Same-Sex Issue at UNM Provides Mirror Onto Our World

October 30, 2014

By Winthrop Quigley at Albuquerque Journal

You see some amazing things if you live long enough.

I saw the first man walk on the moon, and I’ve lived long enough to see spaceflight become routine.

I saw the election not only of the first Roman Catholic president but of the first African-American president.

I saw both the Cuban missile crisis and the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

I have lived long enough to see homosexual relationships become unremarkable, if not yet fully accepted.

When I was a kid no one, but no one admitted to being gay. It was common that anyone suspected of being gay was ridiculed, ostracized, beaten up or worse. Homosexual acts were illegal in many states. People were fired for being gay.

The actor Laurence Luckinbill, who is straight, lost movie parts after he played a gay man in the 1970 movie “The Boys in the Band.” Today every romantic comedy has the requisite gay best friend, and Sean Penn won an Academy Award for portraying gay icon Harvey Milk.

The mayor of Houston is a lesbian. The mayors of Seattle and Santa Fe are gay. Arizona has elected a lesbian to Congress. Same-sex marriages are legal in 32 states, including New Mexico. Top executives at BP, IBM, JP Morgan Chase and American Express are openly gay.

A Gallup Poll found in May that 55 percent of the population believes same-sex marriage should be legal. It must be noted, however, that a Pew Research survey found support for same-sex marriage dropped from 54 percent last February to 49 percent in September.

But in light of the rapid social, political and cultural shift toward acceptance, a federal lawsuit filed by a student against the University of New Mexico resembles an artifact from a past that only seems to be distant.

Monica Pompeo was enrolled in a UNM class called “Images of (Wo)men: From Icons to Iconoclasts” in the spring 2012 semester. Adjunct professor Caroline Lawson Hinkley had the class watch a movie called “Desert Hearts” and write a critique. The movie concerns a woman seeking a divorce in 1950s Nevada. The woman finds herself drawn sexually to another woman at the ranch where she is staying. Gene Siskel, the late Chicago Tribune movie critic, said in a favorable review, “It’s a gentle story of someone being brought in from the cold.”

Pompeo’s review was not so generous. According to the lawsuit, she said the movie concerned a “perverse attraction to the same sex.” She said the main character had “a barren womb.”

Hinkley’s review of Pompeo’s paper was also harsh. The lawsuit claims Hinkley accused Pompeo of engaging in “hate speech” and said that the language Pompeo used in her paper was the kind “that would incite violence and endanger people’s lives.” Pompeo’s suit says Hinkley “refused to grade the paper and made it clear to Ms. Pompeo that it would be in her best interest not to return to her classroom.”

Pompeo claims that in a subsequent meeting with UNM Cinematic Arts Director Susan Dever she was told that her use of the word “barren” was offensive. She eventually dropped the class.

UNM moved to dismiss the case on grounds that Pompeo’s treatment was “reasonably related to legitimate pedagogic concerns.”

Chief U.S. District Judge M. Christina Armijo denied the UNM motion and ruled that Pompeo’s case, claiming infringement of her First Amendment rights, could go forward.

About 250 of the nation’s 400 largest universities have some sort of code aimed at restricting “hate speech,” according to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. UNM does not bar hate speech, but Rob Burford, student conduct officer in the Dean of Students’ Office, said in an email that the university has addressed hate speech issues in the past by invoking provisions of the code of student conduct that prohibit actions “which have great potential for physically harming the person or property of others,” “discriminatory activity,” and any other “acts or omissions” that adversely affect UNM functions and activities, “disrupt community living on campus, interfere with the rights of others to the pursuit of their education, or otherwise affect adversely the processes of the university.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, in a published position statement, calls attempts to protect people’s feelings on campus through restrictions on expression they might find offensive “the wrong response, well-meaning or not.”

“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content,” the statement says. “Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.”

Political and judicial questions aside, there is a personal maturation that people like Hinkley and me, who object to the views of people like Pompeo, must undergo. The signs show that history is on our side. Good manners and social grace require that we indulge what is becoming a minority view.

We’re going to have to get used to the idea that we’re winning. No one likes a sore winner.