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My existence is not a violation of your rights

Timothy Kincaid

November 3rd, 2010

I am becoming increasingly frustrated by the notion of “balance” that some in the anti-gay industry are espousing.

I support the right of those who believe that homosexual acts are sinful and wish to encourage abstinence to have their voices heard. And those who think that the social acceptance of same-sex couples in society reduces public morality and will lead to social ills should be given the space to present their case.

But the false equivalencies that have been presented lately do not speak to an exchange of ideas, but rather to the assumptions of entitlement to which anti-gay activists think they are due.

The counterbalance to “I wish to advocate for gay rights” is not “you must be kept silent.” And there is no moral equivalency between “I wish to live unharmed” and “I wish to beat you to submission.” Yet these are not greatly exaggerated from that which we see presented.

Take, for example, Russian gay rights protesters who sued their country in the European Court after being denied the right to assemble. The court found last month that their rights had been violated and ordered that Russia allow for future gay rights demonstrations and assigned compensation.

The response to this decision by the Russian Orthodox Church is astonishing. (Interfax Religion)

“The decision made in Strasbourg essentially constitutes violence against the feelings and morals of the majority of [Russian] society. That will hardly help achieve the stated purpose to cultivate tolerance and achieve accord, mutual understanding and peaceful co-existence,” Father Filaret said in an interview with Interfax-Religion.

Peaceful assembly is depicted by the church as “violence against the morals and feelings of society.” The real violence enacted against the physical bodies of gay people in Russia was given less concern by the church than the “violence” against anti-gays feelings.

Howell Superintendent Ron Wilson

Or take note of the equivalencies assigned by the school board in Howell, Michigan. (Livingston Daily)

  • On October 20, Jay McDowell wore a purple shirt to class to express solidarity with students who are bullied for being (or being perceived as) gay or lesbian. This led to a discussion about bullying and why it should be opposed.
  • One student, who had come to class with a Confederate Flag belt buckle was asked by McDowell to remove the item (she did).
  • In response, a male student declared that he opposes rainbow flags because, “I don’t accept Gays. It is against my religion. I am Catholic.”
  • McDowell attempted to explain how “I don’t accept” followed by any group was disruptive and when the student refused to back down, suspended him and another student from the class for the day.

As the Michigan Messenger describes it:

That student … and another student, were kicked out of McDowell’s Economic class after debating with the teacher about a third student’s Confederate flag belt buckle. The student questioned why it was OK for students to wear clothing to support LGBT issues, but not for a student to wear a Confederate flag.

In other words, why isn’t “I support” equivalent to “I don’t accept”? Shouldn’t both positions be given the same prominence and legal and moral weight?

No. Perhaps in some settings, but not this one.

Because the context of the debate was over the bullying of children. And in that context, “I don’t accept gays” is an implicit endorsement of bullying of school children. When speaking of bullying, “I don’t accept” is a justification for bullying.

Yet the school board found that McDowell violated the rights of these two boys to their free expression and reprimanded him. And in doing so, they made the following comparison:

You also state you routinely do not allow [the Confederate Flag] in your classroom because it offends you, and you personally connect this symbol to a list of oppressions and atrocities. You do, however, allow the display of the rainbow flag, to which some of your students have voiced opposition.

McDowell actually does not display the rainbow flag. (And, indeed, if McDowell did use his class space to advocate for specific (or even general) political positions to the exclusion of other positions, I would agree that this was unfair.) But irrespective of that inaccuracy, consider what it means that the school board administration compared the two:

On one hand the Confederate Flag has a traceable history and an identifiable connection with acts of violence and advocacy of discrimination and intolerance towards people based on their racial and religious identity. In fact, in this particular high school it was linked to a Facebook Hate Group which, in 2009, used the flag as its profile picture and students have been required to remove the symbol from their cars. The Confederate Flag at Howell High was directly connected to a threat against some students.

On the other hand, the rainbow flag is linked with a set of social positions with which some students disagree. At most, it exists as a challenge to the beliefs of some students. But in the minds of this school board administration, a challenge to their beliefs is equivalent to – or worse than – a physical threat against others.

And so they accused McDowell of bullying the students, of denying their right to “not accept” their fellow students. In response to his defense of gay students from being bullied (or “not accepted”), they order him to “cease from engaging in the promotion of your personal social issues.”

For refusing to accept statements of intolerance in his classroom, the board accused McDowell of being intolerant.

Nonsense. Contrary to what anti-gay activists claim, tolerance is not defined by the extent to which it allows intolerance to prevail.

But perhaps most troubling is this instruction to McDowell: “Where controversial issues arise, be sure all sides of the controversial issue be explored without emotion and bias.” Think back to the originating situation, the reason for McDowell’s decision to wear purple: the suicide deaths of a number of gay and presumed-gay children.

What, I wonder, are “all sides” of the “controversial issue” that gay students should not be bullied to death?

Comments

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T.J.
November 3rd, 2010 | LINK

Tim, your reasoning is sound as far as I can tell, but maybe I’m just biased ;) The equivalency between displaying a Confederate flag and wearing purple in solidarity with struggling teenagers over their sexual orientation is absolutely absurd. These people don’t seem to understand that their right to disagree with something is not a right to discriminate. There’s a difference between the two. When you disagree, you have a different opinion, but you recognize the right of each person to make their own decision. When you discriminate, you are pointing something out that you disagree with and attempting to flag it as a moral evil that should be opposed at all costs and you paint the PEOPLE as moral inferiors – exactly what the Confederacy did to African Americans. So, in an ironic sense, the school board is acting more like the hateful Confederates, the flag of whom they defended, rather than those who seek to liberate people from oppression like this brave school teacher.

lurker
November 3rd, 2010 | LINK

this is an interesting phrase:

“I don’t accept Gays. It is against my religion. I am Catholic.”

I know it’s an idiom . . . but if you read it literally, the boy is asserting that Gays are against Catholics. Which is not true in any broad sense.

Really what he should say is that students shouldn’t display solidarity with gay people because *my religion* is against *gays*

andrew
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

The problem is one of perception. If (for example) you believe you have a right to pray in class, and certain groups (that you lump together, right or wrong) are perceived as preventing you from doing so, then your *perception* is that someone is intolerant of you. You know — the liberals (=black, gay, women, latino, jews, urbanites, educated elites, etc.)

Never mind that this is a superficial description of what’s actually going on. This is the source of oppressor-as-victim mentality. It can’t be reasoned out of someone — they have to learn better from the inside experientially, or outgrow it (and this is why knowing someone who is gay, black, Christian, whatever is so important — the ability to empathize is the key here).

We know that school officials are allergic to controversy. It has a tendency to inflame passions, derail the school year, potentially lead to shouting matches at school boards (not to mention lead to job loss) and otherwise make their life a living hell. They are inclined to overlook the broader implications of their actions in exchange for the practical goal of keeping the peace and not having to take an unpopular stand — even when it’s the right one.

My point is — it takes a very deft touch to be able to swing this kind of conversation in a classroom. In the hands of a better teacher, this could have been a profound moment to ask everyone to explore logic, to explore their preconceptions, and to explore what it means to live together in a society.

And this would probably have brought everyone to the exact conclusions that Tim is making above.

Instead, the teacher was ham-handed, a little sef-righteous, and put himself in the line of fire. He fought with subjective rather than objective tools, and in doing so, he left his flank open. It’s not enough to be right. You have to be smart, too.

Sad to say, but in that sense, the schoolboard is right — if you can’t handle controversial issues gracefully, and if in getting involved you’re potentially going to derail the whole school system, or put your bosses in untenable solutions, don’t expect a positive result.

MIhangel apYrs
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Timothy
unfortunately the sweet reasonableness of your piece is an element of tolleration of the in-tolerant. Our response in these cases nust be “I don’t give space to bigots”, and, for a teacher: “it is my duty to correct intolerance” (as it is for all of us).

There is a deep seam of bigotry running through US society – at all levels – that is curiously atypical of our western democratic civilisation. The USA is, yet, the only super power, but has a civilisation that in some areas seems not to have advanced for a century. As it loses its crown (to China?) I wonder where American exceptionalism may take it….

Mortanius
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Acceptance does not necessitate approval. One can accept someone’s race/religion/color/creed/gender but that does not mean you approve of it.
I accept the fact that people/friends are Catholic, that does not mean I approve of Catholicism or disapprove of my friends/those who choose to be Catholic.

Jack
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

I think the bigger picture here is that the middle of the country is just totally lost in terms of gay acceptance. From New Jersey straight across to California, it’s a wasteland. I don’t see that changing anytime soon.

Gus
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

I want something explained to me, why does the Party of Lincoln support and promote the flag of his enemies. Why do Republicans and conservatives support the symbol of traitors to the US? You are either patriotic Americans, or you for the traitors.

Just asking…

justsearching
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

The teacher in question, Jay McDowell, was the president of the Howell Education Association. That association released a statement that stated that Mr. McDowell was a “highly regarded teacher and teacher leader with a record of exemplary teaching.”

I honestly don’t think, Andrew, that there is demonstration, in the facts provided, that Mr. McDowell somehow dealt with the situation incorrectly. Who knows what was said, but it seems as if he might have been trying to “ask everyone to explore logic, to explore their preconceptions, and to explore what it means to live together in a society.” But students aren’t all reasonable, teachable individuals. The students probably made unacceptable or bigoted remarks, and Mr. McDowell was probably right to have them removed from the class.

Even if Mr. McDowell somehow did not handle the situation as well as he might have, the quotes Tim provided above from the board show that the school board members came to the wrong conclusions from the whole affair.

Priya Lynn
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

I’m with justsearching.

Regan DuCasse
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Excellent point, justsearching.
McDowell has a record that is apparently sterling.
What we are seeing in many prejudiced adults, is essentially ignoring what is historically attached to what they support, as well as a contradictory way of refusing to own it.
Making them realize it, is a frustrating thing, and it would confuse an observer.

The Confederate flag DOES represent a failed opponent to this nation’s creed of freedom. It represents a terrible chapter in American history that shouldn’t be a source of pride or support at all.
The import of the Confederacy can’t be stressed enough to young people as a bad thing.
And one wonders when some people will get the hell over it that the Confederacy LOST.
The casualties of that war were a terrible lesson in the moral creed of freedom.
But our country gained much in the Confederacy at this point being non existent.

The Pride flag however, and the colors worn in solidarity, represent something similar if say, blacks had designed a flag for themselves subsequent to the war, and wore a color specific in solidarity for those who died in bondage.
Gay people are another minority that is going through a historically unprecedented process in a nation unwilling to recognize their humanity.
Just as this nation was reluctant for 100 years after the Civil War to do the same for blacks.
I’m willing to bet McDowell knew this, and tried to impart this to the students.

This is why I firmly think that any parents with children in any given school, should be required to take a course so they too can be updated on the latest facts and their social significance.
Ignorant, fearful parents shouldn’t be allowed to punish a teacher (or school official) for doing a significant and important job in ADVANCING their child’s learning development.

I expect children to be thoroughly taught about the historical significance of the process and history of the Holocaust.
That doesn’t mean that a child should be supported as a matter of ‘free speech’ to wear a Nazi armband to represent his beliefs.

TonyJazz
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

This is the best column that I’ve ever read on this website.

I continue to be amazed that any rational person would deify the Confederacy.

And the shame of the Catholic church is it’s failure to stand up in support of gay rights (gay people being treated fairly). Most Christian churches deserve no respect due to this significant moral failing. They should be champions of fair treatment, not the opposite.

And this school board sounds like it should be in Texas—where they don’t care about reality (evolution & climate change & extinctions) and only support narrowminded agendas. Shame on them!

Eric in Oakland
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Also from the Interfax Religion article: ‘Human rights norms were created for protection of individuals from discrimination. At the same time, over the past few years we have seen formal use of human rights norms for groups and communities, primarily minorities, without regard for societal traditions in general, history, and culture,’ the priest said.”

This makes even less sense than the earlier quote. Is he saying that it is only unacceptable to persecute a minority if there is no history or tradition that supports the oppression?

Regan DuCasse
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

My friends, I have to say that when I compare the comment threads here and in XGW or Independent Gay Forum, or WakingUpNow…

I see an intelligence in the remarks that never happen when it comes to the comment threads in TownHall.

I bigotry does make people lose IQ points. I mean from average to brain damaged.
Bigoted statements don’t make sense, they are all over the map when it comes to definition and at the same time are so reliant on the narrowest of stereotypes, and reduction, this is how bigots stop seeing the object of their prejudice as even human.
Because the properties they give their target on so many levels have IMPOSSIBLE or non existent traits.

And they keep insisting it’s true, even though it couldn’t possibly be supported with evidence.

Most of the time they seem to take bits of things that sound like it works and mish mash it into a stew so that none of what they are using could be connected to what it’s original intent, context or evidence was.
It’s childish really, with a self centeredness only seen in toddlers.
Unfortunately it’s adults engaging in this, and they are taken much too seriously.
We seem to be the only people who can discuss something in it’s complexity and comprehensive analysis it deserves.

The folks we are confronting have a gnat’s attention span for such things.
Tiresome. Tiresome and frustrating. Perhaps they seem to have a bottomless supply because they have the luxury of being so focused on one thing, while the rest of us have many other situations to worry about.

Timothy Kincaid
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Regan,

To be fair, there are plenty of gay websites in which comments are void of even the vaguest of coherency and in which opinions (based on nothing whatsoever) are insisted upon as being “true”, regardless of evidence to the contrary. These sites also tend to encourage vilification and personal insult as a manner of discourse.

In other words, we have some great readers here at BTB.

Chris McCoy
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Timothy Kincaid wrote:

[T]olerance is not defined by the extent to which it allows intolerance to prevail.

Tolerance is also not defined by censoring others who hold opposing beliefs.

You cannot preach tolerance and at the same time be intolerant of people with opposing views. Tolerance is not about suppressing intolerance whenever it rears its ugly head – that’s just more intolerance.

Mr McDowell crossed the line by suspending the student who disagreed with him, and the School Board was correct in reprimanding Mr McDowell for his inappropriate action. The correct action for Mr McDowell was to have allowed the class to continue to discuss the issue. However by suspending the student who disagreed with him (and thereby censoring that student and his beliefs), Mr McDowell showed his own intolerance to opposing views.

As for the child who proclaimed that “I don’t accept Gays. It is against my religion. I am Catholic.” The correct response from Mr McDowell, as Mortanius said above, should have been: “You do not have to approve of gay people in order to accept that some people are gay.”

As Wanda Sykes so brilliantly said “If you’re against gay marriage, don’t have one.”

Priya Lynn
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Chris said “Tolerance is not about suppressing intolerance whenever it rears its ugly head – that’s just more intolerance.”.

I disagree. You can’t have tolerance if you allow intolerance.

andrew
November 4th, 2010 | LINK

Justsearching – you may be right. I’ve seen first hand a lot of situations of teachers grandstanding — right idea, wrong approach — and getting slapped down not for the rightness / wrongness of what they were trying to convey, but for the way they were trying to convey it, and that’s truly unfortunate.

Let me drop back and say this: based on the expectations on teachers today — the nonsense they’re expected to deal with from political schoolboards, parents, administrators, not to mention the kids… it’s a job that’s a hell of a lot tougher than people give credit for.

If McDowell let himself get carried away with the moment — which can happen with teachers who care too much, not too little, it’s entirely understandable (I hope I communicated that), but the reaction of officials would be unsurprising.

Just as unsurprising would be McDowell hitting it pitch-perfect, but the school board utterly misinterpreting it, willfully or not, to placate angry conservative parents.

I’m offering a contrarian voice — because we all know that Tim’s 100% right in this article — the question is, how the hell do we get people to hear it?

justsearching
November 5th, 2010 | LINK

“You cannot preach tolerance and at the same time be intolerant of people with opposing views. Tolerance is not about suppressing intolerance whenever it rears its ugly head – that’s just more intolerance.”

I agree that in the public square, we should have a wide playing field for people to say just about whatever the hell they feel like. That’s why neo-Nazis, the KKK, racist groups, and virulently homophobic groups can congregate, advocate, and recruit without having to fear the law. In the US we have more protections for this kind of speech than in most European countries.

However, we’re not talking about the public square, we’re talking about the classroom, and we rightfully deny some of the above mentioned groups a voice in our classrooms. Chris seems to think that the freedoms applicable to the public square are fully applicable to the classroom, but they are not. It is the teacher’s job to be “intolerant of intolerance” and to deal with those who voice their opinions (regardless whether the teacher agrees or disagrees with the opinions) in unacceptable ways. This is not “censoring”; this is classroom management and bully prevention.

Priya Lynn
November 5th, 2010 | LINK

Well said, justsearching.

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