July 14, 2010 Dear Elder Brother:
Helena has been on the national Fox news radar this week because of a controversial sex education curriculum being considered by the Helena School District Board of Trustees. The sex ed is part of the larger Health Enhancement Comprehensive Curriculum. Included in what Fox found issue with was teaching children that using gay slurs is wrong and recognizing that lesbian and gay people exist. There was a board meeting last night to hear testimony from proponents and opponents of the curriculum.
Other particulars that have some people up in arms:
Teaching anatomically correct terms such as penis, scrotum and vagina.
Specific grade level: 1st Understand human beings can love people of the same gender & people of another gender
2nd Understand making fun of people by calling them gay (e.g., “homo,” “fag,” “queer”) is disrespectful & hurtful
5th Understand sexual orientation refers to a person’s physical and/or romantic attraction to an individual of the same and/or different gender, and is one part of ones’ personality
6th Understand gender identity is different from sexual orientation
The curriculum also presents much-needed education about sexual harassment and abuse and about seeking help from a trusted adult, teacher or counselor. Endless number of children could be helped by this.
I went to the hearing, but by the time I got there the building was full, so I waited outside with about 100 people. The Salvation Army had set up a PA system in the parking lot so we could hear the proceedings. Someone commented that this must be a disaster area. A husband of the Salvation Army worker walked through the crowd handing out water bottles. An interesting contrast to the polarization that pushed through the crowd.
Kim Abbott, Montana Human Rights Network, speaking on the make-up of the crowd inside the building. (All video is by Marilyn. She takes full responsibility for the shakiness, wind in the microphone, and phantom voice of interviewer.)
Let me say upfront that I do not like attending these hearings. The sarcasm and mocking of the anti-gay people toward lgbt people still sickens me. One would think that I would have gotten used to it, but the onslaught of demeaning labels and ignorant accusations fueled by negativity and bitterness still creates great sorrow in me. I had my trusty video camera and walked through the crowd to take pictures, moving through the 8x10 paper flyer signs “Vote NO t on Health Enhancement Curriculum, large pink Planned Parenthood signs “Real Sex Ed Saves Lives," and the trusty handmade “No to pro-abortion and pro-homosexuality” and “NO Sexual Corruption for Helena Children, Eph. 4:14,29” (Helena made the New Testament and Fox!).
I think a lot of the NO people were from the same church, many of their children are home-schooled or in the same private Christian school. They greeted each other with hugs and smiles, babies and toddlers in tow. No doubt they have a genuine community that enriches their lives. (They also had good instruction to bring lawn chairs for the long evening, giving it the feel of a sporting event.) You’ll laugh at this, they were normal looking, not the Fred Phelpses of the world in giant white cowboy hats and red, white and blue shirts; but still I could feel the negative energy of fear, hatred, control, and the holding tight to beliefs over understanding of their neighbors and friends. I’ve seen and felt this too many times to count in crowds of anti-gay people. Their presence wasn't about the curriculum as much as it was about taking a "stand" against lgbt people.
I don’t know that they know that their message is against other people. The majority would have likely said that they don’t hate gays, they “hate the sin, love the sinner.” They won’t see the spiritual damage they do to their neighbors and friends, likely people who would never come out to them. In fact, many say that they don’t know any gay people. They bristle at the words “ignorance” and “intolerance.” As I watched parents with their young children, all I could think was that in this crowd there were future PFLAG support group members. Someday at least one of these children will come out to his/her father or mother and the family will be in crisis between faith and family. This religious bigotry is the destructive force we have heard about over and over again in interviews and one-on-one conversations. Religion is a key force in discrimination too many times to count. My heart aches, the rest of me is enraged.
What is this really about?
(Sorry, couldn't help including the off-camera lounge singer.)
But what also struck me was the absurdity of a crowd of people standing in parking lot divided by the messages on their signs, people who normally might be talking to each other about the weather, the hike last weekend, which river they planned to float this Summer, the oil spill, the price of real estate. But we stood in a parking lot eyeing each other, civil but separate.
Another thing that struck me was when the meeting was called to order; we recited the Pledge of Allegiance, Tea Partiers, Jews, Baptists, Buddhists, liberals, conservatives, and homemade signs, professionally made. (A guy wearing a tea party t-shirt held his USA-flag-pinned cowboy hat up in the air because there wasn't a flag out there. People mostly faced the PA system.) When the final words were spoken, “…with liberty and justice for all,” I had to laugh bitterly. As a nation we do not have a collective allegiance to liberty and justice for all, the words are a mockery to the lgbt experience in today’s world, and many others' experiences in our country's history.
Andrea Martin, graduate of the Helena school system, commenting on liberty and justice for all, public hearings, and the human anatomy (WORTH SEEING TO THE END!)
The proceedings were long, first presenting what the curriculum addresses about personal health and preventive care, nutrition, consumer health and safety, disease prevention, mental health, to name a few topics. Then the human sexuality piece of the curriculum was presented. Evidently the NO anger was so intense inside, that the presenter became very emotional. Outside we could hear the strained emotion in her voice. The opposition mocked her, “Oh, too bad.” The playground version of “what a baby.” Kind of astonishing but nothing new.
Then the NO and YES people were each given an hour, roughly 30 people each, to testify to their thoughts and feelings about the curriculum. Both sides were full of concerned parents, educators, citizens, and health professionals. Fortunately for me, the 30 proponents went first. Let’s be real, this meant I wouldn’t have to stand outside as long in the increasingly cold air (not everyone can say that in mid-July) and not have dinner until 10:00. We heard testimony from parents, gay men and lesbians, of bullying and beatings, and from parents in the community wanting their children to receive factual sex education.
One said, “The school presents the curriculum, parents set the context.”
“I can’t imagine talking to my parents about sex.” (Meaning, the only place she received sex education was at school.)
“We are not segregated by body parts.”
“Curb fear and replace it with understanding.”
“A penis is still a penis.”
“It’s better to be uncomfortable than ignorant.”
Sue Moore, speaking on testifying in the hearing about her gay son's experience in the Helena school system
I didn’t stay for the NO testimonies. I'd heard and seen enough already. By this time, it had gotten ugly. Inside a group of NO people were hurling anti-gay, anti-immigrant, and racial slurs at four men standing together. The group of four was composed of a Mexican immigrant, Liberian immigrant, an immigration lawyer whose parents were immigrants (all straight), and a white gay man, all men of good heart. Outside the hate wasn't as apparent though I'd seen a man holding a travel coffee mug saunter up up to pink-sign holders and those around them, get into their personal spaces, and light into them about how they were going to hell if they didn't change their ways. When a man nearby quietly told him that he didn't want to talk to him, the first man said he had the right to say whatever he wanted --a bit of a stretch of freedom of speech with a big dose of arrogance. The second man eventually had no choice but to walk away so as not have to endure his tirade. An organizer went over to the young sign-holders and told them they didn't have to stand there and listen to his abuse. She then moved them to another area.
No, I didn't need to hear anymore.
Just as I don’t think there were two legitimate sides to Jim Crowe laws, neither do I feel that there are two legitimate sides to whether lgbt people are people of worth and deserve equal rights. I remember getting vulgar hate mail when I was at Reconciling Ministries Network, which would be signed “Love in Christ.” In the secular world, this is the same as “with liberty and justice for all.”
I recall the sickening feeling when you and I stood in the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute listening to the recordings of white people spewing bigotry from the days of Jim Crowe and legally-enforced segregation. I watched you become very quiet. I’m guessing the institute plays these words to teach people what that time was like. Will one day there be a lgbt human rights exhibit with tape recordings of people from last night spewing their hate? In present day, for many people, like Fox news and many churches, these dehumanizing words are acceptable. This onslaught is in the present, alive and not well, government sanctioned through laws of inequitable rights in marriage, military, and employment. It is not segregation but a way to try and make people invisible, nonexistent. I have a hard time seeing the value of presenting the comments about lgbt people, “abominations, perverts, pedophiles, sick, threat to “holy” straight matrimony, sinners,” for educational purposes. I can hear and shake my head at the absurdity of the phrases, but there are those lgbt people who are still abused by them. Also, the outlandish comments make those in the moderate majority hide behind “see, we’re not that bad.”
EB, having compassion means having one’s heart open to the good and the bad, but it’s a tough lot. There is a line between not taking it personally and the reality that it is personal. At this point in my journey I’d rather not spend my time and energy at hearings like this. Thank goodness there are those that can and do. They are role models for those that feel that they are outcasts. They send a message that we do have power, we don’t have to accept negative messages, and we do have dignity and equality even if these are not recognized. What I’m now focused on is finding ways for people to grow self confidence in their worth, create community in the positive not because of a common enemy, and helping lgbt people flourish from the inside out. Teaching that we can be grounded in the inner knowledge that allows one to say, “no matter what the church/society says, I know without a doubt that I am whole.”
The civil rights song, "Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me 'Round," plays in my head. "...ain't gonna let no (religion/ignorance/bigotry) turn me round...I'm gonna keep on walking...talking...marching up to freedom land." I'm glad that we are walking together.
FOLLOW UP NEWS STORIES:
Helena Independent Record, Saturday, July 17, 2010 School trustees return to drawing board: http://helenair.com/news/article_b9c298e6-9169-11df-b46c-001cc4c03286.html
Helena Independent Record, Friday, July 23, 2010 GOP using sex-ed controversy as election issue: http://helenair.com/news/article_2a309d24-9621-11df-ad10-001cc4c03286.html