EDIT/DISCLAIMER: At the time I wrote this entry, my expectation was only that it would be seen by people connected to me. Since my words have moved beyond that point, I want to include a couple of details that I did not include before.
First, I identify as a cis queer man, I am a middle school teacher, and I actively work with my school board to improve LGBTQ realities within the school system.
Second, my writing of this piece was a product of my own attempts to work through and/or make sense of the Orlando tragedy, and because I spend so much of my life in education, I come to it through the lens of an educator.
Third, the intent of my post is not to advocate a ‘free speech’ mindset; rather, just the opposite.
I realize that some of the content below may come to you as you are also navigating the Orlando tragedy, including people (unlike myself) whose loved ones were connected with what happened. Please know that you have my hopes and sympathy, and I hope that we all get through this one as intact as we can.
Peace and love. –K
This is one of those times where I really don’t know what to do with myself.
Over the weekend, a gunman (who, at least on this blog, shall remain nameless) shot and killed at least 50 people in an Orlando gay nightclub, injuring at least that many others – at least, as far as I understand the story. I’m also led to understand that the shooter himself had some kind of connection to ISIS, although I’m really not sure how true that is.
It’s been a while since something threw my identity into such sharp focus, probably for reasons similar to the Paris effect I wrote about in another post. There is misery for gays all over the world, but it takes an event like this, apparently, to splash cold water on my face and reawaken me to the reality that I’m not as safe in this world as I’d like to be.
And to all those victims and their families, I pass on my deepest condolences and sympathies.
Meanwhile, the discussion around what happened set a few other things in motion up in my obnoxious little brain, and I find myself wanting to talk about those things. This was mostly prompted by Reddit; apparently, when information about the shooter was released (particularly the Islamic connection) Reddit’s /r/news went ahead and shut down pretty much every conversation about Orlando – officially, amid concerns of brigading and hate speech. And I’m really not going to sit here and type about censorship, because that’s a whole other conversation that I’m not too keen to get into.
That said, there’s a trend to these dialogues, at least as far as identity and ideology go. You end up watching people either say horrifically racist things, or take the not-all-Muslims route. It seems so strange to me that we do that – these all-or-nothing black vs. white scenarios, so to speak. The fact is, there are awful people and fantastic people in this world who believe in Islam, in one form or another. That, at least, seems like the common sense scenario.
That isn’t what I really want to talk about, though. In fact, I want to talk about the other side of it. The gay side, if you will. The shooter in this scenario was motivated by homophobia, and that fact has caused reactionists all across North America to decry the supposedly inexorable link between Islam and homophobia. Without context, we blame the ideology for the action. We blame intolerance. We blame a lack of acceptance, a lack of inclusion, a lack of diversity, and we try so hard to change everyone’s minds.
You know what? I think that is our biggest problem: we keep trying to change people’s minds.
I want to put on my teacher hat here and make a point about something. When I discuss LGBTQ realities with my kids – when I come out to them as gay, too – I encounter quite a bit of discomfort and resistance, at least at first. Kids are wary, and quite rightly so, because often I’m talking about things their folks aren’t comfortable with, or things that never get talked about at home. I like that part, I really do, but some kids get uneasy.
That always changes at the point where I say this:
“It’s okay to believe being gay is wrong.”
I had a conversation about this some years ago with a friend of mine who’s gay, and she was shocked that I would say such a thing. “You’re gay!” she said. “How can you tell kids it’s okay to think you’re a terrible person?” It’s a good point, really, because there was a time in my life where I probably would have been just as outraged.
But you know what? It works.
It doesn’t take too many mental gymnastics to work out why: if I were to tell them that they had to agree with me, that they had to accept my worldview, they would be incredibly threatened. I would be telling them that their parents are wrong, their families are wrong, their very worldview is wrong. There’s no overstating the impact of that. Not to mention I’d probably be in a lot of trouble for criticizing the beliefs of some of the families in my class – and, frankly, it would be really hollow, considering I don’t even agree with that sentiment.
On the other hand, the minute I reassure them that their beliefs are their own and I’m not going to try and take those away, they relax. They feel safe disagreeing with me, and that means the conversation can continue and they will not need to fear being wrong.
Of course, my friend wasn’t quite done with her questions. “But you just gave them carte blanche to harass gay people and make all the gay jokes they want! You just told them, hey, that’s okay because they’re your beliefs!”
No, no I didn’t.
(This, incidentally, is the point I’m working up to.)
What I told them was that they are free to believe whatever they like, and that I can’t tell them their beliefs are wrong. What I then go on to tell them is that there is a difference between beliefs and actions.
Imagine, if you will, that there’s a child named Bob who comes from a family who believes that being tall is wrong, and that tall people are terrible, sinful, perverted people – or whatever have you. Now Bob goes to school, and he might make fun of tall people, insult them, say that he just doesn’t feel comfortable with them, ask not to work with the tall person in class.
Does this sound stupid yet? It should.
We would put an immediate stop to that nonsense, of course, and Bob would be informed, in no uncertain terms, that saying such things about tall people was not acceptable, and that regardless of how he felt, he should be showing respect to those around him.
This was the exact scenario my school played out this year during the Day of Pink assembly, and it resonated with far more people (student and staff alike) than I expected it to, and the reason is that we get so obsessed with changing minds, we forget that half the battle is to change actions. Keeping with the example of Bob, we could all tell him he was wrong until we were blue in the face, and we could tell him that his family’s views are absurd and horrible – and let’s face it, those beliefs would inspire exactly that kind of dialogue for lots of us – but Bob and his family would only dig their heels in deeper.
This is the exact scenario that is causing us so many problems.
Look at our society. We’ve put ourselves in a ridiculous position. We have convinced ourselves that it isn’t enough to change someone’s behaviour; we have to change their mindset. It isn’t enough that someone is respectful and courteous and inclusive in the way they treat, say, black people – we police the way they think.
Now, mind you, changing mindsets are a down-the-road necessity. It’s absolutely important that we have a society that embraces change and learns to accept and consider worldviews that are different from its own. The problem is that our obsession with being right has gotten in the way of the respectful and inclusive behaviour we want.
Let’s come back to my own students. I have had awesome and productive discussions on things like gay marriage, the transgender washroom debate, intersectionality, privilege, even the parallels between racism and homophobia. I have so much fun talking to my kids, able to discuss all kinds of sophisticated things. Never, and I do mean never, have I had a kid who hurled homophobic or transphobic insults. I have had kids share honestly the beliefs of their families, the questions they have, the things they’re uncomfortable talking about. I have even had kids tell me that they’ve changed their minds and decided that they don’t feel the same way their family does.
But I do not get these results by forcing it. Let’s stop pretending we can force people’s minds to change. Let’s focus instead on learning how to disagree. Let’s focus on changing the actions and the words, instead of the minds. Let’s stop attacking people for who they are and instead keep our attention on what they do. Let’s stop pretending that someone’s beliefs and someone’s actions are one and the same thing.
Here’s the plain fact of the matter: if you believe that I’m a horrible, perverted monster who will spend my twisted afterlife burning in the flames of you-know-where, fine. No, really, I’m perfectly okay with that.
As long as I never hear it. As long as when you are in a public space, or online, or wherever you may be, you leave your prejudices at the door and respect people as people.
The fact is that our society has forgotten how to disagree with one another. We are defined by our labels and ideologies, both religious and political. We learn some of these identities and make enormous, inglorious leaps to conclusions, and then, most importantly, we act on those conclusions. We stop listening, we stop communicating, we write people off, we insult and degrade people, and we cut people out, and we say horrible, hateful things about one another.
I’ll tell you a little mini story. Earlier this year, we had a Paint Your Nails day at the school in support of our gay-straight alliance. Three of my students chose not to paint their nails, because they felt it went against their beliefs. I said, “okay.” Then, on Day of Pink, two out of three of those students chose to wear pink shirts.
I asked one of them if that meant he changed his mind about gay people. He said, “no, but nobody deserves to be bullied, right?”
I think he gets it.
So, Orlando. There’s going to be a lot of dialogue about the fact that the gunman was affiliated with ISIS, or whatever, and that has already started to stoke the flames for the anti-Muslim crowd (many of whom are pretty homophobic themselves). Please don’t buy into that. I don’t blame Islam for what happened – I blame the gunman, and I blame the people who refuse to coexist with others. I blame those who take disenfranchised young people and teach them that there is no difference between belief and action.
And to anyone reading this who thinks we gay people are the scum of the Earth, well, go you. You do you, and power to you. Believe what you’re going to believe.
Just… keep it respectful, a’ight?
Post-Edit, 11:12 pm!
This post has generated quite the response and discussion on Facebook, and I had one particular conversation over there that let me shed a little more light on my philosophy here. I worry that what people are reading is “live and let live,” or “love the sin, hate the sinner,” neither of which would really fit. So, I’ve included below one of my replies in that conversation in order to clarify a couple of things.
As an educator, I am still teaching a belief system, but that belief system is based on the lowest common denominators of human rights and equity as opposed to the core of any single set of values. The minimum that we can expect from any member of our society, I believe, is that everyone has a place in it, and the belief system I’m teaching (in line with Board policy, hooray) is to recognize that everyone has that place in it.
With respect to “love the sin, hate the sinner,” I prefer to think of it as “my rights stop at your nose” – or in other words, you are entitled to your values and may live by your rules, right up until the point that your expression of your rights interferes with my own rights. And there’s a hierarchy to that, of course (ie. two men holding hands can’t be considered an infringement on the rights of a religious person who is uncomfortable with it), but at its core, that is the distinction between my post and the ‘love the sinner’ philosophy. I can “agree to disagree” and still pass judgement, and still impede upon your rights as a person.
Some people will still follow that mentality and quietly continue to judge and spread intolerance, and we’re never going to fix that, except by allowing them into our lives to experience us. The onus is on them to open themselves up to that worldview.
I should be quite clear, though: this does not apply to the advancement of rights protected by law. No human rights battle was ever won by waiting for the other side to be ready. But, again, all of those steps are focused on the behaviour and environment we want, and not on the thoughts and beliefs of the people.
Let me give you an example: until recently, my school board would send home a letter in advance of Day of Pink, informing parents that it was approaching. A committee that I was a part of fought vehemently against this letter, which was sent in order to demonstrate “sensitivity” to those families who remained uncomfortable with the LGBTQ community. This year, those letters stopped, because the Board recognized that the letter prioritized the needs of the oppressor as opposed to the oppressed.
These decisions, and the enactment of laws, don’t require any of those parents to change their minds on the subject – but they do send a strong signal about what is acceptable and what isn’t within our society.
I do, however, teach in a very privileged “first world” classroom setting, though, which is a very, very significant point – this is not a philosophy that right now has the capacity to function on a global (or, heck, even an international) scale. However, in areas like mine where our society has taken leadership on the subject of LGBTQ rights and realities, we now need to responsibly exercise that leadership and demonstrate the capacity to show civility and respect.
Of course amid all this, we forget that there’s still a lot of work left to do (particularly where transgender people are concerned, for example), but I don’t believe that we can afford to turn ourselves around as a consequence of an act of violence such as Orlando. These acts are terrifying, yes, but their intended effect is the exact ‘Us vs. Them’ mentality that has always been under the surface and was brought into sharp relief after 9/11. The more compassion, acceptance, and respect we are able to show right now, particularly to those who would consider us ‘enemies,’ the more damage we do to their credibility.