by James A. Bacon

As the debate over de-platforming former Vice President Mike Pence plays out in the pages of the University of Virginia student newspaper, a recent column illuminates, albeit unwitting, the complex interplay between mental illness, sexual orientation, fragility, and intolerance toward views people find uncomfortable.

Mental illness is rampant in American society today, especially in the so-called Generation Z. An increasing prevalence of anxiety and depression has emerged as a major challenge facing colleges and universities in Virginia, and across the United States. A month ago, students at James Madison University staged an occupation of Alumni Hall. Their demands: more resources and special allowances for students suffering from mental illness. UVa is no exception to this trend.

The anxiety and depression experienced by young people are very real, and those who suffer deserve our sympathy and support. But their anguish does not give them the right to cancel the rights of others.

Within that context, a young woman wrote a letter to The Cavalier Daily expressing her reasons for wanting to ban Pence from the Grounds. I do not use her name because I do not want to expose her to ridicule or otherwise add to the burdens she bears. Her story, though, is telling.

The young woman has suffered from depression and suicidal ideation. “I came out towards the end of my senior year of high school and did not feel comfortable acknowledging my sexuality in my hometown,” she writes. “I figured college would be this amazing place to learn who I was and express that safely. I could not have been more wrong.”

Last semester, being gay here and dealing with homophobia became too much. As a first year, I struggled with what my expectations of college were supposed to be, especially as it related to being true to myself and my sexuality. I believe in complete honesty, which is why I will share that I became depressed and suicidal last semester over how othered I felt here. I was made to feel like there was something wrong with me because I am gay. I seriously considered transferring. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to stay here and fight for equality and change so that future LGBTQ+ students would never have to feel the way that I did.

Let us pause a moment to consider that there are few places in Virginia that are more accepting and affirming of gays than UVa. UVa’s Diversity Council has maintained a LGBT Committee since 2011 that holds events and makes recommendations on how to make the university more inclusive. The Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning (LGBTQ) Center “works to raise awareness and inclusion of sexual and gender diversities” on the Grounds, provides a “welcoming physical space,” and organizes LGQTB programs. There are student organizations geared to gays, such as Hoos for Inclusive Sexual Education, oSTEM, the Q* Anthology of Queer Culture literary magazine, Queer Grads social events, Queer Student Union, a queer and allied, gender-inclusive fraternity, and UVA Pride LGBTQ faculty-staff-grad student network. 

LGBTQs are far from an invisible minority at UVa. According to a 2018 campus survey, 17.6% percent of those surveyed identified as gay, lesbian, bisexual, questioning, queer, pansexual, or asexual — more than one out of six individuals. When asked if individuals of “my sexual orientation” are respected at UVa, only 6.2% responded that they disagreed, somewhat disagreed, or strongly disagreed with the statement. The overwhelming majority reported various degrees of acceptance.

Nevertheless, the young woman who wrote the letter feels “othered.” Nearly a third of gay young people, she says, have attempted suicide, often due to discrimination and bullying — although she does not mention having been bullied herself. It is important to consider how inviting someone like Pence, a cultural conservative, to the University will impact LGBTS+ students, she says. “I do not feel comfortable being in an academic environment where anti-LGBTQ+ individuals are welcomed with open arms to speak,” she writes. “We cannot invite people into our home who deny any part of our community or its humanity.”

(Whether her perception of Pence as an anti-gay bigot is accurate or a libel is a legitimate question, but I’ll defer that discussion for another occasion.)

As the author makes clear, there is a significant overlap between students with non-heterosexual orientation and those with mental illness. And she is far from alone in feeling that her fragility should give her veto power over who is allowed on the Grounds.

It is a legitimate question to ask if we are helping young people experiencing anxiety and depression by creating cocoons that allow them to avoid unpleasant thoughts. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt argue that university policies designed to protect the emotionally vulnerable are harmful — the rhetoric reinforces what they term “mental distortions” that amplify anxiety and depression.

A related question: what gives emotionally disturbed people the right to dictate whom other people get to hear? No one is compelling the young woman to attend Mike Pence’s speech. He is no more threatening to her by voicing his views in a lecture hall on the UVa Grounds than he would be delivering his speech at a Charlottesville hotel… or at a venue 100 miles away. But, if the young woman had her way, conservative UVa students would be deprived of the ability to hear Pence in person.

Thankfully, the UVa administration has made no indication that it intends to cancel Pence’s invitation. The young woman has my sympathy. I hope she finds help, and I hope she finds peace. But her personal pain does not cancel the rights of others. She has to learn to live in a world where others do not think the same way she does.

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22 responses to “The Mental Anguish Veto”

  1. Fred Costello Avatar
    Fred Costello

    The gay-or-not issue stems from the idea that reality is in the mind — each person has his own truth. Not so. When the mind disagrees with objective science, the mind needs fixing. What is real is outside the individual person, as revealed by objective science — physics and chemistry, and the design of the human body.

    1. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
      Virginia Gentleman

      Perhaps we should open up more conversion camps … let’s fix their minds so that they aren’t gay anymore.

      1. VaNavVet Avatar

        Put the camps in “don’t say gay Florida” with Ron.

  2. James Wyatt Whitehead Avatar
    James Wyatt Whitehead

    $36,000 a year in UVA tuition and housing is a very expensive way to find yourself. I hope the UVA student in question can find her answers. A one on one sit down between Pence and the student might yield some positive discussion.

  3. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    This blog post is disturbing because, once again, the author seems to be using a very serious and private situation to continue his narrative that UVA is overwhelmed with thought police. Linking homosexuality with mental illness is just plain stupid and cruel. This is a new one, Jim.

    1. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      An attempt at machismo? Well, better latent than never, I says.

      1. What does this even mean? Do you have anything to add but snark?

        1. Nancy Naive Avatar
          Nancy Naive

          Oh, and no.

    2. Nancy Naive Avatar
      Nancy Naive

      An attempt at machismo? Well, better latent than never, I says.

    3. VaNavVet Avatar

      The link is the way that they are treated and the question is would Pence’s talk embolden the anti-gay elements on the grounds? How can you really monitor the way in which students are treating each other?

      1. If only there was an honor thingee to make sure students act with civility or get harshly punished.

    4. The author of the piece is the one who linked homosexuality with depression and suicidal ideation, so aim your criticism at her.

      As for using a private situation to advance a narrative, the author of the piece went public with the details of her private life. She outed herself! Even so, I refrained from reprinting her name out of respect for her privacy!

    5. If it was a “private situation” we would not even have heard about it.

  4. tmtfairfax Avatar

    I’m offended every day that I see or hear about Slow Joe screw up something else or get a pass on his sexual abuse of women or his criminal coverup of his son and his computer. But that’s life.

    I don’t care about any adult’s sexual orientation. I think people should be left alone. As a policy matter, I don’t care whether gay people marry. Justice Kennedy’s opinion was a piece of crap, but the result doesn’t bother me. And people’s religious beliefs about homosexuality are their business.

    1. Those who demand ‘tolerance’ may find your tolerance of things they don’t tolerate intolerable.

  5. Virginia Gentleman Avatar
    Virginia Gentleman

    I agree that Pence should be allowed to speak and I believe that the entire student body has the right to protest his hate speech. His “Christian” views are not shared by all Christians and his ability to turn a blind eye to un-Christian behavior is second to none – unless you are gay.

    1. VaNavVet Avatar

      We had four years to observe Pence and his apparent lack of moral integrity.

      1. Stephen Haner Avatar
        Stephen Haner

        Says the anonymous sailor who lacks the courage to “enter the arena” by name.

        1. John Harvie Avatar
          John Harvie


        2. Matt Adams Avatar
          Matt Adams

          I’ve questioned the Sailor claim, he’s refused to produce a DD-214. That’s the SOP when proving service, so I’ve concluded he’s a fraud.

    2. Stephen Haner Avatar
      Stephen Haner

      Christ’s own Christian views have been a point of controversy for 2,000 years. So that was a seriously inane statement. But if such deep hate for folks like Pence gets you through the long nights, nurse and enjoy it. I hope that young woman emerges from her long night. Depression is crushing.

      Where did I read that now somewhere else, the issue is a Jewish student group protesting a pro-Palestinian, ant-Zionist speaker, someone who is a current teacher at American University of Beirut? Sorry, he gets to speak, too, and you can have your signs and even a nice teach-in outside the auditorium.

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