Stefan Sultan: Students shouldn’t forget the bad in Scalia’s legacy

It has been nearly two weeks since we learned that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia had died. Since then, we’ve had time to reflect on both the country’s reaction and our own here at GW.

As many others have already pointed out, Scalia was a brilliant legal mind. He made a lasting impact on the Supreme Court, legal precedent and the American psyche. This is clearly reflected in many of his opinions and dissents.

With that being said, we also have to remember that Scalia took every opportunity he could to try and disparage and make life harder for the LGBT community. Despite this, in the time following Scalia’s death, nearly every thing I have heard at GW about Scalia has ignored this unfortunate truth.

While it is important to be respectful of the dead, this must not include glossing over the more distasteful aspects of their legacy. Words have consequences, and every time I read one of Scalia’s homophobic comments, I am reminded of how unnecessarily difficult it was to grow up gay. We cannot ignore anyone’s history or bigoted beliefs. The sanitation of public figures – even those who have died – is an incredibly harmful action because it creates a false narrative that forgives and forgets unforgivable actions.

Being the politically active school that GW is, many students here look up to and admire the politicians and national figures they study. This heightens the importance of the way we talk about the legacy of political figures.

When the news broke of Scalia’s death, the University tweeted, “Rest in Peace, Justice Scalia. Thank you for your service & for what you’ve taught #GWU students.” Many students, regardless of their political leanings, have bemoaned Scalia’s death. I’ve heard them say that he was an incredible, thoughtful and inspiring figure, and many are sad that he has died.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that I feel the same way about Scalia’s legacy, nor do I share a similar sense of sadness about his death. Over the past few years, I’ve read all of Scalia’s dissents for the major Supreme Court cases regarding LGBT rights. All too often I’ve felt disbelief and chagrin after finishing one of his writings.

In his dissents, Scalia made countless vitriolic comments. He compared laws against same-sex marriage to those against bestiality. In addition, he defended people who wish to prevent LGBT individuals from being teachers or partners in businesses, arguing that they are protecting themselves from an “immoral and destructive” lifestyle.

Yet perhaps the worst statement came from Romer V. Evans, where he wrote, “Of course it is our moral heritage that one should not hate any human being or class of human beings. But I had thought that one could consider certain conduct reprehensible – murder, for example, or polygamy, or cruelty to animals – and could exhibit even ‘animus’ toward such conduct. Surely that is the only sort of ‘animus’ at issue here: moral disapproval of homosexual conduct, the same sort of moral disapproval that produced the centuries-old criminal laws that we held constitutional in Bowers.”

This sort of blatant and harmful bigotry, in which Scalia is essentially arguing that non-heterosexual forms and expressions of sexuality are on par with murder, is what should be considered – and remembered – as truly reprehensible conduct.

When I first began to realize that I was gay, I struggled to come to terms with my own sexuality, and as I’ve read and reread these hateful dissents, they have struck a painful chord with me. There was a long period of time when I wanted nothing more than to change who I was, thinking – in no small part due to commentators and figures like Scalia – that my innate feelings and attractions were unnatural and wrong. I worried that if I told anyone what I felt, I would be ostracized and shunned, and that if I were to ever embrace who I was, I could never go on to do anything significant with my life.

I thought that because I was gay, I was doomed to live life as a social pariah: ignominious, outcast and alone. Fortunately, none of these prognostications turned out to be true, and coming out was one of the best decisions I ever made – especially thanks to my incredibly supportive family and friends. But there are far too many others who were not so lucky.

I don’t want to offend Scalia’s family, friends or countless admirers: He has died and it is important to be respectful of that – I extend my condolences to those affected by his death. But homophobia is still alive and well, and there are far too many LGBT people who were born into communities who translate comments like his into action.

Scalia has left behind a prolific legacy. Unfortunately, it is one that is marked by decades of bigotry and rancor. In remembering Scalia’s life and work, it is a disservice to those adversely affected by his rhetoric to portray him as some infallible being, rather than recognize the harmful effects of his tenure on the court on LGBT Americans and other communities.

Stefan Sultan, a freshman majoring in international affairs, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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