Editors' note: Guest blogger Dr. Dean L. Rosen is the president of PFLAG's St. Louis chapter. PFLAG has taken the lead in opposing an honorary degree to be given to Phyllis Schafly by Washington University.
This Friday, the graduating class of Washington University will receive their hard-earned degrees and embark on new journeys and new adventures. Most of us remember our graduation as a moment when anything seemed possible and the world was full of unlimited possibilities. This year, however, the university has chosen to honor a controversial activist whose message is decidedly contrary to those aspirations and ideals.
Phyllis Schlafly, founder of The Eagle Forum, has been selected to receive an honorary doctorate during Friday's commencement ceremonies. The decision has resulted in a wide-spread protest by students, faculty members and alumni who have organized online, more than 2,000 strong, to urge the school to reconsider its decision to honor her. As president of the St. Louis chapter of Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), I am equally concerned about the school's decision.
At PFLAG, we see, every day, the results of rhetoric like Schlafly's. We know the consequences for our community, and our children, when misinformation and stereotyping goes unanswered. That is why we feel so strongly about this issue, and believe so ardently that our local university should reconsider this decision. This is an opportunity to educate the educators and stand up for St. Louis families.
Ms. Schlafly began her career opposing the Equal Rights Amendment and has continued on a campaign to roll back rights, and block progress, for women and the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) community. On issue after issue, Schlafly has sent a message that some of our children are less than others, and has lobbied to deny opportunities to millions of Americans, including many of those in Washington University's graduating class.
The mother of a gay son, Schlafly has called the GLBT community "vicious," and has opposed common-sense policies to protect students from harassment and bullying based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. She has also consistently opposed any legal recognition or protections for same-sex couples and has been a proponent of continuing to fire patriotic gay Americans who serve in our country's armed forces.
Schlafly's words about women should also sound an alarm for everyone who believes in our country's commitment to "liberty and justice for all." In addition to her opposition to ERA, she has said that sexual harassment "is not a problem for virtuous women," and cited the invention of the clothes dryer and paper diapers - and not the hard work of countless advocates for equality - for the improvement of women's lives.
Indeed, Schlafly is so out of step with conventional wisdom that a fellow Republican once referred to her as "a propagandist who deals in emotion and personalities where it is not necessary to establish facts or prove charges."
The university has defended its decision to honor Schlafly by citing her contribution to the "public discourse" on the "vital issues of the times." But Schlafly's contribution has been divisive and polemical. Her words have had a direct, harmful impact on our families and loved ones and her campaigns have sought to create a second class of citizenship based on gender, sexual orientation and gender identity.
While PFLAG and others opposed to an honorary doctorate for Ms. Schlafly recognize her right to free speech - and have not called for her to be censored or disinvited - Washington University should not honor someone who has taken such pains to dishonor so many of the people who study and work on its campus. Free speech is part of our national heritage, but equal opportunity is, too.
There are many people in our community worthy of Washington University's honor, but Ms. Schlafly is not one of them. Too many students have worked too hard, and dreamed too big, to have their school bestow a degree upon someone who has spent much of her adult life working to undermine both. Friday's commencement should be about new journeys that move us forward, not old prejudices that hold us back.