As writers and/or activists enter the public discussions, they tend to adopt a style and way of communicating that works for them. If you are Dan Savage, you devise clever definitions of words based on Known Homophobes, and start amazingly powerful video campaigns. For me, I am a gay dad who writes people letters in a very public way.
I am often asked if I actually send those letters to the people for whom they are intended, and the answer is “yes.” How I get the letters to them varies based on their accessibility but in all cases my intention is to communicate directly as well as through the public sphere.
Recently I wrote to a school and the community it serves regarding the cancellation of a play depicting a penguin family, a family of two males taking parental roles over an adopted egg. I wrote to them about the cancellation of a play about a family like mine. When I published it, I sent a link immediately to the school through its Facebook page messages. I got a response:
“Hi Rob, not ignoring. I will get back to you.”
Five days and four publications later, I did get a response from Jill Harry, “Mom, 7th-8th Grade Long Term Substitute Teacher, PR Manager, Lead Founding Member, former Board Chair, Sierra Foothill Charter School, sierrafoothillcharterschool.org”.
Jill stated, “I read and appreciated a lot of what you wrote in your May 1 blog. Unfortunately, not everything you wrote about SFCS and recent events is accurate… I do not have the time or energy to go line by line through your blog and point out all the places where you are incorrect in what you are reporting. Instead, I’m attaching clarifying statements from our principal and our board chair.”
I have attached those documents below. In the original blog, I also attached the school letter that outlined all the facts I discussed in my commentary. Since all the information I presented was from the school directly or quoting people that their local media had captured on camera, I was very curious as to what “inaccuracies” Ms. Hill perceived. After reading the principal’s letter, the main two concerns seemed to be that when he stated that the play “does cross the line for what parents think is appropriate for school,” that he was speaking only for the majority of parents who were against the play, not the whole population. I don’t think my quote of him indicated that all parents were in agreement, nor do I see that making a difference to the issue at hand.
The school seemed also intent on making clear that the cancellation had more to do with the disruptive controversy — that the play was meant to be “fun,” but was now, not going to be.
My response to Ms. Hill: “Thank you for your response, and especially for the follow up letters. I would happy to look at any clarification of details you would like to make. I find your “time and energy” comment insincere and suspicious since all of the facts I presented were taken from the school’s own letter on its Facebook page, and the quotes were directly from people filmed at the school board meeting.
The additional letters you just sent actually reinforce, rather than refute, the points made in my blog. The only added piece of information I can see is that the intention of the play was to be merely frivolous fun. When it turned out to have any controversy whatsoever, the fact it was no longer frivolous became the issue.
I am sorry, but that rationalization is not good enough. If the play had not have been about a same sex couple, but a family of another race, and many of your school had reacted in a racist manner about it, I doubt (and dearly hope) that your reaction would not have been “gee we have to cancel because there was unintended controversy. ”
I can appreciate your administration was taken by surprise, and that their original intention was not to provide a learning platform for diversity. Once in that situation how you chose to handle it became the issue however. The school board member who was concerned about the message it sent to LGBT families and to the kids who are gay in your school but are hiding it in secret (And yes, statistically there are as few as five and as many as thirteen in your population.) was exactly right if not understated, that your actions have sent a horrific message.
You did not step up to educate those who were voicing ignorance about the families the play symbolized, but placated to that opinion simply because it was widely held in your parent population. My blog was primarily about one thing– and that is the point that my family, should it be in your community, would not be people, we would be a “controversy” and treated as “opinions” of which others were free to “disagree with”. If my sons attended your school, then a plethora of the other parents would want them silenced as to the nature of who made up our family.
The reading of “what we did over the summer” essays would then be a matter of school board debate. If you are under the misguided opinion that “it would not happen that way”, I will simply point you to the fact that you did not see the TANGO controversy coming either.
Yes, you were the unwitting participants that accidentally stepped into a contentious issue, but once there, attempts to back out of it is not an appropriate option. You found out that there IS hatred and ignorance in your community. Instead of dealing with THAT, you want to go back to your state where you were simply uniformed that it exists. Unfortunately endings like that only exist in fairy tales. In the real world it is the opportunity to do something noble or cowardly, and there is very little gray area in between.”
After I sent that note, there was one nagging detail that still bothered me, and had not been answered. There was a board member who eloquently, and accurately stated the message the cancellation decision would send to the LGBT community whether intended or not. Yet, the board vote was UNANIMOUS to cancel the play. I wanted to know why.
A moment later, I heard from that board member, her name is Carolin Frank, She wrote, “I am the board member who was concerned about the message. What ultimately decided my vote was the plea from LGBT families in our school to not go ahead and show the play right now. I know that this factored into at least one other board member’s decision.”
That led to the following exchange:
Me: “Thanks for that clarification Carolin! Can you clarify their plea? I can appreciate the sentiment as for an LGBT family in that environment, the whole discussion had to be humiliating. I felt that way as an LGBT family and I am just a fellow Californian. For LGBT families in the school itself, the public shaming and embarrassment must have been enormous.”
Carolin: “Yes I think they felt very vulnerable, and wished to take baby steps rather than fighting over this play right now. Yes, it has been very stressful.”
Me: “That I can totally appreciate. It is also why I speak up for other LGBT families because I am not vulnerable to the community members who are derogatory — they can’t go after my kids at school or glare at me across a supermarket. I can tell them how my kids came from fostercare and not only am I a good parent, but my kids would literally not be alive without me. Your local families should not have to reveal such intimate details to their neighbors, particularly with ones who will not treat their stories with respect. Thanks for sharing those details with me.”
Carolin: “Thank you for understanding. I completely understand your reaction to all this. It’s been horrible.”
Me: “And I appreciate all you have been trying to do to rectify it. If you wish to give some insight to other board members or community members on what an LGBT family is really like, feel free to share my family’s story with them. I would be happy to answer any questions. This happened in another central California community where there were similar sentiments, and nothing was done to rectify it. Just some clarification as to why I care.
Carolin: “Thank you. I’m sure they have already seen it. You are doing an amazing job as a father.”
While I hope those at the Sierra Foothill Charter School feel better about clarifying details, there is a bigger picture issue that they are not grasping. They are not alone, the McGuffey High School in Pennsylvania did not understand it either. Thousands of schools across the country do not understand it.
It is in this point. While the Sierra Foothill Charter School and McGuffey High School proclaim with good intention that “bullying will not be tolerated,” and then go on to police specific one-on-one behaviors, they are missing the bigger issue, the oxygen on which the bullying breathes. They are missing the veil of homophobia that is an ever-present specter.
The question is not whether bullying will be tolerated. In my final not to the schools, I would say this,
“We know you will manage what you can see, and what you can document. What remains to be seen it how you manage the intangible which you are now fully aware is present. That intangible hate is not delivered in sword slashes of outlandish behavior. It is death by pin pricks, a million tiny pin pricks of looks, comments and slights delivering damage to their vicitims.
Sierra Foothill, you now know that a majority of your parents loathes a minority in your community. McGuffey High, you now know a percentage of your population has the desire to hate on and ostracize a category of people in your school.
The big question is—what are you, and schools like you, going to do about it?”
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