’t said anything offensive, and that I wished I could have articulated myself better. Mercifully, she responded by saying that she had appreciated what I had to say.
This would not be my last encounter with Maya. The second incident occurred in a class on literary criticism, in which we were discussing Maggie Nelson’s unconventional memoir, The Argonauts, which begins with an explicit reference to the anal sex that the author has with her spouse. Sarah said that after she’d read the first page, she suspected that Nelson was intentionally trying to provoke her readers.
Maya interjected, opining that perhaps Sarah thought it was provocative because she was straight and therefore not used to reading or thinking about the kind of sex that queer people have. Danielle, nodding in agreement, added that when you’re perusing books at Barnes & Noble, any references to sex in a book you happen to pick up will typically refer to heteronormative sex, and that queer people don’t often get to see their sexual lives reflected in art.
I didn’t think that Maya and Danielle were entirely wrong, but I found it necessary to push back a little. “I have a lot of straight friends,” I said, “and many of them have anal sex, so I don’t know if one can label anal sex as strictly ‘queer.’” My delivery was casual, jocular even, so my classmates chuckled.
For the rest of class, my queer classmates were mostly congenial, but I worried about the familiar hostility lurking. And I began experiencing the familiar paranoia. Had I said something that indicated I was exclusionary of trans or non-binary people? Did I say something inappropriate about anal sex? Hours would pass before a more rationally conceived question would smack me in the brain: Why the hell am I the one who’s so paranoid about saying something inappropriate about anal sex, when I am probably one of the only people in the class who regularly does it?
How was it, I wondered, that in a classroom mostly populated by LGBTQ people, a gay man should be afraid to comment on anal sex in literature?
Other incidents followed, ranging from eye rolls and icy silences to full-on sanctimonious social-justice lectures. When the next semester began, I tried to find a class where I could be anonymous and invisible. At one point, I thought about taking a poetry class that sounded interesting. But when the professor (they/them) went over the syllabus on the first day, they pointedly added that “cis-sexism will not be tolerated in this class”—a caveat that, from experience, I knew meant that “cis” people would be belittled. So I eventually settled on a literature class on Ralph Waldo Emerson, an art history course, and my required workshop.
A couple of weeks into that second semester, I visited an old friend in Maryland. One night, I found myself confiding in her about how difficult the program was, how depressed and anxious I felt. She said I needed to write about it. So I did, and included a description of the incidents mentioned above. I titled it “The New Homophobia in Higher Education,” and published it behind a paywall on my Substack. (I had about eight paying subscribers—old friends and family). I didn’t have a large following on Twitter, but I knew that a number of my followers were gay male academics who perhaps might agree with the thoughts I expressed. I tweeted a link to it, naïvely hoping no one in the MFA program would see it.
Shortly thereafter, I received the following email from a professor, addressed to the entire cohort:
As many of you know, a situation has arisen concerning the workshop that requires our attention. [The English Department is producing] an action plan that will include a mediated conversation with the workshop and a representative from the Academy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
Apparently, a student had purchased my essay, taken screenshots of the “problematic” parts, and circulated them. I got wind that Maya might have claimed that I was attacking them for being an “outspoken person of color.” The next day, I received this email:
By now, you might have heard that some of your workshop cohort was upset by one of your newsletters (“The New Homophobia in Higher Education”). We have only seen screenshots of parts of it (which were sent to us). [We] wondered if you would consider sending us the entire piece. As you know, we’re working to hold a mediated conversation with the workshop about this.
And a few hours later, after I sent them the article, I received a follow-up email asking my permission to circulate the entire article to the chair of the English department and “relevant members of the Academy for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and members of the workshop.” As it turned out, no one—not my professors, not the department faculty, not the members of DEI—had actually read my article in its entirety before cancelling our workshop. Moreover, one might think that those DEI officials would be at least equally concerned with a student who’d written about being on the receiving end of anti-gay hostility. But it was clear that in this process, I’d be very much a defendant, not a plaintiff.
On February 6th, I notified the university of my intent to withdraw from the program. Two days later, I received an email from the program director, urging me to reconsider. “I am confident that we are going to be having productive and hopefully healing conversations around this,” he assured me. “So one alternative to immediate withdrawal would be to participate in these conversations (as difficult as they may be) with us and the workshop group and then decide if continuing in the program—which we would very much like for you to do—seems more possible at that point or if withdrawing still feels like the right option for you. Another possibility—in case you’re not aware of it—is to take a leave of absence instead of withdrawing.”
I wanted to be brave, to stay in the program and reassert myself during the DEI-mediated discussion. But I knew I would be gaslit. I knew it would turn into a forum for all the familiar intersectional clichés, in which I would be presented as the oppressor—at least compared to the nonbinary person of color with they/them pronouns.
So I withdrew. For the second time in my life, I accepted a hard reality: In the eyes of the Church, I would never be redeemed.
Ben Appel is a New York-based writer.
Featured image: A 1978 Lamb of God baptism, depicted in a photo supplied by the author, edited so as to obscure the identity of participants.