Sunday, June 13, 2010

Time to talk honestly with our families ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

From last Tuesday’s AP wire, this story:

Rep. Ike Skelton, a conservative Missouri Democrat, said he thinks the debate in Congress over the proposed repeal of the "don't ask, don't tell" law might force families to explain homosexuality to their children. "What do mommies and daddies say to their 7-year-old child?" Skelton asked reporters during a media breakfast….

Skelton was among the 26 Democrats who joined 168 Republicans in opposing the bill. Skelton told reporters that no one in his district has raised the issue with him, but he says he still doesn't think the discussion is family-friendly enough. "My biggest concern are the families," he said.

No doubt. Families being required to deal with the reality about gays and lesbians could be incredibly risky for parents who have lied to their children about that subject for years. Many of us who are children of the South know this first hand.

In the early 1960s when segregation and Jim Crow still reigned, we were taught that black people were inferior. We were taught that they smelled foul. They were lazy. They were untrustworthy and prone to crime. They were stupid – education was wasted on them. This was the way G-d had created them and it was the way it would always be. World without end, amen. And G-d forbid that a white person should ever marry a black person. Their children would be stupid and ugly. That was what we were taught.

Lies are always fragile. Disconfirming evidence has this really annoying tendency to draw into conflict lies about other people. And personal experience of the other which astonishingly reveals them to be human beings just like me tends to drive the last nail in the coffin lid of such lies.

I remember once being on the BART train in Oakland enroute home from a long day of classes in Berkeley. There was a little girl in front of me playing in the aisle, as children often do. She was beautiful and full of life. I found her fascinating. What race was this child? Perhaps a bit of Asian, a bit of Caucasian, some African-American - all of a sudden I lost my breath – and she’s beautiful!

Most children of the South were raised in the toxic soup of Southern culture with its equal opportunity fear and loathing of commies, hippies, Jews, Papists, queers, feminists and just about anything else that doesn’t square with gun-totin’ white evangelicals. But undoubtedly the most intense bigotry was always reserved for the former slaves of the Confederacy who had to always be constructed in subservient if not pathological terms.

While many of us who rejected that yoke of hatred many years ago would like to believe we have escaped its poisonous passions, a childhood of immersion in that seething stew is difficult to escape. Those prejudices may have been repressed into the psychic sewers of our unconscious but they never go away. As my classmate in seminary observed, “In America we breathe racist air.” And that is never more true than for the child of the South.

And so that afternoon, as I sat there startled by the realization that the mixed race child in front of me was beautiful, a refutation of everything I had been taught as a child, I felt the sharp claws of cognitive dissonance rake across my mind – My parents lied to me. And if they lied to me about that, what else did they lie to me about? Even as an adult then in my 40s I found myself surprised by how much of that dark past I still bear deep within my soul and how painful that realization could be.

So, it’s not surprising that Rep. Skelton is concerned about families and what they will tell their children. Admitting that you are wrong is hard. Having to confront the reality that you have lied to your children threatens your authority, a big issue for Lakoff’s strict Father model families.

Indeed, at some level having to confront the reality of gay people – that they’re actually not much different from anyone else and should be treated the same as anyone else – might well cause children to question many of the things they’ve been taught in their white flight dogmatic academies and in the development stunting prisons of home-schooling. Brittle prejudices require safe havens to be maintained. One little pebble of disconfirming reality can shatter a crystalline house of lies.

At some level Skelton’s candor is to be affirmed even if he seeks to hide behind acontextual and thus meaningless banners of “family friendly.” Friendly to whom? Under what conditions? But honesty with oneself is a small step in the right direction.

Perhaps the distress that many prejudice preserving family structures will experience deserves some empathy. Being forced to deal with the realities of a world in which gay and lesbian people are viewed and treated as simply just another American citizen will not be easy for people who have found both unearned privilege and a false sense of moral superiority in this discriminatory reality. Cognitive dissonance is painful regardless of the one who experiences it. As the late Henri Nouwen has taught us, it is those who have been wounded who are best equipped to be present with others in their suffering.

But the civil rights of thousands of American soldiers is too high a price to ask for their continued comfort and the luxury of continued denial of reality. The sky did not fall in the South when black children began sitting in seats next to white children in their public schools and in the booths next to their families in public restaurants. In the places where Jim Crow has been most dismantled, the South has become a vibrant diverse culture which sees its diversity as a strength rather than a liability.

Clearly we have a long way to go before every American citizen is, in fact, treated as equals. Rejecting pleas for special privileges for homophobic parents while LBGT soldiers continue to be discriminated against strictly because of their sexual orientation is a necessary step in that long journey toward “a more perfect union.”

Time to grow up, Rep. Skelton, and to leave behind the toxic teachings of our parents. It’s not easy, but it is possible, albeit painful. Now is the time.

The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando
 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.