Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Unraveling the "Argument from Discomfort"

[Note: This post may be a kind of rambling monologue, trying to untangle some of the relevant dimensions to this issue. --I speak for no one but myself here.]

I had mixed feelings as I read this editorial in the Post on Sunday. The author of the editorial, Ruth Marcus, conveys the impression that she has been basically a shoulder-shrugging liberal when it comes to gay and transgender issues, she's been accepting, tolerant, but not exactly excited about some of these things; and now she's getting a creepy feeling. Talking about evangelist James Dobson's recent self-satirizing attack on SpongeBob SquarePants and Co., she says:
For if you peel away his repulsive prejudice against gays and his overheated paranoia, Dobson's stated problems with the video echo the worries of many ordinary parents, even liberal ones, that they are the losers in the culture wars and that they have been supplanted in their role by outside forces. Ready to Throw In The Sponge?

Well, I don't quite see that. She puts it in such a nice way that you sympathize, but really, I don't think most of us mind if the school teaches our kids some of the facts of life. And she's not really agreeing with Dobson that "tolerance", "unity", and "diversity" are coded language for homosexuals trying to take over the world, is she?

Her kids go to a private school -- please keep that in mind as she tells her story: this is a school she chose and paid for, not a public school.

Seems this private elementary school really got into this sexual orientation thing. The school put up a photography exhibit of families with gay parents.

I don't quite get this, but she says:
What discomfited some of us -- many of us, in fact -- was the explicitness of the accompanying text describing families with bisexual and transgender parents and families with a history of incest.

Well, I wanna know -- what did it say? Was it really "explicit?" I am imagining a picture of Bruce I in a tutu, open-mouth kissing with Bruce II in a bra and panties, with some text like, "... Again and again his calloused hand swept along the firm length of my silky thighs, driving me to new peaks of excitement with every stroke ..."

Um, somehow, I don't think so. But we don't know what it said, because she doesn't say.

And what did "incest" have to do with it? I really think she left out something important.

Her story builds up to this climax:
One day that week, I was driving the kids home and asked the innocuous question of what they had done in school. "We went up to see the exhibit and learned about transgender families," my 9-year-old answered brightly. "Will was a little confused about how the woman had the baby if she is a man." I held my breath, waiting for the 7-year-old to follow up.

She doesn't say that the 7-year-old ever did follow up, so we assume he didn't.

It appears that the trauma here was that the mother may have had to answer a hard question. She might have had to say, "Maybe they adopted the baby." Seems to me that if a kid's young enough to believe in Santa Claus, an adult ought to be able to derail a hard train of questioning about where babies come from in a particular case.

I draw two conclusions from this editorial. The first is: discomfort is not a moral standard. Straight people are often uncomfortable seeing gay people, and that's not hard to figure out. We simply can't imagine being sexually aroused by someone of our own sex. Can't imagine it, not comfortable with it, kinda creepy. That's just how people are -- like, I can't imagine eating baked blood-clots, but when I was in Portugal I saw people doing it. They liked it, I didn't try it, thank you. The fact that baked blood-clots do not sound appetizing to me has nothing to do with the morality of eating blood. You see where I'm going with this? You don't have to like same-sex relationships, but an intelligent person should be able to distinguish between their own uncomfortable feeling and a judgment of whether something is morally wrong.

There is a certain kind of higher thinking that says we should face those things that frighten us, and deal with them directly. A diplomat, for instance, has to take the high road and eat the exotic food. A parent who is concerned about the inclusion of gay-parent families in the school's definition of families might want to understand exactly what it is about the idea that bothers them. Is it really a threat to them or their own family? Is there really something evil about two people of the same sex loving one another? Or is it simply something you don't understand and have never thought about? This is the superior way, but sadly we can't expect it of everyone.

Second thing. Here's where I'm willing to empathize with this lady a little bit. There are gay, bisexual, transgendered people in the world, but not very many of them. Estimates vary from a low of one or two percent given by the wishful-thinking religious right to ten or fifteen percent coming out of Kinsey's studies, decades ago, and embraced by wishful-thinking people from the other side of the discussion. The truth is probably in the low-to-middle part of that range, but nobody really knows. Anyway, the exact proportion doesn't matter. The fact is, there are gay people, and it is perfectly reasonable to teach kids that fact, and give them some context for understanding it. It's not a sickness, it's not a choice, and it's not that rare, but it's not very common.

It sounds like this lady's private school got a little obsessed with this. I don't think there needs to be a photography gallery of pictures of gay families in the school. If there was a gallery of families, then by all means, go ahead and put some same-sex parents in there, let kids get used to the fact. But life isn't about gay people, and it is not especially educational, it seems to me, to overemphasize it in the schools. How about we teach kids that gay people are just people? You OK with that? I am.

Now that I've probably alienated just about everybody ...

The new MCPS curriculum does an excellent job of walking this fine line. Nobody is proposing photography exhibits of gay families with "explicit" (I still wonder what that was) text, or field trips to gay bars, or anything like that. The curriculum is not obsessed or enamored with homosexuality, it simply teaches it as a fact of life. And that's what it is.

This kind of debate is not easily condensed into either/or, black or white propositions. The whole discussion requires sensitivity and subtlety: nuance. To talk about this, we need to be grown-ups. We need to accept what the facts are, and we need to understand that various parties have their own reasons for wanting one or another outcome, and we need to understand that probably nobody will get everything they want.

The Montgomery County curriculum is the result of years -- literally, years -- of negotiating and discussing many different points of view. Leaders of the recall group were members of the citizen's committee that discussed this -- they want you to believe now that the discussion wasn't fair, but it was as fair as it gets. There were lots of conservative, anti-gay folks on the committee, and they moved the curriculum toward the center, but they didn't get their way a hundred per cent. The curriculum now teaches that there are gay people, and they're just people. It's not obsessed with homosexuality, just presents it as a fact of life.

You OK with that? I am.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who were the "lots" of conservatives on that committee? On the sex plan I saw on the website, I saw people from blatantly liberal organizations like PFLAG, but the only ones that could possibly have been conservative (though even they are doubtful) were DAR and the Archdiocese.

February 01, 2005 2:50 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

There were others. The idea that they didn't get a fair chance to present their materials is bogus. They presented everything they wanted, and were mostly voted down.


February 01, 2005 3:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

WHo were the others? I looked at the list on the pdf file that you linked to, but I don't recall any.

February 02, 2005 5:18 PM  
Blogger JimK said...

Besides the official religious representatives on the committee:

PFOX had Jackie Rice
DAR had Retta Brown
Parents Against Ex-Rated Books had Jerlene Eader
Parents Against Pornography had Rosa Urquhart
And there was Michelle Turner, not representing a conservative group, but anti-gay nonetheless

That should be enough people to make their point.

February 02, 2005 5:50 PM  

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