Letter to the Community: When Freedom Numbs

Charlie Hebdo, San Bernardino, Orlando; reading The New York Times on June 12, one would have thought this was yet another attack on the notion of ...

Jun 15, 2016

Charlie Hebdo, San Bernardino, Orlando; reading The New York Times on June 12, one would have thought this was yet another attack on the notion of freedom.
Calling the hideous mass shooting in Orlando an attack on freedom and agglomerating it with other so-called terror acts of the past year numbs our ability to proactively think about steps forward. It prevents us from engaging in a sincere and bold moment of introspection. How, in the past, have we responded to attacks on freedom? By increasing border controls? By funding drone attacks on Yemeni villages? By scapegoating 1.6 billion fellow human beings? Brushing off the atrocious events of last Sunday as simply one in a series of assaults on our sanctified notion of freedom is a failure to stand up to the very principles we claim to uphold.
Framing this attack as a generic assault on freedom fails to recognize the specific ways in which this act of violence was a ramification of the ongoing stigmatization, persecution of and hostility towards members of the Queer community, across all borders, races and socioeconomic backgrounds. In our diagnosis of what motivated the atrocity that unfolded on June 12, we should recognize that hostility towards the public expression of Queer identities is not an isolated or society-specific phenomenon; it is a palpable reality, experienced and reproduced on a daily basis across all communities: in the suburbs of Kampala, the streets of Raqqa, the malls of Quebec city or the NYU Abu Dhabi dining hall.
Moving to action, let us be bold, smart and honest in taking measures that disarm the ongoing propagation of a phobia for non-normative expressions of sexuality and gender at home. This starts with recognizing that the tendency to antagonize difference is something all of us, including myself, should put more effort in resisting. Let's strengthen awareness efforts in primary and secondary schools and make it unacceptable for political pundits and media commentators to obliterate the true identity of last Sunday's target group. Let's redefine what it means to be an ally to our siblings, friends, children and community members. Finally, we must prevent our leaders from stifling the visibility of Queer expression across campuses and public spaces.
When taking a closer look at my own community, it is with a heavy heart and a sense of frustration that I witness the deteriorating visibility of Queer identities across our campus. We cannot insist on calling ourselves an inclusive community while consistently bracketing the element of difference. Yet, in our efforts to be embracing and compassionate, we should also avoid falling into the trap of Pink Washing, cultural imperialism or the self-righteous imposition of Western norms and categories. Instead of surrendering to our lowest common denominator, let's be ambitious.
As I struggle to think of ways to revitalize a space that is respectful, inviting and engaging for all members of our community, I understand that the success of this endeavor ultimately rests upon our shared commitment, as NYUAD students, staff and faculty, to be frank about what fears, apprehensions and anxieties we cultivate on others’ and our own sexuality and gender. It is in resisting the temptation to evade the inevitable friction of our differences that we come closer to embodying the notions of mutual respect that form the basis of our communal aspirations.
Beyond freedom, what we truly need is introspection, and a game plan.
Guillaume Sylvain is a contributing writer. Email him at 
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