Two years ago, before his first visit to Cal Poly, I wrote the university's president to express my disgust at Cal Poly hosting Milo Yiannopoulos. In it, I described the emotional turbulence of my youth as I was subjected to conversion therapy, physical and mental torture aimed at altering one's behaviors and sexual orientation in a downtown San Luis Obispo therapist's office. My experiences highlighted that Milo's visit would provide false logic, which students may use to deny the experiences of their peers in favor of a more comfortable bias peddled by a non-expert in the same way.
Much of the hateful and wrong information I see Milo spreading about the queer community was also used years before by my counselor to justify the need for conversion therapy. In the president's response, he ignored my entire argument regarding the possible harm of Milo's visit and suggested:
"Censoring viewpoints that we don't agree with violates free speech and does not represent what we stand for as a university. Rather, free speech and the open exchange of ideas and opinions—even those that conflict with our own—is an important part of student growth and preparation for success in today's global marketplace."
To this day, I struggle to understand how any person could suggest my experiences in conversion therapy were "an important part of [my] student growth and preparation for success in today's global marketplace." Torture, while formative, is not beneficial.
I tried a new approach in my letter this year. Research. A recent peer-reviewed journal article finds that one of Milo Yiannopoulos' favored topics, the denying of transgender identities, actually leads to increased suicides within the transgender community ("Chosen name use is linked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender youth," Journal of Adolescent Health). In the eyes of President Armstrong, my experiences were not a valid counterpoint to Milo's opinions and social injustices. Statements like Milo's are continually excused by President Armstrong as differences of opinions. However, I truly hope President Armstrong still sees value in research.
I also hope he starts to listen to the experiences of the black community and people of color on campus as well. Not because of their "opinions on the matter" and not because they have a "different view," because they live a different experience. An inability to discern opinion from experience is perhaps President Armstrong's greatest failing. He cannot comprehend that it is not my opinion that Milo's rhetoric causes damage, it caused me damage and now I have peer-reviewed support.
If President Armstrong allows Milo on campus again, I do believe there is enough social and scientific evidence to indicate harm will befall the queer community, and he still needs to answer for the damage caused a year ago. Unfortunately, the constant inaction taken by the president regarding blatant and widespread racism on campus indicates that his opinions and uninformed views are a great deal more important to his decision-making process than the actual experiences of (to use his words) "the most important person on campus," the students.
As a final thought, I would like to point out that, while I may be highly educated and invested in social justice, I am racist. I am white, born and raised in San Luis Obispo, and I attended Cal Poly. It would be impossible for me to leave those situations without racist circuitry in my brain. Any white person on campus who says they are devoid of all racist thoughts is lying because your brain cannot help it. While at Cal Poly, I childishly convinced myself that I was above such thinking, but neuroscience has shown just how unavoidable this social conditioning is.
Unfortunately, the president's continued reticence to engage in the critical thinking and research required to understand and fix these social issues show exactly what actions and ideas he thinks are the most dangerous. His inaction has consistently provided an excuse to white Cal Poly students to remain racially biased and ignore the social injustice right in front of their faces. There is a reckoning in higher education. It is happening at my current institution, Michigan State University, where the university administration is answering for its willingness to remain ignorant and ignore research with its resignations. The cultural change here at MSU is underway with power dynamics shifting drastically. If President Armstrong does not change his tune, perhaps it is time that Cal Poly does without him. Δ
Daniel Pfau received a master's degree in biological sciences from Cal Poly. He's now a neuroscience Ph.D. candidate at Michigan State University. Send comments through the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org write a letter to the editor for publication and send it to