Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A Special Note on National Coming Out Day

Today, I'd like to make a special comment on just what Civil Rights mean. Frequently, people who attack Civil Rights try to one-up those they would persecute by saying they, themselves, are the one being persecuted. This sort of backward thinking leads to all sorts of crazy conclusions, but few more crazy than Mad Dad. "Mad Dad," as Mike from MassMarrier refers to David Pecker, is a father from Lexington who is championing his civil rights, as he would call it, because Lexington's school system had the audacity to allow teachers to read books that featured such terrible things as two people of the same sex holding hands. Many may remember Mr. Pecker for taking particular umbrage over a Lexington teacher's decision to read "King and King," in which a prince didn't want to marry a princess - and married another prince instead. Now, Pecker says his Civil Rights as a parent have been violated.

Such arguments are nonsense. Schools serve a number of purposes, but one of them is to encourage free thought, a broader understanding and the development of the mind. As such, teachers in early elementary grades frequently read wide selections of books to help their students understand such basic concepts as racial equality, fair treatment and cultural understanding. As students grow past reading about Cinderella, they graduate to such books as Pocahontus and Sacajaweya, learning about an important part of American history and broadening their understanding. They'll learn about Thanksgiving and how Native Americans helped some of the first colonists make it through their first years - then about the unfortunate aftermath and how our history isn't squeaky-clean.

This early childhood education has been crucial in reducing racism and other isms in this country. Through learning about important historical instances of various cultures living in America, children gain an appreciation for other people that their parents just may not have had. For example, it's hard to be racist against African Americans if - as a young child - you learned about the 54th Infantry during the Civil War, a unit comprised solely of African Americans who fought directly for their freedom in dangerous battles in the Civil War - despite the fact that many people back then didn't want the unit anywhere near the front lines.

In a similar way, books like King and King are important. Children learn that there are many different ways that people live - and not all of them are like their lives at home. When children aren't exposed to certain fundamental ideas in their early stages, awkward questions abound as they grow older. For example, a toddler may ask an awkward question the first time they see a minority - if they weren't exposed to the fact that not everyone looks and acts the same.

Of course, some would argue that parents should have the right to dictate what kids learn at school. However, those people are wrong. Parents have no more rights in dictating whether or not King and King should be read than what kind of math their kids should learn. The fact remains that it's not only in the interest of the children that books like King and King are read, but paramount in their development. Why? While most parents may not even be greatly exposed to gays and lesbians, the fact is that their children will be classmates of kids with gay parents. For the sake of those children, the sons and daughters of gay parents, it's crucial that some sort of understanding be adopted at an early age.

By not allowing books like King and King, the Civil Rights of gays and lesbians are violated. Not allowing children to understand those differences at a fairly young age is tantamount to encouraging the fact that they'll never learn it. If people are worried about seven year olds reading about two princes who fall in love, they'll be worried about their 10 year old. If they're worried about their 10 year old, they probably will be worried about their 13 year old. After all, parents are overprotective.

Suddenly, we have a student in High School who has never been introduced to the concept that there are gay parents and gay people in the world. That child is much more likely to be homophobic because it would be an entirely new idea to them, presented when he or she isn't a child anymore - and things aren't quite as innocent. Furthermore, not allowing books like King and King can make it much more harder for adolescents questioning their own sexuality as they grow older - if they've never been introduced to the concept and see that it's normal, their struggles will only be that much worse.

Now we get back to the meaning of Civil Rights. A few years ago I took a class on the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It was a pretty intensive, 300 level course - the first 300 level course I took. We learned about the slave trade in all its different aspects, from its origins in Africa to the differences between what slavery meant in North America versus South America. We learned just how many people were involved and just where they were involved. Over the course of the class, there were a lot of intense discussions as level headed people who thought they were completely open-minded had to deal with some extremely uncomfortable concepts.

One of those concepts was the differences between prejudice and racism. The discussion arose when someone talked about "reverse discrimination," and how many African Americans today are "racist against white people." Not so, the professor explained, because being racist implies "having power." So, while there may be African Americans who are prejudiced against white people, there's a distinction in their attitudes because they probably don't have the power to abuse the majority.

The same can be applied to the Lexington case. While Pecker may be screaming reverse discrimination, because he isn't allowed to single-handedly alter the entire school curriculum as he sees fit (which would be discrimination if he were allowed to do so), the truth is at best he can only claim that people are prejudiced against him. However, when his goal is to strip away important school curriculum that will benefit all students and their quest to have a broader understanding of the world, Lexington being defensive about the case isn't necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it's a downright miracle that the school system has had the cajones to stand up to an angry parent - and even be willing to go to court instead of bowing down. To have bowed down would have been to give Pecker power in his own prejudices, thus violating the Civil Rights of everyone else.

PS: This case is especially important today, on National Coming Out Day - and during Gay History Month. While having a "National Coming Out Day" is important - battles like Lexington vs. Pecker are even more important. By fostering understanding at young ages, one day there won't be a need for a National Coming Out Day because people won't feel any pressure to stay in the closet. Being gay to them would be just as natural as having blue eyes or red hair and, thus, the closet may never really exist for them at all - other than as an area to store their clothes. Until then, people like Mr. Pecker need to be bitterly rebuked: those kinds of people should be given no power or amplifier to make any glbt person feel shame for being who they are.


Anonymous said...

I have a problem with your saying that only those in power can be racist. Since "having power" can be situational the "oppressed" class may not always have the chance to demonstrate their racism, but given the chance their racism rises to the occasion. Just ask Reginald Denny if he felt the brunt of a racist attack.

Ryan Adams said...

Well, without power it's prejudice. Prejudice with power becomes racism. Obviously, prejudice itself is a dangerous thing and we need to work towards opening the minds of everyone - regardless of whether or not they have the power to oppress.

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