This past weekend, Lerner Hall was host to the Family in Modern Society Conference, arranged by students here at Columbia. The conference featured speakers from various universities who spoke on a multitude of topics, including the socioeconomic benefits of stable families, the differences in the adult quality of life for low-income children in married and unmarried families, and, yes, a defense of “traditional marriage.” If you were to ask around campus, you could very easily get the impression that a conclave of fundamentalist, homophobic demagogues was holding the conference. As I left my dorm to head to the conference’s opening session, I was actually asked if I was going to that “anti-gay thing.” As a supporter of marriage equality, I found the slander—unintentional as it was—to be particularly stinging.
Earlier in the week, I had received an invitation to take part in a pro-LGBT rights rally on campus and had considered going, unaware that the event being protested was the conference that I was planning on attending. As I approached Lerner, I was slightly confused about the intent of the picketers—I hadn’t been under the impression that this was an anti-gay conference.
The lectures were thoughtful and incisive—so much so that I quickly discarded my original plan of staying for a few sessions before returning to work. The speakers, to a T, were academics who based their arguments and presentations on facts and reason, not on bigotry or prejudice. Only one speaker, author Dawn Eden, made an argument based on religious grounds, and her lecture, “Everything is Tolerated and Nothing is Forgiven,” was about chastity and dealing with the excesses of permissiveness, not about the LGBT community. Only three speakers broached the issue of same-sex relationships, and only two of those three explicitly passed judgment on these relationships.
Even then, the arguments were made on strictly rational grounds. Lynn Wardle outlined the case for traditional marriage on the notion that the family was the original, fundamental building block of society as envisioned by the Founding Fathers. Disagree as I may, this was not the rambling of a bigot. This was a reasoned, principled argument based on a fundamental respect for the LGBT community coupled with a specific interpretation of American history.
As I listened to the issues—both agreeing and disagreeing at times—I felt a particular sense of excitement, picking up viewpoints I have seldom heard since coming to Columbia. I couldn’t help but notice something else as well, though. The room was, at best, half-full, yet I had been told that the event was sold out. It was revealed, eventually, that many of the tickets had been taken by the Columbia University Democrats, of all groups. I was predictably confused as to what the Democrats would want to do with a conference like this. Yet, perhaps more pressingly, I wondered, “Where are they?”
They eventually made an appearance, albeit well into the afternoon, during Sherif Girgis’ lecture. They stood silently, holding up signs advocating marriage equality and tolerance, as Girgis, a Rhodes Scholar and J.D. candidate at Yale, made his case for marriage as between a man and a woman. When he was done, they left. Still, despite the protest, a large number of seats had remained unfilled. Throughout the day, a few students trickled in, asking about the conference, and were invariably seated because of the sheer surplus of space. Many more at Columbia and in the community, however, were denied this chance, even if this was not the intent of the Democrats when reserving tickets in bulk.
From the start, the CU Democrats seemed misinformed—if not intent on spreading misinformation—about the purpose of the forum. It was not, as some that day said, an “anti-gay marriage tirade,” but a debate on the status of the modern family. The lectures did not express mainstream American thought, or even liberal thought. In his State of the Union address last week, President Obama called for “removing the financial deterrents to marriage for low-income couples, and doing more to encourage fatherhood—because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child, it’s having the courage to raise one.” Despite this, the issue of the future of the family is a conversation that the CU Democrats seem unwilling to allow to take place, much less to take part in, despite their physical presence.
Our university benefits from pluralism, a free exchange of ideas, and the constant intercourse between competing schools of thought. Sometimes, a moral consensus emerges—such as the heartening decision of many of the Ivy League Democratic and Republican associations to endorse marriage equality. But a consensus is not a golden rule; It is not fixed. It should not be immune to debate. I happen to agree with that consensus, but when we place name-calling, intimidation, and disruption above an honest discussion of the issues, we all lose.
The author is a Columbia College first year.
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