Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Cutting Off Your Nose to Spite Your Face

Life Lessons at a Municipal Pool

When I was in elementary school, the closest swimming pool to my hometown of Bushnell was in Inverness, some 25 miles to the west. During summer recreation at the school, the coaches would load us into a school bus to take us to the municipal pool there for an afternoon of swimming fun.

The bus rides were as much fun as the swimming. It was on these trips I learned the folk songs which had captured America’s imagination in the early 1960s on shows like Hootenanny and Shindig. I came to love Peter, Paul and Mary as we sang “500 Miles, “ “Puff the Magic Dragon” and “Michael, Row Your Boat Ashore.”

It was also there I first began learning the dangers of the water. One visit when I had floated into the deep end of the pool on an inner tube, a little girl pushed me off the tube to take it away from me. I plunged into the 8 feet of water below me. Not knowing how to swim, I scrambled to pull myself up to the surface, grabbing onto the girl’s bathing suit as she pushed me away.

Going down for the last time, I suddenly found myself in the air and sitting on the side of the pool choking out the 10 gallons of chlorinated water I’d swallowed. My Mother had chaperoned the trip that day and had seen me floundering, pulled me out of the water and saved me from drowning.

In the summer of 1966, those trips to the pool ended. A court order handed down from a federal district court mandated that the segregated schools of Citrus County would be dismantled. The handwriting was on the wall. All public facilities would be integrated. And so the city council of Inverness decided to close its pool rather than require its white children to swim in the pool with black children.

My Mother called it “Cutting your nose off to spite your face.”

“You know why…”

This was hardly my first encounter with this kind of raw prejudice in action. It had been the custom of the elementary school I attended to hold a graduation service of sorts at the end of the 6th grade. Thereafter students would attend the big school, the 7-12 high school across the street where my Father taught.

In years gone by, this had actually been a big deal. Many farm kids never went beyond 6th grade. An elementary education was presumed to be all kids who would thereafter work the truck farms and cattle ranches of rural America needed to know. Jethro Bodine on the Beverly Hillbillies often bragged about being a 6th grade graduate. He reflected a time in America’s history that had passed but whose relics remained in ceremonies like that of my school.

The year I was to graduate to the high school, our teacher informed us that the graduation ceremony had been cancelled. We were crestfallen. Why, we asked.

At this point our teacher’s face became grave. “Next year we will be integrated,” she said. This was hardly news. “So what?” I asked. “Some parents don’t want their kids standing on a stage next to little black kids,” she continued. “Why not?” I pursued, only to receive a look that conveyed, “You know why, Harry.” I continued, “That’s really stupid,” unable even then to stop myself from commenting on the obvious.

Stupid or not, the graduation was discontinued. And, like the pool in Inverness, some patently unbelievable rationalization was offered about inconvenience, understaffing and safety.

Once again, we had opted to cut our nose off to spite our face.  

Marriage at Midnight, Osceola County, FL 

Discrimination Compounded by Disingenuity

Those stories came streaming back to me this morning as I read in the Tampa Bay Times the following:

As gay marriage comes to Florida, Pasco County's clerk of court is among a growing number of clerks who are refusing to hold courthouse marriage ceremonies. Rather than extend the practice to gay couples, they are ending it entirely.
From as far west as Santa Rosa County to as far east as Duval County, much of North Florida is opting out. But in the Tampa Bay area, home to the largest gay pride celebration in the southeastern United States, only the Pasco clerk has chosen that route.
"It was an easy decision to make," Clerk of Court Paula O'Neil said. Some of her rationale was financial: Pasco is experiencing a construction boom, generating extra work for her employees. But there were personal and religious components as well. Most of her staff who handle marriage licenses were "uncomfortable" officiating same-sex weddings, she said.
"The problem is we can't discriminate," she said. "So there are some people who would have wanted to transfer to another area, and we can't transfer everybody."
So, rather than follow the practice prior to this ruling and performing marriages onsite without discriminating against same-sex couples, the clerks have decided that if they can’t discriminate in whom they choose to marry, no one can get married in their offices. They’ll just take their ball and go home.

I would revert to my childhood and ask the obvious question “Why not?” But, truth be told, we all know why not, just like we did in Bushnell in 1964.

Like the white city fathers of Inverness, no doubt it was “an easy decision to make”  for the clerks across the buckle of the Bible Belt which stretches from Jacksonville to Pensacola and its islands dotting the rest of the state. They faced a legal judgment that their cherished discriminatory practices were unconstitutional which they could no longer avoid. And so, lacking any alternatives, they would comply, just as school districts begrudgingly desegregated in the mid 1960s. But they would not participate in what they saw as unthinkable.

At the heart of this decision is the same reasoning that closed the pool in Inverness and ended the graduation ceremonies in Bushnell. In the final analysis it simply boils down to common social prejudices at work exacerbated by intellectual dishonesty.

The Pasco Clerk’s argument that it must discontinue services that previously were no problem to provide but now suddenly had become too costly is belied by the fact that the increase in services will ultimately be very minimal. The most generous estimates of the presence of LBGTQ people in our population hover around 10%, many of whom harbor abiding mistrust of what was until recently an exclusively heterosexual and heterosexist institution. More reliable estimates suggest about 3% of the population will now be eligible to participate in marriage. Many of them will elect not to.  

There will hardly be much of an increase in job duties for these clerks.

The Halo Effect

Clearly this is a disingenuous argument but not terribly surprising. People who recognize that honestly embracing the real reasons for their conduct may bring them some level of disapprobation from others (and polls now suggest a small majority of Floridians favor same sex marriages) often seek ways to legitimate their conduct no matter how strained. Indeed, sociologists have long known that the unwillingness to admit to shameful attitudes routinely results in voters reporting social acceptable views to pollsters only to vote their prejudices in the darkness of the voting booth, a phenomenon called the halo effect.

To her credit, the Pasco clerk at least points toward the real reasons for this decision, noting that some of her deputy clerks were “uncomfortable” officiating at same sex weddings. In other words, these county employees were unable to get past their own prejudices to continue doing the same job they’ve been doing. That’s the “personal component.”

There is also a “religious component” involved here. Many holders of conservative religious beliefs tend to baptize the presumption of heteronormativity in religious terms.

We hear it in the simplistic “God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve” slogans slung around as if they are revealed truth. We also see it in its more virulent homophobic forms in places like Uganda which pass laws making the mere accusation of being gay a capital crime. These laws were based on model laws provided them by American evangelicals whose agendas in Africa are often greased with lots of money from American offering plates.

Of course, religion has long been used to baptize social prejudices. The prime dueling space in the run-up to the Civil War over the mandate for and against slavery occurred in pulpits across America. Much of the resistance to the inevitable end of segregation in the South was also cast in religious terms as the letter from the Mississippi Baptist pastor to President Lyndon Johnson stated: “Don’t force us to do something God has commanded us not to do.”

The gods of the tribe always make convenient and, within the circled wagons, compelling authorities for holding onto the prejudices against those outside the tribal bounds.  Confusing cultural values with the divine mandates of a religion – often with deadly results - is a common phenomenon observable worldwide from the attacks on the Golden Temple in Amritsar to the Supreme Court ruling that centuries old Native American religious practices involving peyote were not constitutionally protected.

As writer Anne Lamott notes, "You can safely assume that you've created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do."

Waiting in line at Orlando City Hall, Midnight, Jan. 5, 2014
(All photos from Channel 13 Orlando site) 

No Privilege to Discriminate

Perhaps the most remarkable part of the clerk’s quote is in the final comment of the excerpt above. "The problem is we can't discriminate."


Why would not being able to discriminate be a problem? Is discrimination by government employees against members of the public they serve somehow a privilege that should be afforded them? Upon what basis? Indeed, it was precisely the problem of unconstitutional discrimination that prompted the federal courts to overturn laws and state constitutional amendments which prohibited marriage of same sex couples in the first place.

This behavior of some clerks across parts of our state is pretty shameful but not terribly surprising. Where they claim principle and piety, the reality is that their actions evince prejudice and pettiness. The struggle for equality for LBGTQ people has been marked by many episodes of such shameful behaviors. This is just the latest chapter.

But, fortunately, it’s not the final word.

In the wake of the closing of 12 (of 67 total) courthouse chapels across the fringe of Florida, a number of law firms and notary publics are making their services available to same sex couples to marry them. Where courthouse clerks are unwilling to make their tax money supported chapels available to them, the law firms have offered their own locations for that purpose.  

The arc of the moral universe may be long, but, fortunately it does ultimately bend towards justice. Even here in darkest Florida.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., M.Div., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Asst. Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Osceola Campus, Kissimmee

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

Bob said...

Well said. Sad to see these elected Clerks not fulfilling their duties for all their constituents.