Messages and comments telling her she’s a bigot and should kill herself came flooding into BYU-Hawaii student Megan Hansen’s Facebook after she shared a petition on March 2 titled “Tell Disney ‘NO’ to LGBT agenda in Beauty and the Beast.”
The petition was in response to news that the film would feature Disney’s first exclusively gay moment involving the character LeFou, according to the movie’s director Bill Condon. Hansen, a senior from Kansas studying biomedical science, wrote in her post, “I will not let my beliefs dwindle! This is SO sad it is in this film. Be brave to go against the world; SIGN.”
As of March 31, the post had 721 reactions (276 angry, 227 haha, 178 like, 17 wow, 16 sad, and 7 heart), 140 shares, and more than 2,300 comments. That number includes replies to comments.
Common words in the comments included cuss words, “bigot,” and “homophobic.” Chad Elliot Price commented, “You are pathetic. I feel sorry for your child being raised in such an ignorant household.” John DeMicco said, “Megan, get a life. You are a sad and festering problem in this country. Just stop.”
A few of the commentators went through Hansen’s profile and commented on old photos and posts. Hansen said, “They went through pretty much every picture I’ve posted of me since being on Facebook.” Some found a photo of Hansen receiving her mission call to Rome, Italy, zoomed in to read her address and posted the address. “They are planning to send me hate mail. Like, actual hate mail in the mail.”
Some people sent her private messages saying they hoped she was being cyberbullied. One message said, “You are so pathetic. I hope you’re getting bullied online. Open your mind.” Another message, “No god accepts bigots.”
Not all comments had name calling. Joanie Reecer argued, “Well then the beer in the tavern scenes should be removed too. I’m pretty positive alcohol actually destroys lives, not homosexuality.” Spencer Stamps wrote, “Having a character who is gay is not the same as shoving it down their throats in my opinion. Exposing children to the idea that homosexuality exists isn’t a problem. If you want to hide that from your own children, that’s fine, but movie producers shouldn’t have to cater to that.”
Multiple people accused her of tolerating bestiality and Stockholm syndrome,which they said describes the relationship between Belle and the Beast. Hansen said, “There’s one [photo] with me at the zoo pretending to kiss the statue of a giraffe, and they screenshotted it and said, ‘Look! She does encourage bestiality! Her and the Mormon Church promote bestiality!’”
Thomas Colin McGraw wrote, “Being a gay man in Provo, this is the very reason I was afraid to come out of the closet… don’t think for a second that you represent Jesus Christ or His church when doing this; you represent yourself and your own agenda.”
Private messages from members of the LDS Church “telling me I’m crazy and how terrible I am” were the most hurtful, said Hansen. “‘You aren’t a good member of the church. I can’t believe you would post that. Why are you trying to cause hate? I know you were trying to cause hate. I know you did.’”
Some comments targeted the LDS Church, saying Hansen was brainwashed. Others used quotes from the Bible and told her to “not judge.”
Part of why those who weren’t friends with Hansen drew connections to the church comes from Hansen’s profile’s Info section under her profile picture; her employment info, which shows up first, says, “Missionary at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
A couple of Hansen’s friends defended her. Shannon Waddell, a junior studying art from Arizona, wrote, “Love you! I think you’re brave to post this and say how you feel! This is the first time I heard of Disney opening to the gay factor; I’m sad, but I guess it would’ve happened sometime.”
Friends who defended Hansen were sometimes targeted too. Gale Kamp Sears, a friend of Megan’s, wrote, “My dear Megan, so proud of you standing against the corroding moral tenets of the secular world. I am with you in this engagement and I have had my share of sad and misinformed comments. Stay strong, knowing that there will come a day when all our thoughts, words, and actions will be evaluated.”
Christina LeBlanc responded to Sear’s comment, “See you in hell!” Gabriel Connor posted a photo from Sear’s Facebook (not her profile picture) with the comment, “My dear Gale, I’m hoping your god will judge you as harsh on your choice of ugly campy scarves as you are with your judgment on others.”
Positive private messages to Hansen’s inbox helped her the most, she said. There were messages from people she doesn’t know and hasn’t talked to in a long time who said, “‘Hey, even if I don’t agree with you, I’m proud of you for standing up for your beliefs. And those people? Ignore them because you didn’t do anything wrong.’”
One of those positive messages came from John Frey, a BYUH graduate who teaches physics in Florida. Frey, an openly gay “member of the homosexual community” who came out after graduating in Spring 2016, told Hansen, “I can’t apologize for what they’ve been saying... Just know that there’s some of us in that community, myself included, who know where you’re coming from and respect your beliefs!”
Frey said he would “absolutely” classify the comments on Hansen’s post as cyberbullying. Hansen said she was surprised people were willing to cyberbully without being anonymous. Dr. Brian Kinghorn, a former visiting assistant professor of psychology at BYUH, said bullying without anonymity could be from a lack of punishment to online harassment. “If there have been enough examples of people not being punished for cyberbullying and not enough examples of substantive punishment, the people who are already inclined to be bullies will be more bold in doing it without the cover of anonymity.”
Kinghorn, who pioneered one of the first-ever psychology of social media courses while at BYUH and continues to teach it at Marshall University as an assistant professor, said, “Legislation has not caught up with the reality of cyberbullying, so people have literally gotten away with murder. The more people see that you can do this without any measurable or truly damaging recourse, they’ll become more bold.”
Hansen acknowledged that LGBT individuals have been targets of cyberbullying and said she was surprised to see them cyberbully her. Kinghorn gave three explanations for why this might have happened. “First, research does suggest that because you’re hiding behind a screen, people are more likely to feel more anonymous, especially if they don’t actually know the person. Second, people who have been bullied may feel justified in bullying people with opposing views in retaliation for previous wrongs.
“Third, bullies are often victims of bullying. It is about power and control. You’d think that a bully would not want others to feel the same way they do. That would be rational, but the response to bullying is often not very rational. If someone has control over them in some way, they may seek to take control over someone else who seems weaker.” Overall, he said cyberbullying is a complex issue that cannot be explained by one cause.
Hansen said she thinks the comments “got out of control” because she doesn’t check Facebook often. She doesn’t have a smartphone and only uses Facebook to communicate with international students.
Hansen commented a few times to ask people she didn’t know to stop commenting and clarify she doesn’t hate gay people.
Several said they wouldn’t stop because it was public. She said she hasn’t touched her privacy settings since 8th grade. “[The church] encourages us to do missionary work... I post religious stuff and non-religious stuff, so it does not bother me if people I don’t know see my profile.”
Hansen said Facebook wasn’t clear on how to report for cyberbullying, so she blocked the ones who went through her profile. She said people were constantly commenting for almost two weeks.
Determined to not delete the post, Hansen said, “I won’t argue for my opinion, but I won’t give them the satisfaction of bullying me away from my beliefs.”
Hansen said she had heard of a stereotype of the LGBT community preaching love “unless someone disagrees with them, and then they hate... It appears that for many, it may perhaps be true. But it’s not all of them.”
Frey said he doesn’t believe those comments represent the majority. “There are plenty within the LGBT community, such as myself, who saw Megan’s post, disagreed, and moved on with our lives.”
In the future, Hansen said she will be more careful with her words, though she thinks she was bullied for her opinion, not her words.
The comments affected Hansen personally because of “the 24/7 of them,” she said. “I’m doing okay, but it really puts you down and especially in a time of change like the beginning of the semester. I guess I’m lucky it’s not finals week,” she said.
Hansen said she was also upset because she wanted to be an EFY counselor in the summer, and the committee that decides who should be interviewed looks at applicants’ posts. She has not been called for an interview.
Frey suggested Mormons distinguish between the behavior and person. “For many, the call to boycott the film because of the inclusion of a gay character came across as bigotry because the outcry was at the inclusion of the character and not at what behaviors that character was exhibiting.”
Frey said conflict will exist when there are opposing views but doesn’t have to undermine friendship. He said, “I can respect that she won’t tolerate it and will not see the film. I can still be friends with her in the same way I’d hope that she can respect that I believe it’s alright.”
Hansen said others should have a stance. “If you don’t stand for something, sometimes I feel like you’ll fall for everything.” Even if someone disagrees with her opinions, she said she’d prefer they have a stance.
“I just encourage people to stand up for their beliefs, and that may be defending other people because maybe they’re being told to kill themselves. Maybe if I were someone else, I might’ve actually thought about it.”