There are parts of my childhood and adolescence I sometimes wish I could forget, moments that are embarrassing not so much for what I did, but for how little I knew, and how that lack of knowledge made me act. I grew up in small, relatively conservative towns in a time before there was much honest talk about sexuality and never any real conversation about being gay. I was typical for a kid of the time, and I can remember my friends and I casually throwing around language about being gay, playing awkwardly named rhyming football games that started with Smear, and generally, acting like someone I’d be embarrassed to know now. I was a tiny bigot, one who didn’t even understand half of what he was saying, but one who knew it was safer to ridicule and hate people who were gay.
Growing up when and where I did taught certain behaviors. You certainly didn’t want to seem effeminate, your friends and popular culture reminded you, and I can still recall the pained faces of a few boys who were targeted for “acting gay.” There was enormous pressure, maybe especially for young boys, to “act manly,” to avoid ridicule and shame.
I’d like to think that my behavior at the time wasn’t my fault. I didn’t know any better. That pressure from friends, family, and media simply made it safer treat homosexuality as nothing more than a bitter joke, rather than take the risk of thinking for one self. It wasn’t until high school and college that I realized just how awful my thinking had been. I simply had to grow up.
Although we are living in a much more tolerant climate, that pressure still exists. Although I try to correct them, I still see high school students use “gay” as a synonym for something stupid, still hear boys calling each other “fags,” and still hear the occasional group of kids salaciously dissecting another student or teacher’s sexual orientation. I’ve counseled students who don’t know who to turn to. More tolerant climate or not, it’s still dangerous to be a GBLTQ high school student. They face bullying, violence, and suicide.
Adults should serve them better.
Unfortunately, they’re not being served very well lately by politicians. When the Montana Republican Party recently reaffirmed in its platform support for “the clear will of the people of Montana expressed by legislation to keep homosexual acts illegal,” it was nothing more than explicit articulation of the beliefs of a party leadership that finds high school level jokes about being gay funny and who translate their personal animus into hateful legislation. The surprise isn’t that the platform says what it does; it’s that it wasn’t read aloud in a falsetto to entertain the crowd.
That’s why health education as proposed in the Helena School District is so crucial. Teaching children not to abuse and ridicule other people who have different sexual orientation or beliefs about gender roles isn’t indoctrination and isn’t part of some “gay agenda;” informing students about healthy sexual expression isn’t attacking the family—both are designed to keep our students safe, healthy and informed. Teaching students to tolerate and care for each other is at the core of safe, effective schools and communities.
Teaching a young person who might be questioning her own sexual orientation that she is normal and deserves to be loved and respected might just save her life.
It’s possible for reasonable people to disagree about some of the specific language in the proposed Helena curriculum; it’s possible to have a reasoned debate about marriage, but when those discussions are dominated by hateful, damaging language, the need for the kind of curriculum the school district is proposing becomes clear. It’s so disheartening to read the comments on places like the Independent Record and Fox News about Helena’s proposed health curriculum. Haven’t we moved past juvenile fear and hateful rhetoric?
Language matters. Education matters. Political positions matter. They matter for the child who is questioning his sexual orientation and the one who isn’t and they matter for the communities that raise them.
I’m not proud of some of the hateful things I said and did when I was young, but I was a child. When that infantile hatred comes out from adults—some of them people who want to govern—it’s more than unacceptable. It’s morally reprehensible, and it’s not acceptable for any of us to remain silent in the face of this language. Let your school leaders know on Tuesday that you support teaching children that “human beings can love people of the same gender and people of another gender.” Let the Montana Republican Party know that the people of Montana and its courts reject their hateful platform.
It’s never too late for anyone to grow up just a little; sometimes we just need to let them know.