Month: December 2016

Content Alerts and Trigger Warnings in Soc of Sex

Content alert: Brief listing of the course content of my sociology of sex course, which includes readings on sexual violence
At the start of this semester, debates about trigger warnings spread over social media, inflamed by a letter that the University of Chicago sent to incoming students declaring that

Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so called ‘trigger warnings,’ we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.

Now, there is a lot to unpack even in this brief excerpt from the letter, but that became very hard to do because, as one of my colleagues said in frustration, “Posting about trigger warnings is like putting a big sign on your facebook page that says ‘POST STUPID, UNIFORMED NONSENSE ON MY THREAD PLEASE.'” Most of that nonsense relied on stereotypes of students as “special snowflakes” who melt at the first sign of stress. The tone of those opposing–and, really, mocking–trigger warnings was of old people scoffing at young ones and remembering how, in their day, they not only walked a mile to campus through two feet of snow, but they did it without worrying that if they victim-blamed rape victims or used a racial or homophobic slur, they wouldn’t get called out for it. It’s just like Clint Eastwood said, they gripe, “We’re really in a pussy generation. Everybody’s walking on eggshells. We see people accusing people of being racist and all kinds of stuff.” Back in their day, these things weren’t called racist or homophobic or sexist. You could say things like “pussy generation” and not worry about it because, of course, women weren’t in the college classroom.
safe-space-john-wayne-750

 Above, a meme from Right Wing News. The image is of John Wayne wearing a cowboy hate. The words say “Oh, you are looking for a ‘Safe Space?’ Learn how to handle a gun and you can make any space safe.” Memes such as this, which invoke anti-Millennial tropes, are common on rightwing and conservative websites. 

But I want to focus narrowly on trigger warnings–or, rather, content alerts–and the success I have had after teaching several hundred students over many sections of sociology of sexuality over the last four years.
As you can imagine, soc of sex is a really popular course. Arkansas, where I teach, does not have mandatory sex ed in high schools, and some of my students have learned all they know about sex from porn and Siri. Not surprisingly, Arkansas has such a high rate of teen pregnancy, including among college-going women, that the state has given us a mandate (unfunded) to address the issue of unplanned pregnancy on campus. So the class has practical importance in the lives of students; each semester, several share that they wish it was a required course–or at least that we ran more sections of it so that the dozens of students I turn away each semester could take it too.
It’s also a tough class to teach. Like race and class, sex and sexuality affect all of us, even those of us who identify as asexual. Sex has to do with our bodies, our wills, our desires, our place in our social world. It has to do with violence and crime and pain, with our laws, with our national identities, with our families of origins and the families that we make, if we choose to do so. And we have such vastly different experiences, values, and ideals that it can be difficult to talk across lines of difference. Arkansas State, in particular, is a diverse place, with about 25% of the population comprised of students of color  and a significant nontraditional population and a number of students who are active duty or veterans. Nearly half are Pell grant eligible, a marker of low income. No wonder than 54% of college students say that they are concerned about saying something offensive.
I think that concern is good. I want my students to take responsibility for their words. I want them to think before they speak. I want them to consider their audience. I want them to be rhetorically aware as well as compassionate to those with whom they are speaking. I want them to try on the perspective of others, as much as they can. I want them to talk more hesitantly about what they are sure of and ask sincere questions and listen more deeply to others. In the end, they don’t have to agree with or even respect the opinion of others. Not all opinions are respectable. But they do have to try to understand. In anthropological terms, they are striving for the emic perspective, understanding someone’s position according to its internal elements. Whatever their politics or post-college goals are, they benefit from the analytic ability to think from another’s point-of-view.
I also want them to give others space to think, explore, and change their minds. This means we have to forbear with each other, to help learners revise stupid questions into smart ones, to teach them better words and smarter ways of thinking.We also need to be patient as they grow in their thinking–sometimes making U-turns but sometimes just slight corrections. We have to trust that, over the long haul, they’ll get there. This class may be the first step in a long journey.

Content alerts, like trigger warnings, are one way to help students in that journey.

A content alert simply notifies students about what we will be doing in class. A content alert works well in any class because it is not focused on victimization but on making the syllabus transparent; it works to support learning for everyone, whether they have experienced trauma or not. The more transparent a syllabus is–that is, the more clearly students can see what they are going to be learning and how they will be engaging and the more careful a professor is about making those goals clear within the setting of the course, connecting them to what we’ve already done and showing how what we are doing will connect to what we will do–the better students learn. They can see how it all “fits together.” This helps both disorganized and hyper-vigilant students. It’s a good practice whether you are teaching calc or geography or soc of sex.

It works like this: I put every thing on the syllabus, all up front. All assignment are available on the first day of class for students to preview online. In sociology of sex, this means I provide a link to each film we will watch and book we will read so students can check them out–even watch trailers or read reviews. When course content contains material that I expect might be upsetting, I make that clear to them upfront. And I stress that I EXPECT them to be upset. We are reading about topics that SHOULD upset decent people. Being upset is actually one of the signs that you care. As one student wrote in an anonymous course evaluation:

I hated this at the beginning of the class but it turns out that I like that the assignment choices are controversial and often horrifying. The readings and assignments were hard to complete without being emotional in some way but I get now, that that’s the point. I feel like Dr. Barrett-Fox put a lot of thought into the course outline and materials and sneakily caused even an introvert like me want to speak out against abuse of any kind and help when and where I can. I also like that the course was offered online. I don’t think I could have sat thru a class on some of these topics without being very emotional.

As this student indicated, in sociology of sex, students have a lot of choices. This spring, they will choose seven books to read and 14 films to watch from a much longer list (nearly 30 books and films). Each book and film on our list of choices has been vetted by me, and I can provide guidance in helping students select what they will read and watch. A pre-nursing student may want to focus on sex and the body and so chooses books on the sociology of the pill, on forensic nursing care for rape victims, on sexual assault on college campus, on reproductive technologies, on gender reassignment surgeries, on female genital mutilation, and on abortion. A pre-law student may want to focus on sex and the law and so picks books on the history of the legal battle over contraception, anti-abortion picketing, the global sex trafficking market, pornography, gay rights, and religious protest of gay rights. Future teachers may focus their readings on child sexual abuse, adolescent sexual development, homophobia in high schools, and teen pregnancy. By the end, everyone will have read something that addresses each of the major themes of the course (bodies/health/medicine, race/ethnicity/nation, violence/crime/deviance, religion, gender, queerness, & reproduction/children/youth) while selecting books and films that make sense with their own learning goals. Students take the lead. As one student shared in an anonymous course evaluation this semester:

The professor, Dr. Barrett-Fox, really engages with us and makes the learning material relevant to our lives today. The way she taught made me WANT to do the work and actually pay attention to it. She also gave us options on what assignments we could do and which ones we could skip, which made me feel like I got to contribute to my education somehow.

This also means that they  choose what not to engage. If, for whatever reason, someone can’t read about campus sexual assault, they don’t have to. Can’t handle a film on abortion? You can skip it–without telling me why. Requiring a student tell me that reading about campus sexual assault is impossible right now because she’s recently been assaulted puts me into a position of judging whether her reason is “good enough” to deserve special treatment. (What would that be? An exemption from the assignment? An alternative assignment?) Students who have some of the most important perspectives on difficult topics are able to participate fully in the class this way. One student wrote in a course evaluation:

I like that I was able to tailor the course around sensitive topics that could have been triggering for me while still engaging me in the course materials.

If, instead of a transparent, choice-filled syllabus, I required students who needed extra support as they approached personally traumatic material to justify their need for extra help, I would–as a mandatory reporter–then have to share that information with the Title IX coordinator on campus, which the student might not want to do.

Course design shouldn’t put students into a position of having to share their deepest trauma, at the risk of having it shared more broadly.

A flexible but transparent syllabus, with clear goals, avoids all of that while allowing students to take responsibility for their own learning. That’s exactly what content alerts (and trigger warnings) do: they allow students time to prepare to do their best work and make their best contribution to the class.

And they work really well. Dozens of students have expressed appreciation for the set up of this course because it respects them. They have embraced long, difficult books that I was sure that few of them would voluntarily read. (A solid 20% of this semester’s class said that The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution was their favorite read this semester. Jonathan Eig’s book is almost 400 pages long.) They have made connections between readings and films that I could not have anticipated. And no two students followed the exact same path, so I was able to discover interesting combinations of texts and films based on their choices.

soc-of-sex-booksThe choices my students will face in soc of sex this spring. For a complete list, email me at rbarrettfox@astate.edu to ask for the syllabus. 

But, best of all, because our class stresses curiosity, compassionate listening, and trying on other’s perspectives, students engage deeply with each other. This semester, more than 20% of the class identified our class discussion board conversations as the course’s biggest strength. These are the most difficult part of the course for me because they are the area where I have least control. They are also the area where students can best show me that they are learning, as they take the initiative to ask each other great questions, share vulnerably and respectfully, and make connections across course content. In short, discussion boards don’t work unless you have students who are really excellent. I am fortunate that I did this semester. (It’s not always guaranteed!) But I also know that setting high, clear expectations–which are communicated via a transparent syllabus–helps students excel.

I’m obnoxiously proud of my students this semester. They did a fantastic job of making this class work for them. Nearly a dozen have written me emails detailing the ways that the class has helped them personally–including helping them better understand their own victimization, helping them improve their relationships with family members, helping them open their hearts to  oppressed people, and helping them take action to make a more just world. I look forward to hearing more from them as they go out into the world–as social workers, criminal investigators, therapists, pastors, journalists, and as parents, friends, family members, and neighbors.

PS: Check out Cody Moore, one of my students, a journalism major,  reporting on a campus effort to combat rape culture.

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A closing thought on trigger warnings: As professors, we may not know what will trigger trauma in a student, and, truly, it is none of our business. Graphic course content about racism or sexism or violence are obvious sources of pain for students, but so are all kinds of things we can’t anticipate (and they may not be able to anticipate, either): a shirt of a particular color, a name, a smell. In fact, those odd triggers are one way we cope with trauma. We may not remember the traumatic event itself at all. We leave the scene of our assault even as it happens and instead hear only the basketball game on in the dorm room next door or the music floating down from the choir’s practice room; we focus not on the man beating us but on the logo on his t-shirt or his facial hair. So we must never belittle the student who can’t stand the sound of a basketball game or a Christmas carol or the sight of the Ralph Lauren polo pony or a goatee.

Because we can’t know, we also can’t remove every trigger from our classroom. But when we build a syllabus that respects student, we also build a relationship with students that allows them to share their needs with us, whether that is asking for trigger warnings specific to their needs (something very, very rarely done) or asking for the time and space to manage their trauma. And if someone needs a trigger warning–a heads up that we’re going to be listening to Christmas carols in class–they are better able to ask if they know that I care about them. And then they are better able to learn.

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If you would like to see my sociology of sex syllabus, please email me at rbarrettfox@astate.edu.

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Below are some selected comments that students shared in response to this semester’s sociology of sex class, either via email or in anonymous course evaluations.

 The thing I think should be taught every semester is the Jeanette Cleary Act data information.  I never knew this existed before taking this class and there are probably others who are unfamiliar with how to find this data.

One of my favorite books is The Birth of the Pill. I randomly selected my 8 books, this being one, and I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the hard work that has been put into making the birth control pill. This alone was useful to me because it made me realize and to learn to not take birth control for granted. I always forgot to take my pill, but after reading this book, surprisingly and weirdly, I managed to become better at taking them. 

 When I found out I would have to read eight books for this course, I’m not going to lie, I was very scared and even considered dropping the course, but I’m glad I didn’t. I have learned so much this semester. I often catch myself talking about something we read or watched in conversation with my friends; this is so surprising to me because I normally only talk about classes related to major…

This course has empowered me as an individual, as a woman, and I am so thankful that I was able to take it.

I grew up in a small town, with a population of around 1,300. If [a family member who came out as bisexual during our course] would have told me about her sexuality before I began college, I do not think that I would have given her as much support as I do now…. I am thankful for this course, because it has expanded my knowledge and helped me better understand and support [family member] and other LGBT people close to me.

I… feel more prepared to support my future children in being whoever they want to be.

I think you should have the book We Believe You taught again in future semesters. Rape is definitely a relevant campus issue. It seems to plague all college campuses, but so many people are quick to dismiss it or blame the victim. Just this semester, Arkansas State has seen three alleged rapes and it has caused so many accusations and rumors to fly.

 I took this class out of necessity and because it honestly looked extremely interesting. I was very eager to take it so I could learn more about the subject as a whole. I love how not only did I learn a lot, I got to see my peers learn along with me. Not only that, but I got to watch people’s opinions change, along with my own, about certain subjects throughout the semester. It helped a lot of people, including myself, delve deeper into this subject and understand so much better. For example, I did not realize how much slang I use that I shouldn’t…. I don’t realize just how hurtful my words can be on complete accident. I caught myself choosing a different word in place of them, and taking them out of my vocabulary completely. Sometimes you get caught up in the slang you and your friends use, and you forget that they are actually pretty hurtful to a lot of people even when you do not mean for them to be. 

Something that I respect that you have done with this course is providing us with options on what we read. I am not going to lie, I picked subjects that I was uncomfortable with in a way that I wanted to be more informed about because I was not proud of their existence – sex trafficking was the major one. There were times that I would be reading the content and I would get so mad – almost nauseous. I thank you for that. I thank you for the fact that you push your students into being aware of what is going on in the world around them all while respecting the world they have come from.

[This class] has increased my desire to read into the current events and the amount of literature that is out there. Also, even if the information that I have learned in this course doesn’t directly help me in my future career I know that it will be useful to me as a human being. I want to be a person that can be open and respectful to peoples backgrounds and beliefs. The information that I have learned through this course will help me be that person.

I will use this class as a reminder that I should remember to listen to the other side even if I do not agree.

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Photographs wanted!

Heather Rachelle White, author of Reforming Sodom: Protestants and the Rise of Gay Rights, Gillian Frank. and Bethany Moreton, author of  To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise are editing a book on sexuality and religion (Ahhhh! That’s the sound of my spirit being renewed at the thought of these three folks working on this topic together!) and are in need of some photographs.  They are specifically wanting to illustrate same-sex marriage debates as an issue where religious voices are publicly involved on every side.

The editors would prefer to use images by and pay licensing fees to activists and organizations and so invite you to submit your visually striking photographs on the topic. You can email them to sexualityreligionhistory@gmail.com; be sure to let them know that I sent you so they see how broadly supported this project is.

kim davis.jpg

Above, Kentucky County clerk Kim Davis shares her delight at getting out of jail after she refused to sign marriage certificates for same sex couples. 

_Religion & Gender_’s review of _Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity_, edited by Heather Shipley

As 2016 nears to an end, I’m just now plowing through the rest of my 2015 reading (which is probably not what “slow professor” should mean)–at least the odds and ends, like book reviews. I wanted to share this one, from Ibrahim Abraham (University of Helsinki) in Religion & Gender, over Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity: Contexts, Contestations, Voicesedited by Heather Shipley, project manager of the Religion and Diversity Project, and published by Brill.

global

Above, Globalized Religion and Sexual Identity, edited by Heather Shipley. 

I’ve got a chapter in the book that outlines some of the major sociological theories of anti-gay religious right activism, and anet R. Jakobsen and Ann Pellegrini’s “Obama’s Neo-New Deal: Religion, Secularism, and Sex in Political Debates Now”is worth checking out at this particular moment for those interested in sexual politics in the US. Shipley has brought together contributors from Canada, Hong Kong, Brazil, and the UK to consider topics as varied as transgender rights, circumcision, Anglican convents,  youth, African immigrants in Canada, and sexual rights in China and the UK. A focus on how identities are shaped by religion and sexuality in the contemporary moment ties the whole work together.

You can follow Heather Shipley, the president of the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion, on Twitter to learn more about the Religion and Diversity Project.

Fuller House Kid Goes to Harvey Milk Elementary School

Oh Mylanta!

I’ve actually not watched TV regularly since about when Full House went off the air in the mid-199os. But, thanks to Netflix and a very persistent 9 year old daughter, I caught an episode of Fuller House, the “Velveeta reboot” of the show that hid the truth about Bob Saget’s comedic genius from me for years. The show is as terrible as reviews say–not just terrible in itself but “a new low in the current culture’s inability to leave behind the blankies, binkies and wubbies of one’s youth.” And while I’m generally not one for nostalgia (I own almost nothing from my own 1987-1995 years.), I relented. I’ve not watched enough episodes to say much except to share Vanity Fair writer Richard Lawson‘s comment that

the show is not new or edgy enough to be . . . new, or edgy. It’s just Full House with an added naughtiness, even though the whole point of Full House was that it resisted naughtiness. It was the antidote to naughtiness, which is what made people make fun of it, which is what made people nostalgic for it, which is what led us to this.

Interestingly, Christian reviewers are in general agreement with the secular haters–not so much about what the resurrection of this show says about our impious obsession with our own youth but about the naughtiness.

The stories in Fuller House tend to revolve around the adults–the child stars of the original–but that only makes sense, given that the original audience of kids is now all grown up, too, and are the ones with the marketing pull to make this show not just possible but also possibly the #1 show on Netflix. The result is all the same cheesy jokes and belabored catch-phrases with off-key jokes about lesbians, breasts, sex positions, kisses between women (on purpose) and men (on accident), drinking, and semen, plus super-short skirts, exposed midriffs, and mild swearing. Most of them will probably go over younger kids’ heads, but they also aren’t funny enough to engage adults. Candace Cameron Bure, little sister to conservative Christianity’s favorite terrible actor, Kirk Cameron, has come under fire in particular because she is an avowed Christian (and Republican) who is frequently drinking, swearing, and locking lips with more than one man, generally in teeny-tiny clothes.

Above, some of the images from Fuller House that have raised the ire of critics, both because they are too sexualized for a “family” show and because they aren’t funny. 

But, all that aside, I want to share one highlight of the show. While Fuller House‘s not-infrequent references to LGB people, love, and sex are not-very-funny punchlines, the show does have its lone elementary-schooler–Max, DJ Tanner’s middle child–attending Harvey Milk Elementary School, which is revealed early in the first season. In a later episode, Max hosts his class at his home so that they can see his organic garden. In that episode, the kids pull up in a schoolbus clearly marked “Harvey Milk Elementary School”–probably not a reference to the real Harvey Milk Civil Rights Academy in San Francisco, but still a recognition of the legacy of Milk, San Francisco’s gay civil rights leader, murdered nearly 40 years ago.

Fuller House is set in San Francisco, one of the nation’s most queer-friendly towns and is based on a show about three men working together to raise children (granted, not exactly gay men, but perhaps the original show’s only interesting conceit and a little jab at the heteropatriarchy). So it’s not much, but I was heartened to see that little bus pull up to the Tanner-Fuller home.

 

 

Banning Books, Closing Hearts, Killing Kids

Content alert: LGBT teen suicide, white nationalist politics, homophobia in politics

The drama began with Drama, Raina Telgemeier’s graphic novel about a middle school play. My daughter had enjoyed her Smile and Sisters, and I was probably more excited than an adult should be about her re-vamping of The Babysitters Club series. We’d given Telgemeier’s books to cousins and friends as gifts, cheap and kind of cheesy books about the concerns of girls—making friends, living with braces, getting along with siblings on long road trips. Plus the illustrations send the message that graphic novels and the writing of them aren’t just for boys.

Telgemeier’s books are popular among the kids at school, too, which is why the public school’s lack of Drama was noticeable. My daughter figured it had just been checked out, but after several weeks of checking for it on the shelf, she asked the school librarian when it would be back. Turns out, the library didn’t have it. Why? She asked, already knowing the answer. The librarian explained that it “wasn’t appropriate.” My daughter noted that all of Telgemeier’s other books where in the collection. “Not appropriate” was the response. She understood: the book includes a minor character who is gay. Turns out, in fact, that Drama has been on the American Library Association’s Top Ten challenged book list in recent years. The reason listed is that the book is “sexually explicit”—which is total nonsense. The fact that there is a gay character is the real reason it’s deemed “not appropriate.”

drama-cover

Above, the cover of Drama

My daughter came home from school that day frustrated about the library’s decision not to include Drama in their collection (though not personally put out as we own the book ourselves) but, more than that, worried about the message it was sending to kids at her school: that gay kids were themselves “inappropriate.”

So began a long, good struggle.

The next day at school, her deskmate, a boy, was working when another fourth grader dropped a note on his desk. “It’s my phone number,” he explained, inviting the other boy to call him so they could hang out after school. My daughter’s deskmate crumpled it up and tossed it away. “I don’t call boys because I’m not a fag.”

Incensed, my daughter let loose.

“What did you say?” I asked her as she retold the story that evening, concerned.

“First,” she said, counting off on her fingers, “that that was rude to the other kid, who was just trying to be friends. Second, that he was going to miss out on some good friendships if he thought that boys can’t call each other on the phone. Third, that he shouldn’t say mean things about gay people. Fourth, that it’s none of his business who other people love because it doesn’t hurt him.”

All of that seemed reasonable, though I wondered if there might have not been harsher language in the original version. I raised an eyebrow.

“I may have told him to shut his stupid mouth,” she confessed. “But, really, he should shut his stupid mouth.”

I couldn’t disagree.

“What happened next?”

She broke into miserable tears. The boy said she must be gay if she cared so much. She said that was not the issue, and he took her refocusing as affirmation that she’s gay. A mean girl on the playground repeated it. All the fourth graders were saying it now. The mean girl threatened to write it in a “gossip column” she was circulating in the class. The playground monitor had sent her, not them, to the principal’s office.

My husband had already received the phone call from the teacher, so this wasn’t a total surprise. And he told the teacher the same thing we told our daughter: that it was always right to stand up for people who are being put down, that we were proud of her, and that we would always support her when she did what was right. We would work with her to do it respectfully, kindly, gently, giving people room to turn around while saving face. But we expected her to intervene if she saw people being treated unkindly. Always.

daughters-of-biltis

Our daughter’s research to inform her letter to her school librarian. Her list of “things to look up” include “the lavender menece,” “the daughters of bittlis,” and “stonewall riots.”

These events—the library censorship, the offer of friendship rejected with a homophobic remark, and the playground gossip and threats—are not disconnected. When we refuse to recognize the dignity of fictional gay characters by refusing them a place on the bookshelf, we make it easier to deride people who are gay or to make calling someone “gay” a derisive comment itself. When we say, in effect, “These people do not exist even in the world of fiction,” we make it easier to make sure they don’t exist—to socially eradicate them through bullying and shaming—in the real world.  Of course, it’s not that my daughter’s deskmate was emboldened to say “fag” by the librarian’s decision not to include Drama in the collection. But the decision to keep the library “gay character-free” is one way we disallow children the opportunity to meet people who are different via literature, where they are invited to empathetically enter into the character’s world. And, eventually, they realize: No one is allowed to be gay in our community.

And, to be clear, that is exactly the reason why Drama is not in the library. The state of Utah, where we live, has a law, now being challenged, that prohibits public schools from “promoting of homosexuality.”* Boys Beware! I roll my eyes. But this is not an ancient law from the mind of John Briggs. This “no promo homo” law was implemented in 2005. I’m hopeful that it will die in the next few months thanks to the bravery of some queer kids in the Beehive State, but that doesn’t mean Drama will be on the shelf. School districts and individual librarians have wide discretion in what they choose to acquire. It could be that the district continues to decide that Drama isn’t “appropriate” or that the librarian doesn’t choose to select it for inclusion. I get it that changing the law doesn’t change the culture.

“Anything else?” I asked, wiping her tears. She was quiet, reviewing her day.

“Anything else?” I prompted again.

“What are you getting at, Mom?” she said frankly.

“If you are gay, or if you think you are gay, I want you to know that you can always tell me or your dad or both of us, and that we will do everything we can to keep you safe, and if you have any friends or classmates who are gay or who think they might be gay, we will always do everything we can to keep them safe too.”

“Oh, I know that,” she said, giving me a quick hug. “That’s why I’m telling you all this.”

“Do you think you are gay or might be?” I asked explicitly.

“No,” she replied quickly. Then she thought about it for a minute. “Actually, Mom, I’m just in fourth grade. I don’t think that’s a question I have to answer.”

She was right, and I appreciated her gentle but clear reminder that this was none of my business and, really, at this point, not a concern for her.

Of course, some kids have a sense of their own sexuality in elementary school—and they certainly have older friends and family members who are gay, so they need to have models, even in fiction, of gay people. Actually, all of them do, whether they know that they know gay people. So her father and I headed to a meeting with the principal and teacher.

Our daughter had already complained to the principal that the library didn’t have Drama, and he suggested writing a letter to the librarian asking for it to be included. I pointed to the state law, asking if a letter writing effort would be a waste of time given that roadblock. He suggested doing it anyway, to help our daughter learn the process. I felt a flash of familiar frustration at the violence of “process” but agreed. Maybe by the time they worked through the process, the law would be gone. Also, I am not above guerilla shelving.

They were empathetic to the situation all around. Gender identity was easier, the principal said, than sexuality, because kids did have an understanding of gender—it was something they were all working on in some way, whether they had words like gender or not. Sexuality was actually tougher, he said, because the school includes kids five through twelve, with very different supports at home for learning about sexuality, including their own. With puberty starting earlier and the inclusion of six grade in the school, there were definitely kids thinking about their sexual identities. The principal admitted that the answers weren’t always clear about how to best support kids in this way, especially given that the world of childhood is changing so fast. I agreed.

The teacher and principal responded swiftly to our story about her deskmate. “Against district wide policy and against the most important value of our school: respect.” I appreciated that but also expressed concern that the boy not be punished. Language like that—and, more importantly, the disrespect and cruelty that give rise to it—don’t come from nowhere, and there was no reason to involve his parents if we could avoid it. But the teacher would reinforce classroom expectations about respect, kindness, and friendship. The school social worker would come in and work with the class on the issue, too.

Utah has one of the highest suicide rates in the nation—and it’s increasing among kids and teens. There is some thinking that the high altitude, which has significantly less oxygen than sea level air, has an effect. Maybe. But the anti-LGBT climate and the heteronormativity of the Mormon church and its theology also has a big effect. Queer youth are especially vulnerable to suicide, and Mormons have an additionally high suicide rate, regardless of age or sexuality. In an LDS-dominant culture, even those youth who are not Mormon are affected by the unique (and, obviously, heterosexual) purity culture of Mormons.

A book like Drama could save a kid’s life in this place. And so the state legislature’s pre-emptive strike against it is especially cruel. They would prevent a gay kid from perhaps the only positive depiction of a gay person they might see rather than risk… what? Being exposed to the “advocacy of homosexuality”?

But it’s not just for the sake of children particularly at-risk and in need of positive, even if fictional, examples of happy (rather than tragic, miserable) gay people. It’s an issue of what kind of culture we want. Do we want to be a place where gay people cannot exist? Where heterosexuality is seen as so fragile and same-sex sexual orientation so powerful that the mere existence of a minor character who is gay could effectively “promote” a sexual orientation among kids?

Suicide is one result. Here is another:

In the days leading up to the 2016 general election, conservative independent Evan McMullin was picking up steam in the state. The Republican politicians in the state had broadly spoken out against Trump and his misogyny and racism, and some polls were indicating the possibility of a three-way tie in the state. A pro-Trump white supremacist and former Trump delegate starting making robocalls to dissuade McMullin voters. They said that McMullin “had two mommies” and was a “closet homosexual.”  It’s unclear whether the calls were able to invoke a politics of disgust about McMillan as a candidate, but there was certainly disgust about the tactic. And, clearly, the pro-Trump forces thought the calls would be effective, that listeners would automatically reject a gay person.

Which is exactly what the Utah law promotes.

 

 

 

 

*The law also prohibits the advocacy of sex outside of marriage and the use of contraception.

Teaching _God Hates_ This Spring?

If you are teaching God Hates: Westboro Baptist Church, American Nationalism, and the Religious Right this spring and would like to schedule a class visit, please let me know! Speaking with students, learning about their projects and interests, and supporting their research is something I’m passionate about, and I’d love to meet your students (or Sunday school class or book club) in person or via Skype or Zoom. And if you are working with graduate students with interests in the topics addressed in the book, feel free to encourage them to contact me to talk about their ideas.

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Driving Satan from Congress

No, really, that was the goal of late November’s Congressional-Clergy Townhall.

The event was organized by Wallbuilders, led by pseudo-historian David Barton, and the Jefferson Gathering, a weekly Wednesday night non-denominational contemporary worship service held especially for members of Congress. Wallbuilders promotes a vision of “America’s forgotten history and heroes with an emphasis on our moral, religious, and constitutional heritage” through a daily radio show, books and lectures about US history, and tours of the US capitol that insert a triumphalist Christian narrative into US history. The name, which predates Donald Trump’s vision of a wall on the U.S.’s southern  border, refers to return of the Jews, who had been dispersed through captivity, to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city. The allusion from the Old Testament book of Nehemiah suggests that today’s conservative Christians must “rebuild the walls” of the nation to insure God’s continued blessing on the United States.

In the video above, David Barton explains the role of the Black Robe Regiment–pastors who pledge to “fearlessly proclaim God’s perspective on all issues, whether spiritual or temporal, and extend the knowledge and application of His principles from my pulpit,” for “the struggle is for the heart and soul of America.” 

As I’ve written before, contemporary conservative Christian voices have been able to insert Trump into this particular story very effectively–so much so that in their radio broadcast about the Congressional-Clergy Townhall, pastors David Kistler and Dale Walker, who participated in the event, call Trump “a respite” from our national declension. That’s right: Donald Trump is a going to bring the White House closer to God. (Of course, for many of these folks, Barack Obama isn’t just a secret Muslim–he’s actually the anti-Christ.)

Participants included Sen. Ted Cruz, Sen. Chuck Grassley, and others. It included messianic End Times rabbi Jonathan Cahn, who consistently preaches that our collective tolerance of gay people and acceptance of same-sex marriage will result in God’s disavowal of the United States and our eventual destruction, a message he preached at both this recent event and an April meeting of Congress’s conservative Christian, also sponsored by the Jefferson Gathering.

Want to understand this better? I strongly suggest “The Founding Fathers in Modern America” by Kate Carté Engel in Faith in the New Millennium: The Future of Politics and Religion, edited by Matthew Avery Sutton and Darren Dochuk (Oxford 2015); Mark A. Chancey‘s “Bible Bills, Bible Curricula, and Controversies of Biblical Proportions: Legislative Efforts to Promote Bible Courses,” which appeared in Religion & Education 34 (2007): 28-47; and Tahlia Fischer’s fantastic dissertation “(Re)membering a Christian Nation: Christian Nationalism, Biblical Literalism, and the Politics of Public Memory.” And be sure to read Oxford University Press’s Handbook of the Bible in Americaedited by Paul Gutjahr, which comes out next year–at least the chapter on the Bible in the Religious Right.