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cross-posted from the family scholars blog.

Conner Habib, an actor who performs in gay male pornographic films, was recently invited by a student group at Corning Community College (Corning, NY) to speak on sex and culture. When the college president found out that Habib, in addition to being a thoughtful and articulate human being, had appeared in erotic film, she took steps to cancel Habib’s talk and has apparently moved to further obstruct attempts to host the talk in a non-college-sponsored locale.

Habib has written an excellent piece about his own perspective on these events which can be read in full over at BuzzFeed. In the essay he reflects on the place pornographic materials have in mitigating the isolation sexual minorities can experience, particularly in rural areas. He writes:

Where I grew up, just outside of Allentown, PA, I watched, right through my adolescence into adulthood and early college years, while straight people paired off and experienced sex. They were able to engage with a basic aspect of human life that seemed unavailable and distant to me. Unlike today, there was no discussion about gay marriage, nor were there many gay characters on TV. But even if there had been, neither would have rounded out my experience as a man with homosexual feelings because so many of those feelings were — unsurprisingly for a young man — sexual. Gay sex was a lonely venture. It wasn’t easy to find, and was only mentioned in slurs and the butt of jokes. … Whether I bought it from the adult video store or, later, downloaded it, gay porn helped me encounter positive images of gay men enjoying the act of sex. Gay porn was a window into gay sexuality that was free of shame and guilt, and revealed a different world where sex wasn’t a lonely prospect, confined to the shadows or just my imagination.

Habib describes how, being a man of Arab descent, he receives fan mail from gay men in Middle Eastern countries who “[express] gratitude and relief for my having portrayed gay sex in a positive light on camera.”

Perhaps most relevant to readers of Family Scholars, Habib articulates the importance of discussion, rather than silence or evasion, in the face of conflicting interests or concerns:

When [Corning Community College Vice President] Don Heins called me and stated that [college President] Katherine Douglass canceled the talk because she had concerns about the controversial subject on campus, I told him that I understood those concerns. They are serious and real concerns – if they weren’t, I’d have no need to give talks, after all. I have similar and additional concerns in my own life: How will having done porn intersect with my other interests? How can I pursue porn and speak openly about sex without making other people feel alienated? What have I noticed about the porn industry that I find supportive of or a hindrance to freedom — particularly for LGBT communities? … the question here isn’t whether or not we have concerns, but whether or not we have the courage to address them.

(Emphasis mine. Read the whole piece here.)

As someone who believes in the power of articulate and thoughtful speaking and writing, I believe that the Corning Community College administration has erred in canceling Habib’s talk. Particularly without even approaching him first with their concerns (presumably about his acting career) and attempting to find a workable solution short of banning him from campus.

As an undergraduate student, I experienced a similar situation in which a controversial speaker was brought to campus — in this case, a leader from an ex-gay ministry, Mario Bergner, who was invited by the chapel staff to speak as part of a series on Christian sexual ethics. The group of faculty, staff, and students who objected to the invitation put together a coalition and sponsored, during the same week, the evangelical gay rights activist Mel White.  The power dynamics were different in our case: the administration supported Bergner and the chaplain’s office, while White was brought in through grassroots action. At Corning, a student group invited Habib and the administration used institutional authority to veto that action. I also don’t claim my college community found a wholly successful method for conflict resolution: participants in the Bergner-White event(s) will likely remember how incredibly difficult it was to navigate the divisions within the community which these dual invitations exposed, divisions which fifteen years later still remain unresolved.

However, I — like Habib — would contended that it is far better to have difficult, even painful, conversations than no conversation at all. Because Habib and the students who wanted to hear him speak have gone public with this story, a conversation is happening anyway: the conversation that the school administration sought to stifle, as well as a conversation about how and why they sought to stifle it.

I hope members of the Corning Community College administration are listening closely, and perhaps learning a thing or two in the aftermath which they might have learned more productively learned by attending Habib’s talk as originally scheduled.

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