Earlier this week, I participated in a poster session presentation as part of a writing course I’m taking this semester. The presentation was based on research I performed earlier in the year on how my university could better support the mental health needs of LGBTQ+ students at our campus. University faculty and staff made up the majority of the audience and seemed, for the most part, engaged and interested in what I had to say. I gave the presentation three times throughout the 55-minute class period and the audience was incredibly receptive the first two times around. The third time…not so much.
During the third round of my presentation, one audience member (who happens to be on staff at my school) seemed ready to pick a fight from the get-go. His eyes narrowed with scrutiny as he looked at the research thumbtacked to the bulletin board behind me. Rather than nodding in agreement as did most audience members or making sounds of approval throughout, he continually raised his eyebrows as if to express doubt in everything I said.
My presentation came to a close and I opened the floor for questions. The Scrutinizer did not hesitate. He stepped forward, standing at a proximity that made me twinge with discomfort. I tried to step back, but the bulletin board prevented me from moving more than an inch. Back straightened and feet planted firmly atop the carpet, I did my best to appear confident. And then he began.
“So your hypothesis is based on the assumption that mental illness is caused by discrimination rather than sexuality?” he asked. I told him that was correct. He frowned at my reply and retorted, “Is there scientific evidence to support that?” Remaining calm, I briefly reexplained Minority Stress Theory, which had been a major component of the presentation. His facial expression continued to project dissatisfaction. He proceeded to tear into my ideas for creating a more LGBTQ-affirming campus environment and questioned why my concern didn’t apply to other minorities (Muslims, Black students, women). I defended my work and explained that while addressing discrimination against other groups was also important, my research was focused on the LGBTQ community.
Then, things got personal. Early in the presentation, I disclosed my own queer identity in hopes of adding context and ethos. Suddenly, The Scrutinizer was taking advantage of that information in another attempt to discredit me. He asked why students like myself didn’t take initiative to integrate into the larger, non-LGBTQ student population. He asked why I didn’t take on a mentality similar to that of Martin Luther King Jr. and declare that I didn’t care what people thought.
These questions got to me. My voice caught at the top of my throat and I hoped the tears in my eyes were not obvious. I wanted to explain how hard we worked to integrate ourselves with the general population, how regardless, people remained unaccepting of our differences. I wanted to explain how difficult it is not to care what people think when the hate is pounded a little deeper into our skin each day. I wanted to ask how I could not care when so much of my existence and my friends’ existences are defined by that hate. It would be nice to be able to not care – it would be nice to have the same mindset as Martin Luther King – but my pain has not healed enough for that yet.
The man at the presentation reminded me of the Internet trolls I encounter frequently – the ones who try to seem “moderate” and “reasonable,” and attempt to use backwards logic to diminish others’ truths. There was little merit to his questions; he was not exposing me to new perspectives or causing me to think critically. I’ve been exposed to similar perspectives time and again. He heard my voice quiver as I responded to his final questions and refused to back off, like the Internet trolls who push people’s buttons, then criticize them for feeling upset.
The “Stop being so butthurt” comments I frequently come across on social media surfaced in my mind. As I struggled, the man became more aggressive. He probably thought I was too sensitive, afraid to explore new ways of thinking, or offended by the fact that he disagreed with me, none of which were true.
I was not “butthurt.” I was hurt. I was hurt because his inconsiderateness came on top of years of negativity on the basis of my identities. I was hurt because his commentary was not novel and because it veered away from my research and toward me as an individual. I was hurt because I’d hoped my vulnerability would be respected. I was hurt because in his position of privilege, he could get away with being disrespectful on account of me being too sensitive or backed by insufficient evidence.
I was hurt because our conversation was a perfect reflection of everything that came out of my mouth just moments before. Because he reduced several weeks of my work to being the product of butthurt angst.
“What if people were just nice to each other?” he asked, proposing a less controversial manner of addressing the problems at hand. It took effort to not facepalm myself in the forehead. If only it were so simple.