Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Changing Hearts and Minds

In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.

Martin Luther King Jr.

Nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

I firmly believe there have been some big successes in the battle to chip away at the homophobia and ignorance that exist in our society. Unfortunately these successes are dreadfully slow in coming and very small in scope when looking at the bigger picture. But even changing one person’s heart and mind or correcting one person’s misconceptions about homosexuality can have a big impact. And that is where we as parents, loved ones, and friends can help in this fight. There is power in numbers and together with our gay loved ones we can be a mighty force.

In the two plus years that I have been trying to get a feel for the challenges, dangers, and setbacks that my son will face because he is gay, I have plunged myself into major research and spared myself no pain. In this quest I have seen a lot of depressing and downright infuriating things, but I have also seen glimmers of hope.

One of the biggest eye-openers for me has been the ferocity with which the extremists on the religious right fight efforts made by schools to battle bullying. As a mom, I have personally experienced the heartbreak of a child coming home, devastated and frightened, the victim of bullying. I was encouraged that the schools recognized the need to address this serious problem. So when I learned that many of these “Christian and Family Values” groups were spending so much of their resources, time, and energy fighting the schools on these efforts, I was flabbergasted and furious! I just could not wrap my mind around that. These were groups that touted themselves as advocates for the family, why on earth would they so vehemently oppose programs designed to stop something as harmful and hurtful as bullying? And was their definition of “family” so narrow that families like mine did not qualify for their “advocacy”? It did not take me long to find the answer to that question.

When schools approach a problem like bullying, they usually attack it from different directions. One of their approaches, especially in the younger grades, is education, teaching children respect and tolerance for other people’s differences. This, it seems is absolutely unacceptable to some of these Christian and Family Values groups. It is their belief that there is a radical homosexual agenda out there, just looking to recruit innocent children to a life of homosexuality (never mind that in some cases we are talking about first and second graders). Any mention of words like tolerance or diversity is going to raise these groups’ hackles. For them teaching children to accept all people for who they are means accepting gay people for who they are too. If gays as a group cannot be separated out of the mix, then it is better to simply throw the baby out with the bath water and oppose all of these programs. They cannot take the chance that school children will be taught that gays are just as entitled to a safe environment at school as everyone else. Tolerance, diversity, antidiscrimination: bad words to these sanctimonious “holy” people.

Another thing that gets these groups out in angry numbers is Gay/Straight Alliance clubs. These clubs are forming on high school campuses all over the country. The opposition to this trend by these religious groups is no less vehement. Gay/Straight Alliance clubs bring together straight kids and gay kids with the goal of providing a support system and safe zone for youth suffering from isolation, harassment, discrimination, and violence because of their sexual orientation. These clubs work to educate teachers and students and promote understanding and acceptance. Again, the key word for these religious groups is acceptance and acceptance of homosexuality cannot be allowed under any circumstances.

But there is another important dynamic coming into play here. These Christian and Family Values groups recognize the threat these clubs pose to their systematic campaign to demonize and marginalize into oblivion gays and lesbians. These religious groups understand that an environment which is not hostile to gays and lesbians would actually make it easier for more people to come out and be who they are. And ultimately, putting a human face on homosexuality is the last thing these groups want. It is much easier to convince people that homosexuality is evil if they don’t think they know anyone gay. It is essential to these religious groups that homosexuality remain an abstract concept. The minute it becomes a living breathing human being in the seat next to you in your economics class, they know they have not only lost the fight, but also one of their most powerful fundraising and scare tactics. The last thing they want is for people to see that gays and lesbians have hopes, dreams, and goals just like everyone else. Once people realize that gays are really no different than themselves, the religious groups have lost their battle of hate.

All of this leads me to my final point. I said earlier that there is power in numbers. We can be a mighty force, but to effectively fight this battle, we can no longer be silent or invisible. Our gay loved ones need our help, they cannot do this alone. So what do we have to do? First, we must come out to our family, friends, and neighbors. Second, we need to educate ourselves and then get our butts to the polls. And third, take our butts out of the pews and our money away from the churches that preach intolerance and hate.

I know that coming out is a highly personal decision that can have repercussions. This step cannot be rushed. It is essential to wait until the time is right for you. It takes a tremendous amount of courage for our loved ones to come out and sometimes it can take them years to do it, but coming out is a daunting task for us too. Speaking for myself, I immediately retreated into the closet when I found out that my son was gay. I told no one for a very long time. I remained silent when someone would tell a mean spirited gay joke, quietly agonizing inside. And even today there are members of my immediate family who still do not know. This is a slow process, but I too am working towards the goal of complete openness. I owe this to my child.

The second responsibility we have is to vote. But for this to be successful we must be informed. Putting our elected representatives, both on the state and federal levels, under the microscope is essential. And it is here that I must warn you, this is tougher than it sounds. I truly came to understand the old saying “Ignorance is bliss”, once I really started digging (and NOT just by reading the newspaper each day, you have to go deeper!). What I learned was appalling, horrifying, infuriating, and depressing. I truly had no idea how much my gay child is used as a political tool to bring out the bigoted and ignorant. This is a hot button political issue used successfully by many politicians to divide and conquer, just look how well it worked for President Bush. Homophobia, ignorance, and downright hate are alive and well in the political world and sadly, there are many politicians that recognize the importance of keeping these terrible things alive and well. It is time to start showing these politicians that we will no longer tolerate this and vote them out of office. I will post some examples at the end of this article of politicians who know no boundaries when it comes to getting down and dirty.

I am happy to say that everyone we have told so far has been very supportive and loving, but we have prepared ourselves for the possibility that there may be people along the way who will not be so supportive or loving. We have been pleasantly surprised by how much we underestimated what people’s reactions would be. Everyone we have told has had little to no reaction other than to say it doesn’t change who our son is in their eyes. In other words, his sexual orientation has been a non-issue. Now it is time to make sexual orientation a non-issue in politics and religion as well. It is time to let people know that our gay loved ones are every bit the American citizens they are and as such, entitled to the same rights, protections, and dignity that everyone else enjoys and takes for granted. Let’s come together on this and show them how much our money talks and our votes count.

Some Final Notes:

The fight to create a non-hostile atmosphere on school campuses doesn’t end on elementary and high school campuses. Here are some examples of college academic rules that have the religious right outraged:

From a religious right website:

  • ban on "insults, taunts, or challenges directed toward another person" (Appalachian State University).
  • A practice of outlawing "statements of intolerance" (North Carolina Central University), which FIRE says mirrors a speech code in Pennsylvania that was deemed unconstitutional.
  • A requirement that all students "respect the dignity of all persons" and "strive for the openness to learn from differences in people" lest they be punished (UNC Asheville).
  • A policy outlawing "disrespect for persons" (UNC Greensboro), which FIRE describes as "Orwellian."

Hat tip to Americablog

Below is an email posted on Andrew Sullivan's blog site from a cadet in the Military Academy. Andrew sums up the email this way: “This is how the world changes: one act of courage at a time.”

The email:

"You had focused a while ago on what it meant to 'come out' in America today. Well … I have done it now, in one of the most unlikely places to find a good reception for doing so (at least that's what I thought). I am a cadet at the United States Military Academy and had been in the army for three years before coming here. I knew what it meant to be in the Army, due to my prior service, when I chose to accept a commission here. The way the Corps is organized, we stay with the same group of about thirty to forty people within our class year for the four years. That being the case, we grow very close spending our summers and academic years together. After the first two years, I had to make a decision to stay at West Point or leave the Academy because if you attend classes on the first day of your Junior (or Cow) year, you can no longer resign with no penalty—you must, after that day, pay back the entire tuition for the first two years.

I made the decision that I would tell my friends at the Academy within my company and let them decide if I should stay or go. If they reacted as I hoped, I would be able to spend my last two years at the Academy without having to lie or otherwise hide myself from them. I am still here. Almost a year later and the only thing that has changed is we are closer and work better together than ever before. The other guys (and girls) in my company had worked with me and knew my value to the team. I hold quite a few elected positions to represent my class (which I, unfortunately, cannot list here) and have been picked for leadership positions within the Corps.

One of the strangest reactions I got was a majority of the guys in my company apologizing to me for the first two years. Quite a few have told me how truly sorry they were if they ever said anything offensive or otherwise even gave me the impression that they would have been anything but accepting of me. I guess that is one of the blessings of the military … it is one of the few realms of society where a person's value is directly related to his (or increasingly, her) job performance and dependability. Because of that, the people I live and work with care nothing about my sexual orientation, but instead focus on the working relationships we’ve built over the last two and a half years.


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