Thursday, May 01, 2008

Protesting Homophobic Speaker: What I saw & Lessons learned

Last Tuesday I was privileged to witness and participate in actions organized by Smith College students in protest of lecturer Bryan Sorba coming to campus. Sorba was invited by the college's Republican Club (or, he invited himself and asked the Republican Club to reserve him a room - opinions vary). His thesis is that people are not born gay, but that rather it's a lifestyle choice, and that it's a choice against (his) God, and that therefore gay people don't deserve civil rights.

There's been a lot of conflict amongst Smith students (and alums) about whether and how students should have protested the event. A small part of this conflict centers around whether Sorba's really all that bad, and most of it centers around what forms of protest/disagreement would have been appropriate.

As to the question of whether he's really that bad: he is. If you need to discover it for yourself, you can see some of his writings here - though I'm loathe to give his site more traffic. Among his published opinions are that Islam is inherently violent and anti-intellectual; that everything good in Western (sic) society, including science, is a result of Christian values; and that wealth inequality is a good sign (!), because it means that some people aren't living in squalor like presumably everyone was
before Protestant capitalism. And that's not to mention the homophobic stuff.

Several alums, writing to the LGBTQ Smith Alumae listserve, argued that as long as Sorba's work is academically sound, then it should be allowed as a part of a vibrant academic environment. The thing is, his work is not academically sound. It is full of bad writing, internal contradictions, and sometimes statements that are demonstrably untrue. More on that below.

Since pretty much anyone who reads my blog probably agrees about Sorba and his views, I'll stop wasting pixels with that and move on to the interesting part: What should we have done? I said above that Smith students organized a protest, but actually, "organize" might be too strong a word. The events surrounding the lecture came together at the last minute with no central organizing body and no formal leadership. This has its pros and cons.

Here's what I saw happen:

Students decided to protest the event in a variety of ways. Some staged alternative events at the same time, such as a "love in" where students went to cuddle, smooch, study for finals, and be affirming of their various sexual orientations. Others decided to be visible at the event itself. Plans for protests at the lecture included simply being visibly queer (by wearing rainbows, fairy wings, etc.), turning chairs around and causing Sorba to lecture to the audiences backs, and holding signs. A few people brought pots and pans to bang on, but this was not part of any organized plan that I know of.

The part of the organizing that most deserved that name involved what students planned to say to Sorba. Many, perhaps most, of the students who gathered to protest had the intention of witnessing Sorba's entire talk and then asking pointed questions intended to highlight the inconsistencies and ridiculousness of Sorba's argument. In other words, they were going to engage with Sorba in the way that's customary at academic lectures. Students researched Sorba ahead of time so they'd know what issues were likely to come up. (Perhaps more preparation than they do for their classes, or at least more preparation that
I ever did for an undergraduate lecture!) One student with a background in bible studies volunteered to be the designated repudiator of faulty biblical references. It was, I thought, and admirable example of students pooling their intellectual acumen to prepare for the kind of fight they're good at - the rational, abstract, academic kind.

For the first 15 minutes or so of Sorba's lecture, many of the students in the room did just that. At one point, rumor has it, Sorba quoted Magnus Hirschfeld in support of Sorba's claim that people are not born gay. A student blurted out - interrupting, but who can blame her? - "But, Hirschfeld was gay!" Sorba said, "No, he wasn't." The student replied, "Yeah, in fact his Institut was burned down by the Nazis." Sorba said, "That's not true," which of course, it is. That exchange seems to me like exactly the kind of victory Smith students would want. If it sounds dry, chalk it up to my inadequate description. The pleasure that students at an elite school get from showing-up someone in their chosen field of study is at least as pleasurable, albeit in a different way, as a good picket or chant.

It's my opinion that the rest of the lecture would have gone in pretty much the same vein, if all the protesters had been allowed into the room. After all, that was the only solid plan that had been made. I suspect that at some point, Sorba would have said something even more reprehensible, for example something that seemed to advocate violence, and at that point the banging on pots would have commenced, and Sorba would have been drummed out in a way that even the stuffy foremothers of Smith College past would have been proud of.

However. What happened instead was that the lecture was held in Neilson Browsing Room, a medium-sized parlor (I can think of no other word) in the front corner of Neilson library. Public Safety officers determined the room to be "at capacity" about 20 minutes before the lecture was to begin, and stopped letting people in.
Some self-designated leaders of the protest approached the folks in charge of the lecture, including college staff who were present, to ask if the event might be moved to a larger venue. They were told that it couldn't.

The room was packed with protesters of the sit-backwards and ask-pointed-questions crews. The hallway was likewise full, making it difficult for students to get in and out of the Browsing Room or the Library itself, which distressed the librarians. The steps of the building were writhing with milling protesters, and the embrasures of the windows were packed with students literally climbing on each other (and happily consenting to be climbed on) in attempts to see and hear what was going on inside. There was also a quiet stake-out in the reference section adjacent to the room's rarely-used back door.

In other words, the room was surrounded on four sides by people who came expecting a protest. All the plans had assumed that everybody would be in the room where the lecture was happening. As it happened, barely half of us fit inside. The folks on the outside (I was one of them) were at loose ends, itching for a protest, but with no plan, and no leader to look to for a new plan. At first we piled into windows trying to hear what Sorba was saying. Some people shouted, "Turn up the mic!" but it was all the way up already.

What can I say? We were bored. It was chilly. Someone started up a chant. That was a good idea, because it kept us warm, but it didn't have much to do with the original plan. Some people ran an errand to one of the Co-op houses to get more pots to bang on. Eventually, someone got the windows open. Students started climbing through the windows. Public Safety officers tried to prevent this, but there were more windows than public safety officers. I heard (but could not see because as a sometime contractor for the college, I opted not to climb through the windows) that some folks ended up marching in tight circles around the podium itself, chanting and holding signs.

After about 20 minutes, Sorba said he was going to take a break, and would come back "after the anarchists leave." Public Safety officers escorted Sorba out the back door into the library. Students hiding in the stacks overheard the officers telling Sorba that he should leave, because the event was a disruption to the library. Sorba never got back to the podium.

When it became clear that Sorba was not coming back, a student from the Republican Club, which had hosted the event, stood up and declared tearfully, "I have an announcement. You won, but what did you really win?" The other students burst into cheers and pot-banging. Gradually they dispersed to cuddle, study, smoke cigarettes (sad but true) and eat ice cream. Some people called it a victory. Other people called it an embarrassment.

So, lessons learned:
  1. Have a plan. Have a backup plan. Have designated leaders to make on-the-spot calls.
  2. Know the rules. In the middle of the protest, someone turned to me and said, "What leeway does public safety have here? Can we get arrested for forcing our way into the room?" and nobody knew the answer.
  3. Have a goal to refer back to when making last-minute decisions and/or declaring victory. Was the goal to embarrass him? To make him leave? To be a visible presence? To affirm our sense of our own goodness as queers? Or what?
  4. Have a position statement that clearly lays out all the issues, sets the terms of the debate, and does not rely on the opponent's own publicity to dig its own grave. I can't believe how much breath was wasted saying, "Well, is saying that people aren't 'born gay' necessarily homophobic?" That was the rhetoric that got around most quickly, because that was the title line of Sorba's own materials. It's not nearly the most offensive thing he says. Protests need to have a clear target, and Sorba makes a good one, but only if we highlight what we believe to be offensive about his message, not just repeat the language he's using.
  5. Be organized. By which I mean, have an organization! Of the three GLBT-based student organizations that have been active at Smith, one is small and floundering, one is trying to restart, and one is totally defunct. This event highlighted the need for ongoing organizing on GLBT issues, so that the community wouldn't be caught off-guard when something like this comes up, and so that a leadership structure would be already in place.
  6. Form, maintain, and draw on strong coalitions. There are student groups at Smith that have expertise in organizing protests. They weren't involved in this event at all. Later, students pointed out that a) this isn't the primary issue those groups work on, b) there aren't many students with that expertise, and they're tired, and c) the huge number of queers who showed up to protest Sorba rarely show up to anti-war protests, or indeed to anything that's not queer-specific. Coalitions go both ways. We need to show up as queers at events that are not only for us. And more people should have those skills so that we're not relying on a few over-extended perennial organizers.
Finally, even though I learned good lessons about how not to run a protest, I'm not disappointed about how it went down. It wasn't the best way we could have won, but it sure wasn't bad, especially for something that came together on barely a week's notice while most people were busy studying for their finals.

As one alum pointed out to me: We literally drummed him off the stage! How often do activists get to celebrate a victory as dramatic as that? Let's learn from our mistakes, yes; but let's also not forget to enjoy our successes.


Jeni Turner said...

Before I went to the protest, I also thought it might be useful to read Smith's policy on protesting and make sure I had a handle on the rules. So I spent quite a bit of time researching, and I finally concluded that Smith does not have its policies posted online (or at least not posted somewhere that the average computer searcher can find). The policy may or may not be outlined in the handbook, but I (like many other Smithies I know) have long since lost the handbook and am not entirely sure where to get a new one.

I think it is the college's responsibility to make the rules easily accessible, just as it is our responsibility to know them.

On another note, what an amazing night that was for Smith's queer and ally community! I have not seen such an expression of pride on this campus!

Gabrielle said...

Thank you for the description of what went down and for your follow-up guidelines for future (and better) demonstrations.

I think it is true that most students who came, came to protest, perhaps be rude but to challenge him and ask questions. I actually came prepared with a statement and when the upset began to unroll, I realized I wouldn't be able to talk and instead joined in, supporting my peers' reactions. I was the student who corrected his fact about Hirschfeld and yelled out the fact about Nazis burning it down. (In fact, my prepared thing was about homosexuality, civil rights, the Holocaust).

One reason why there was such an upset-- in addition to the reality of who Sorba is-- was the administration's lack of response to students' objections days earlier. In general, I think Smith is in denial of/trying to silence its queer population. One student told me that "Gold Key" tour guides are asked to deemphasize gay life. The student Republican who introduced Sorba commented on Smith's decline in reputation.

If we are going to have "freedom of speech" on our campus, the admin needs to take a stand. Carol Christ should be the speaker at our demonstrations. Speakers like Sorba are not interested in dialog, and thus it's important that Smith creates the space for that if they are going to allow such bigoted people on to the campus.

I would also like to add that the student Republicans were very, very hostile to begin with. A few friends and I arrive at the talk over an hour early, expecting a crowd. When the Republicans arrived a half hour later, even though we were only taking up one row (first on the right side), she asked us to move and if we didn't she made a threat to call public safety. We refused, knowing it meant little. Sorba, too, began his speech mockingly, saying, "now would be a good time to turn your chairs if that's what you are going to do."

I hate that some students' reactions have been that the protest was immature. I do not know why the greater responsibility to be mature lies on us. Moreover, I think we should question why, in protest, we are expected to maintain rules of decorum, which after Tuesday night I have realized can contribute to repression.

(remember me from last semester?)

Anonymous said...

The controversy at Smith is greater than anyone could have expected. Those who weren't there are twisting the story (my friend was accused of beating Sorba - clearly not the case), and those who were there are slowly shying away from there previous pride.

The fact is that the queer community isn't celebrated or even recognized on the Smith campus. As Gabrielle said, the administration doesn't acknowledge us at all. If anything, they suppress the queer community (going so far as to train tour guides to lie about the amount of queers around here). No protest happens when people are being recognized. This would not have happened if the queer community was acknowledged and given a space to talk. Civil unrest is what causes such protests. It was bound to happen. I'm glad it did before the end of the year.

Now it's time to stop debating whether this protest was helpful, or morally right, or anything. Now it's time to start the discussion about the queer community and what has to be done. This is the perfect atmosphere for that discussion, so thank god it happened!

Marianna said...

Good rules on how not to protest! I feel like we did play into Sorba's hands during that protest, but it was a larger expression of administrative denial of queer students. We need a group that can lead, fund events for, and advocate for the queer student body on campus. I have heard that Spectrum is still chartered; a friend and I are looking into bringing it back to life or starting our own.

We need to stick up for ourselves. The Smith Administration clearly won't.

Sarah said...

Thanks so much for writing down your thoughts about this. You mentioned a listserve for LBGTQ Alumnae-- could you provide more information about that? I'd love to get on it.

Davey says ... said...

Sarah - Re the alum group, contact Brooke Trent at brooketrent (at) optonline (dot) net. Also, if you're local to WMass, Brooke will be hosting several GLBTQ alum events, including open hours at the Gender and Sexuality Resource Center on Th, F and Sat evenings, a panel at 3:00 (?) on Friday (probably in Neilson), and a reception at 1:00 on Saturday in the Resource Center. I'll probably be at those events, too. -D