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What RuPaul taught me about free speech

"When you become the image of your own imagination, it’s the most powerful thing you could ever do.”   – RuPaul

On a warm San Francisco night, I attended my first drag show. As I was showered with obnoxious 80s hits and bathed in rainbow lights, I wasn’t focused on dancing or the ludicrous antics playing out in front of me. I was thinking about something a college student should never be thinking about at midnight in a gay club — the First Amendment.

To my surprise, my experiences these past two years in college have revealed a certain tension between queer students and free speech. In queer circles, I’ve noticed either aversion to or little interest in the concept. And I don’t blame the community. When any rational person stumbles across a story containing the words “gay” and “free speech,” they typically don’t expect sunshine and rainbows. Recent case law hasn’t quite helped either. From Snyder v. Phelps to Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission, gay rights and free speech have been framed as adversaries.

Growing up as a gay teen in a small, Catholic community, I can testify that there exists a certain pain associated with blatant acts of hate and overt social exclusion. An internalized sense of being “less than” affects me every day. It makes it incredibly difficult to digest the fact that our nation has a Vice President who openly believes my identity is the result of a larger societal collapse. It has resulted in some members of the LGBT community, understandably, feeling somewhat averse to the idea of free expression and constitutional protections of hateful speech.

This pain, however, is exactly what catapulted me into a suspicion of strong state powers and a profound veneration of First Amendment protections.

Because an acceptance of the tension between gay rights and free speech demonstrates striking historical ignorance. The entire struggle for gay rights has, in fact, been a struggle for free speech. State laws against the LGBT population before the late 1960s predominantly targeted the right to free association. For example, the New York State Liquor Authority frequently shut down bars serving alcohol to suspected LGBT people under the guise of “disorderly conduct,” effectively infringing on rights of association. During the Stonewall Riots of 1969, the event that sparked the gay rights movement, American citizens were arrested for violating a criminal statute that outlawed the wearing of “less than three gender-appropriate articles of clothing.”

Sadly, this targeted government overreach does not solely exist in the past. U.S Code Title X § 654 , commonly known as Don’t Ask Don’t Tell (DADT), casts a dark shadow on more recent contemporary American history. From its implementation in 1994 to its repeal in 2011, DADT served as a literal ban on speech, instructing that “[a] member of the armed forces shall be separated from the armed forces under regulations prescribed by the Secretary of Defense if… the member has stated that he or she is a homosexual or bisexual…” Censorship against the LGBT population is not anything new. But it certainly is not archaic, either.

It’s hard to believe that a country which prides itself in values of personal freedom has frequently demonstrated such blatant disregard for protections supposedly guaranteed by the Constitution. Securing the rights to expression, then, has proven to be a vital first step in demanding rights expanding beyond the First Amendment.

One does not need to look far beyond the United States to understand the importance of free speech in the larger struggle for gay rights. Taking a global perspective, the correlation between government censorship and human rights abuses is more than apparent. In 2013, President Vladimir Putin signed Russia’s amendment titled “For the Purpose of Protecting Children from Information Advocating for a Denial of Traditional Family Values” into effect. Often referred to as Russia’s “gay propaganda law” (because who in their right mind would use 16 words to name a law?), it seeks to prevent society’s transgression into viewing “homosexuality as a behavioral norm” by outlawing anything the state deems to be “homosexual propaganda.” This July alone, a 16 year old was arrested under the gay propaganda law for committing the unspeakable act of “saving a photo of two men hugging on a social media website.” Four years after implementation of the amendment, Chechen officials began (and today continue) to hunt, imprison, torture, and murder men suspected of being gay or bisexual. Once you take a community’s voice away, additional human rights abuses inevitably follow.

In Cairo, Egypt, after several concert-goers raised a rainbow flag at a concert, a student was sentenced to six years in jail under legal pretenses of “sexual deviance” and “practices of debauchery.” That’s right, debauchery. The very next month, Egypt’s Supreme Council for Media Regulation referred to homosexuality as “a pure, great and eternal evil that must be rooted out” and issued a statement “prohibit[ing] the appearance of homosexuals or their slogans in the media.” While homosexuality is not technically illegal in Egypt or Russia, government officials have begun successfully upending fundamental rights by not-so-covertly criminalizing expression.

When I came out of the closet three years ago, it was the most terrifying, exciting thing I have ever done. In an unapologetic expression of self, I finally became the image of my imagination. Like the gay rights heroes before me, coming out proved to be integral in developing my passion for expanding promised civil liberties to all persons, not just groups the state deems appropriate.

Writing this article, I am incredibly cognizant of the fact that many persons in positions of power in this country are not too fond of my identity. I am incredibly cognizant of the fact that people in countries beyond my own would want me dead. But isn’t that the beauty of our First Amendment? My endowed rights to associate with the people I choose, and to express myself in my most honest fashion, supersede any human bias. I’m not ready to turn my back on the concept that has secured my personhood.

Ian Duke, a former FIRE summer intern (2018), recently finished his second year at University of San Francisco and is currently attending Cornell University this fall.

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