Saturday, May 15, 2010

in which a conservative Christian talk show host breaks my heart

Working as a substitute teacher the last few years, I've been in all types of classrooms- elementary, middle school and high school; from severely cognitively impaired to AP; from band to history to keyboarding. The teachers, students and staff seem to be good, well meaning people, and everything runs pretty much as you'd expect in a suburban/rural area of Michigan outside Detroit. I can see the efforts made to combat bullying and make students aware of the impact their attitudes and behaviors have on their peers. This is a good thing. Watching elementary school kids, I see a lot more sensitivity to others' feelings and awareness of fair play than I did when I was young. At the middle and high school level it's more like a set of rules to follow, the same as not wearing hats or keeping your cell phone off. But at least the awareness is there: if you harass or bully someone because of their race, their size, their lack of coolness, etc., you will be hauled down to the assistant principal's office. And if you are bullied you can say so and be listened to. All good, hopefully in practice as well as theory. Except there is still that one thing I hear middle and high school students say to each other in the halls, in the classrooms, almost every day. That's so gay. You are so gay. You homo. Faggot. What are ya, gay? It's tenacious, that one thing. I get a rush of anxiety when I hear it A deep breath is needed before I say, “Don't use that word.” Part of the anxiety is because the usual response is a surprised “What?” and giggles all around. So I repeat myself. “Don't use that word as an insult,” and sometimes that's all there is to it. Sometimes I get asked why, or the joker asks if he can say 'homosexual' instead. A girl might say, “Oh, I didn't mean it like that”. Regardless, it's always awkward. I wonder how much they actually get called on this behavior. It's name calling, isn't it? That's something on that list of rules you're not supposed to do, right?

I spend a lot of time driving to and from my substitute teaching assignments, and it's pretty boring. I don't like Top 40 music, the jazz station is only on at night, and NPR news has been really depressing lately. So I talk back to Christian talk radio to amuse myself. There's one program whose hosts are practically Universalists that I actually enjoy listening to. Then there's the guy who provides my daily belly laugh by making connections between the 55 MPH speed limit and the mark of the Beast. And then there's Bob Dutko. I used to talk back to Bob a lot in the privacy of my little car. Bob's got very strong opinions on politics, Christian doctrine, social problems, family concerns, etc. You name it- Bob'll explain it. Bob and I talked for about 10 minutes on his Friday call-in show a few months ago. The day before, he had a guest whose topic was keeping Christian children in public school safe from “attacks by the secular world.” Frankly, I don't remember what the attacks were or how Christian children were supposed to be kept safe from them. My school safety concerns are different. I want all kids to feel safe in school. I'm especially concerned about that tenacious thing I mentioned- the 'gay' comments and bullying.

When I got on the radio with Bob, I told him that I wanted to talk about school safety too, but to me the most important issue is to keep all children safe from bullying and harassment. What did he think of this issue, especially the safety of kids who are bullied because they're gay or perceived to be gay? I know this guy thinks homosexuality is 'sinful' and doesn't believe in any gay rights, so I made sure I said that I didn't want to argue about gay marriage or any other 'hot button' issue, but just talk about the safety of kids. I honestly hoped he would put aside his opinions about homosexuality and share my concern for keeping all kids safe, for needing to address sexual identity issues as among the many reasons kids are bullied. Why do we adults keep dragging religious dogma into this issue? Can't we agree that our first priority is to keep kids safe, not to promote a religious view? I guess my goal in the conversation was to get him to say yes- our first concern is safety and we should set aside our opinions about sexuality in order to address all the causes of bullying. Well, I found out it was too much to ask.

Bob, I said, what do you think Christian parents should say when their children hear another child called gay or faggot? Bob said just tell them bullying is wrong. Period. That's all you need to do. Then he gave an example: he was picked on as a kid because he had red hair. Red haired kids don't need special protection against bullying. Bullying is bullying. He was implying that lots of kids get bullied, and you don't need to pay attention to the nature of the bullying. Just say don't do it. I wanted to say how ridiculous it was to equate the teasing he probably got for being a redhead with the harassment suffered by the gay kids I know, but before I could reply to that idea, he moved into his real objection. This is what he feels we have to protect children from. This is the attack by the secular world! Here it is, folks- brace yourselves- they're telling kindergartners that sometimes mommies kiss other mommies! Bob's tone was full of disgust and outrage as he spat out that accusation. But I didn't let him continue. I burst out myself, with a statement incredulous in its simplicity. But they do! It's true! I said. There are kindergartners who have same sex parents! Do you deny that they exist? Just saying they exist isn't a value judgment. And finally I came up against the big wall, the stopping point, the belief that keeps 'you fag' and 'that's so gay' alive and well in our schools. But it is, he said. It is.

Looking back now, I understand a little better how this whole thing works for very conservative Christians like Bob. There's a lot at stake here if you're trying to support a black and white/no exceptions system of belief. To him it is a value judgment. Admitting that there are families with same sex parents validates them, makes them human, puts them in the same category as hetero Christian parents who also help with homework, go out for ice cream, give time outs and read bedtime stories. But that's not what gays and lesbians are in Bob's world. Do you want to know what category gay and lesbian parents should be in, according to Bob? The same category as alcoholics and porn addicts. Yes. That was his example. He said to me, you don't teach that some kids have daddies that come home drunk or look at pictures of naked ladies on the computer every night, do you? Well then. You don't teach about homosexuality.

Wow. That one left me stunned. Then I realized we weren't talking about kids any more. He had moved the conversation into dogma, into what his religion says is right and wrong. So I brought it back to the issue of safety. I asked him straight out- don't you think gay bullying needs to be addressed as a particular issue? He said no. A strong flat no. I could imagine his heart hardening as he said it, and it made mine break. For my son when he was in school. For his brother and sisters who stood up for him. For my young friends and my daughter's friends. For the kids I see in the classrooms and the hallways trying to avoid being targets. Because they're thin, or short. They wear 'goth' clothes or super skinny jeans. They're not jocks, not cheerleader pretty. So they get called gay. Faggot. Some of them are gay, some aren't. Some don't know yet where their sexuality falls on the continuum. But they all get pushed, tripped, shoved into walls. Threatened with an ass kicking. Laughed at. Getting an ass kicking.

Again, I tried. I said to Bob, these kids exist. My son dropped out of high school. My daughter started a Gay Straight Alliance at her school that was desperately needed. Bob had an answer to that too: Well, GLAAD (Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) and GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) and these gay-straight things, they talk to kids that were bullied and get them to say it was because they're gay. In essence, he believes they make up the statistics about gay bulling in schools. I finally got mad. So you're saying my son didn't drop out of high school because of the harassment about his sexual orientation? No, I didn't say that, countered Bob. He's right, he didn't. As if that excuses everything he did say. I took a deep breath. Well, I said, let's not talk about 'they'- organizations who collect stats and do surveys. I know these kids. I know they exist. And you're telling me they need no more help than a kid who gets picked on for having red hair? Right, said Bob. And then we both seemed to throw in the towel at the same time, agreeing that the conversation had gone on long enough. I seem to remember a mutual sigh, but for very different reasons.

I was stunned after that phone call. At the level of denial that has to be kept up to keep such a belief system in place. Especially with that poor bullied red haired kid as the counterargument. That kid can go to any adult at school and- safe bet- will be told that the teasing is wrong. Red hair is fine. In fact, it's special! The offender will be told to stop the teasing. The kid who is called fag every day and pushed against the lockers? NO guarantee that he will be able to approach any adult and get support. Why? Because of what Bob refuses to see: If you don't talk about it, it excuses the bullying. You have to talk about it to address what's going on. The adults have to admit that bullying related to gender identity is happening. It's not enough to say 'don't bully.' Kids know they'll get in trouble if they make fun of someone for having red hair. Even other kids will tell them to stop. But I have never heard a student of any age say, don't say 'that's so gay'. Don't call him a faggot. Why? They won't get support from the adults who should be backing them up- no, who should be the first to say it. And I'm sorry, Bob, but I doubt you got shoved against the lockers, had books knocked out of your arms, and got tripped. Daily. With teachers watching. I doubt that kids told you to watch out because they were gonna kick your ass after school. I doubt that you in fact got your ass kicked because you had red hair. And I bet it didn't continue to some degree through high school and college and into your work life.

To acknowledge that the problem exists, Bob would have to admit his religion's part in it. How conservative Christianity vilifies and dehumanizes gays and lesbians, making bullying and harassment acceptable. For example, I came across some disturbing stuff on the websites of both the American Family Association and Concerned Women of America. They state that there is a group of 'homosexual activists' on the loose. They're atheists, which means they hate God, and therefore everything good, healthy and moral. They want to destroy Christianity and the American family so they can have sex with your children. What they say about the National Day of Silence (young people remain silent during school to bring attention to LGBT bullying) goes right along with Bob's opinion about GLSEN and GLAAD:

The Day of Silence is just one of the homosexual indoctrination programs operating in our schools. This is a manufactured crisis of violence upon gender-confused students. Adult homosexual activists have manufactured it to promote a political agenda.

Whose world is this in? Not anyone's who actually listens to kids. It's the world of someone who can look my son full in the face, see his pain, and turn and walk away. And that's what breaks my heart.