Warren Blumenfeld's Blog

Social Justice, Intersections in Forms of Social Oppression, Bullying Prevention

People Polished the Stone of the Irish Emerald Isle

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Though the Catholic Church has scratched, tarnished, and clouded the stone that is the Emerald Isle with its wheel of oppression, the people have spoken loudly and clearly, and by so doing, have dismantled some of the spokes on that wheel and have polished the stone to brilliance once again.

In what can only be seen as an historic vote, for the first time anywhere in the world, the people of the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly, by a majority of 62% to 38%, to sanction marriage for same-sex couples with all the legal benefits and responsibilities already granted to different-sex couples (thereby dismantling a spoke on the wheel of Catholic oppression). An estimated 60.5% of the eligible 3.2 million registered voters turned out to the polls. Though the Irish government passed civil partnership legislation in 2010, which could have been rescinded by future legislative actions, this popular referendum now constitutionally codifies the legal standing of same-sex couples.

In another clear defiance of the doctrines and warnings of the very powerful Catholic Church, a similar referendum was taken in 1993, which for the first time in that country decriminalized same-sex sexuality (dismantling another spoke), and in 1995, legalized divorce (dismantling yet another spoke). The government finally approved the sale of contraceptives in 1985 after a complete and then partial ban for over 55 years (there went yet another spoke).

Marriage for same-sex couples currently holds legal standing in 19 countries and in 37 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.

This momentous victory in the largely Catholic Republic of Ireland stands as one additional sign of a paradigm shift away from the political, religious, and social conservativism of the not-to-distance past, to a nation demanding entry into a more progressive and forward-leaning future. This is a victory not only for same-sex couples and their families, but for all people in the Republic of Ireland by standing firm against the tyranny imposed by the Catholic Church as far back as the 5th century of the Common Era.

I use the term “tyranny” quite deliberately. When the populous must follow the dogma of the Catholic Church turned into law within the formerly not-so-quasi theocracy of the Republic of Ireland, whether or not people chose the Church, this is a form of tyranny. Whenever any government dictates as law its interpretation of divine commands, this is a form of tyranny, whether coming from ancient times to the current era, from the Persians, Assyrians, Canaanites, Greeks, Romans, Babylonians, Celts, Scandinavians, Christian Crusaders, Ottomans, to Islamic Jihadists, Fascists, Nazis, orthodox monotheists, nationalists and neo-nationalists of every stripe.

All people must have the right to believe as they wish, anywhere in the world. Religion and spirituality for some people centers or grounds them in a complex and often confusing cosmos. It helps some people understanding the important and mystical questions of life, and aids in connecting them with forces outside and greater than themselves. But when organized religious institutions and groups impose their dogma upon others, they have crossed (no pun intended) a critical line. That is when the energy of the wheel they have constructed tramples over the rights and the lives of others.

The people of the Republic of Ireland have taken it upon themselves to erect an impenetrable and high wall separating religion and government. It is now up to the Catholic Church to listen to the voice of the people, or else it will consign itself to the endangered species list.

Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

May 23rd, 2015 at 9:37 pm

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Hyper-Masculinity, Twin Peaks, & Gendered Violence

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While is it common knowledge that dogs, in particular male dogs, urine scent mark their territories, human males often mark their territories in other forms more noxious and poisonous than urine. We witnessed the deadly effects of turf battles recently in Waco, Texas between rival motorcycle clubs (gangs) in the parking lot, outdoor patio, and inside the local Twin Peaks Restaurant.

While male dogs and human males “spray” to restrict others from their claimed territories, for dogs, the stimulus stems from innate genetically-programmed instincts. For human males, who are significantly less controlled by biologically-mandated reflexes, on the other hand, the motivational incentives come from the socially manufactured gender roles inculcated and enforced within us to maintain our physical and psychological domains. In dogs, the impetus for what I am calling “turfing,” is essentialized. In human males, it is largely socialized. Humans contain the capacity for higher levels of reason to mediate and even override any dispositional factors that might be involved.

Preeminent scholar and social theorist Judith Butler addressed what she refers to as the “performativity” of gender roles in that these roles are basically involuntary reiterations or reenactment of established norms of expression, acts that one performs as an actor performs a script that was created before the actor ever took the stage. The continued transmission of gender roles require actors to play their designated parts so that they become actualized and reproduced in the guise of reality, and in the guise of the “natural” and the “normal.”

As we are assigned the designation “male” at birth, thus begins the life-long process of “masculinization” in which society teaches us that if we are to be considered worthy of respect and pride, we must be athletic, independent, assertive, domineering, competitive, tough, that we must bury our emotions deep within the recesses of our souls, and, most importantly, that we must search for and destroy any signs of “femininity” — “the woman” – within, which clearly represents society’s devaluation of females.

The members of the biker gangs in Waco learned their scripts only too well. What appears to have begun as an informal gathering of rival gangs, ended in the killing deaths of 9 bikers and injury to another 18, and the arrest of approximately 170 others, primarily white with some Latino men. The ages of the dead ranged from 27 to 65 years. The gangs include the Bandidos (an international crime syndicate, the dominant gang with an estimated 900 members throughout the U.S.) and a smaller gang, the Cossacks.

Trouble erupted on many fronts after the groups came together, most related to issues of turf. On the micro level, members fought over spaces in the Twin Peaks parking lot where over 200 motorcycle riders vied for parking. In addition, since the Bandidos claimed Texas as their exclusive territory, members felt only they could wear Texas state vest patches known as “bottom rockers,” though Cossack members came with these patches affixed to their vests as well.

On the larger macro level, the battle came down to domination of one club (Bandidos) over another (Cossacks), and command of territory in the sale of drugs (cocaine, marijuana, and production and distribution of methamphetamines). Police officers at the scene found numerous pairs of brass knuckles, knives, and fire arms. All the deaths appear the result of shootings.

According to Steve Cook, executive director of the Midwest Outlaw Motorcycle Gang Investigators Association: “The fact that they were wearing a Texas bottom rocker is a direct affront to the Bandidos. This is just not something you do. Texas is a Bandido-controlled state, and for the Cossacks to do that…they had to know there was going to be retribution for it.” In addition, a bulletin released by the Texas Department of Public Safety stated in part: “The conflict may stem from Cossacks members refusing to pay Bandidos dues for operating in Texas and for claiming Texas as their territory by wearing the Texas bottom rocker on their vests, or ‘colors’ or ‘cuts.’” Reports also indicate that another gang may have attended the meeting uninvited.

Though I am certainly not placing blame or responsibility for the violence on executives at Twin Peaks, I find it as no mere coincidence that the bikers not only planed their meeting for this site, but that violence resulted. Within the male gender script we find the imperative to regulate and objectify females, which is the major draw for Twin Peaks.

I define “sexism” as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on males. It is prejudice and discrimination based on sex, especially against females and intersex people, founded on a patriarchal structure of male domination through hegemonic social and cultural systems.

Throughout history, examples abound of male domination over the rights and lives of women and girls. Men denied women the vote until women fought hard and demanded the rights of political enfranchisement, though women in some countries today still are restricted from voting; strictly enforced gender-based social roles mandated without choice that women’s only option was to remain in the home to undertake housekeeping and childcare duties; women were and continue to be by far the primary target of harassment, abuse, physical assault, and rape by men; women were and remain locked out of many professions; women still earn significantly less than men for performing the same work; rules once required that women teachers relinquish their jobs after marriage; in fact, the institution of marriage itself was structured on a foundation of male domination with men serving as the so-called “head of the household” and taking on sole ownership of all property thereby restricting these rights from women. In other words, women have been constructed as second-class and third-class citizens, and even as the property of men, but certainly not as victims, because through it all, women as a group have challenged the inequities and have pushed back against patriarchal constraints.

Twin Peaks represents one of a number of eating establishments collectively known as “breastaurants” or cleavage chains. Others in this category include Bone Daddy’s House of Smoke, Tilted Kilt, and Hooters. Also included in this list is Girlie Pancake House whose motto is “They’re Better Stacked.” The theme and marketing strategy is quite simple in the full menu restaurants: give men red meat, beer, and sports, with a large pair of breasts side order. The clientele eating and drinking at these breastaurants is estimated at 3 men to every woman.

Twin Peaks, whose motto is “Eats * Drinks * Scenic Views,” presents mountain lodge décor where its wait staff, almost exclusively female known as “Lumber Jills,” wears lumber jack plaid bikini tops exposing the mid-section and no sleeves, very skimpy khaki shorts, and a smile. Innuendo abounds on Twin Peaks posters and on its website: “Mountain tops should always be within the reach of a man.” “Get to home plate at the peaks.” And if a man comes to the restaurant on his birthday and orders a meal, he receives the gift of a set of antlers mounted on a plaque, which reads: “I saw some nice RACKS on my birthday.”

The reinforcing messages sent from these “breastaurants” are quite clear: they further reinscribe gender roles by promoting socially constructed norms of female beauty, which are exclusionary hegemonic ideologies in terms of body size and shape, standards for skin and hair type, and an idealized and circumscribed age range that acts to the detriment of all women. As such, these establishments endorse a consumeristic colonization of women’s bodies for the edification and commodification of the objectifying male gaze.

In the end, however, no man or boy can truly attain socially constructed mandatory hyper-masculinity. As we attempt to reach it, as is so often the case, we enact inter-male turf battles through violence as we saw in Waco. Hence, the quest for turf through hyper-masculinity literally kills.

Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

May 21st, 2015 at 10:41 pm

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The Hypocrisy of “Pro-Life” and the GOP

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“The Republican Party must continue to uphold the principle that every human being, born and unborn, young and old, healthy and disabled, has a fundamental, individual right to life.”  Republican National Committee for Life

Ever since the historic Supreme Court decision, Roe v. Wade, in 1973, the National Republican Party Presidential Platform has consistently taken a so-called “pro-life” position. For example, its 2012 platform proclaims: “Faithful to the ‘self-evident’ truths enshrined in the Declaration of Independence, we assert the sanctity of human life and affirm that the unborn child has a fundamental individual right to life which cannot be infringed.”

Though the Republican Party might have an interest in bringing pregnancies to term in nearly all situations – even in instances of rape and incest, and regardless of the wishes of the women involved — even a cursory investigation of the Party’s stands and actions on the major issues of the day, proposed and in many cases acted upon by current Republican legislators and executives on the national, state, and local levels, gives us a picture of a Party that is anything but “pro-life” for the living. In actuality, the GOP conducts itself as a Party that stands for life until birth; then one is left to fend for oneself.

The Republican Party plants itself on the political philosophy that has come to be known as “neoliberalism,” which centers on a market-driven approach to economic and social policy. Such tenets include reducing the size of the national government and ceding more control to state and local governments; severely reducing or ending governmental regulation over the private sector; privatization of governmental services, industries, and institutions including education, health care, and social welfare; permanent incorporation of across-the-board non-progressive marginal federal and state tax rates; and possibly most importantly, unfettered market driven (“free market”) economics.

These precepts taken together, claim those who favor neoliberalist ideals, will ensure the individual’s autonomy, liberty, and, of course, freedom. Neoliberalism disputes the notion of general responsibility for others and for a collective cooperative society, which many in the Party label as “socialistic” or “communistic.” Neoliberalism rewrites the old African proverb of “It takes a village to raise a child,” to “It takes only the parents, composed of one man and one woman, to raise a child.”

Under its understanding of being “pro-life,” in its policies and accumulated legislative actions, the GOP fights for the lives of the upper 10 percent of our population who control approximately 80-90 percent of the accumulated wealth and 85 percent of the stocks and bonds. It works to keep corporative and executive tax rates lower than the rates of the secretaries who work in these corporations.

The GOP adheres to its philosophy of an unrestricted “free” market system, even though it increases the size and magnitude of mega global corporations that gobble up small and emerging entrepreneurs.

Under its understanding of being “pro-life,” in its policies and accumulated legislative actions, the GOP, time and time again, has attempted to rescind and reverse the historic Affordable Care Act, which would return an estimated 50 million people in our country to the ranks of the uninsured where their only option of health care is the hospital emergency room that the remainder of the population must pay since the GOP adamantly refuses to provide a single-payer government health care system. Instead, Republicans force us to accept the exorbitant profit-motive insurance premium rates of private health care providers.

The GOP votes against raising government student assistance programs, even as college and university tuition increases, resulting in the exclusion of deserving students from middle and working class backgrounds from attending institutions of higher learning.

The GOP has consistently tried, and in many instances succeeded, in circumscribing the basic rights of citizens to participate in the electoral process following the conservative-controlled Supreme Court’s decision to strike down sections of the 1965 “Voting Rights Act.”

Under its understanding of being “pro-life,” in its policies and accumulated legislative actions, the GOP has consistently cut governmental entitlement programs, thereby eliminating the safety net support systems from our elders, our young people, people with disabilities, people who have suffered hard times, and others struggling to provide life’s basics?

The GOP fights at every turn to pass legislation restricting immigration as well as social and educational services from young people.

It attacks the rights of women to control their bodies, as doctors and others are intimidated, and even shot and killed at family planning clinics? I suppose that since these women have already been born, the GOP has lost its concern for them.

The GOP attempts to deny basic human and civil rights to lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, rights that are routinely accorded to heterosexual people on a daily basis. So when the Party argues it will fight for the rights guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment for embryos and fetuses to “equal protection under the law,” it is not interested in, or actually opposes, extending these right to LGBT people, as evidenced by its staunch opposition to marriage equality and its push to pass the current plethora of so-called “Religious Freedom Restoration” acts, which grant people the right to discriminate on “religious” grounds.

Under its understanding of being “pro-life,” in its policies and accumulated legislative actions, the GOP fights to abolish affirmative action programs branding these as nothing more than “reverse discrimination,” even though such programs have improved the lives of people of color and women by providing them with increased assess to educational and employment opportunities previously long denied to them.

The GOP drives to privatize our national parks, and loosen environmental and consumer protections of all kinds, and advocates for mining, petroleum, natural gas, and lumber companies to exploit the land, while simultaneously working to continue to hand over enormous tax breaks and subsidies to these industries.

The GOP backs deregulation of environmental standards and termination of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Consumer Protection Agency, even as residents of the U.S., who represent approximately 5 percent of the world’s population, consume 40 percent of the world’s resources, and contribute 40 percent to worldwide pollution.

The GOP battles for school vouchers to funnel money into parochial institutions at the expense of public education, and lobbies to reintroduce prayer into the public schools. Essentially, the GOP has not merely attempted to blur the lines as much as they have worked to abolish the already tenuous lines between religion and government.

Under its understanding of being “pro-life,” in its policies and accumulated legislative actions, the GOP opposes and works to abolish multicultural education, and specifically, the highly successful and productive Latina/o Studies programs in the state of Arizona, a program that increased graduation rates of students from less than 50 percent to 92 percent before primarily Republican politicians axed it.

The GOP self-righteously pushes for legislation, like that passed in Iowa, which mandate English as the “official” language, thereby threatening bilingual education and stigmatizing non-English language speakers.

The GOP, using the draconian actions of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker at its model, attempt to co-opt and decertify labor unions and eliminate workers’ collective bargaining rights.

The GOP rejects the possibilities of negotiated settlements with other countries to work toward a more peaceful world, for example, the on-going talks with Iran to dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

The GOP works for people to own and use assault rifles, and to carry concealed guns into bars, political rallies, and college and university campuses. It long ago placed itself in the pocket of the National Rifle Association, which claims in its literature that “GUNS SAVE LIVES,” as it fights to dismantle governmental regulations on gun ownership and use. So I guess that “guns don’t kill people,” but instead, guns held by people in a country that only barely gives lip serve to gun control do.

In this regard, the GOP still claims a “pro-life” trademark when more times than not, Republican leaders favor the death penalty rather than life imprisonment as punishment for committing certain crimes.

And I could go on in this way virtually forever.

The neoliberal battle cry of “liberty” and “freedom” through “personal responsibility” sounds wonderful on the surface, but we have to ask ourselves as individuals and as a collective nation, what are the costs of this alleged “liberty” and “freedom.” How “pro-life” is the GOP; or more accurately, for whose lives do the GOP actually fight?

Do we as individuals and as a nation have any responsibility and obligation to protect and support people from falling off the ledge of circumstance to their harm or death because they simply cannot “pull themselves up by their boot straps”? Have you actually ever tried to pull yourself up by your boot straps? If you have, you will know that by doing this, you literally fall on your face!

Can we begin, for example, to view health care not as a privilege for those who can afford it, but rather, see it as a human right? Can we begin to perceive the actual crack in this beautiful notion but unmet reality of meritocracy, and respond in common purpose and sense of community to help lift those who are in need of support?

In the final analysis, the GOP’s “pro-life” rhetoric and its small and limited government philosophy stand in stark contradiction: Republicans want to get the government “off our backs” while imposing massive governmental restrictions at the expense of women’s reproductive freedoms.

So, for women, and also for LGBT people, middle class, working class, and poor people, people of color, non-documented residents and “dreamers,” people concerned with the health of our planet, people interested in living in a safer and less violent society and world, people who see health care as a right and not as a privilege for those who can afford it, how much real “freedom” and “liberty” do these people actually have in the Republican hallucination of “pro-life”?

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

May 12th, 2015 at 7:59 pm

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Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate? Redux

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This is the second in my series of commentaries on the American Freedom Defense Initiative and its “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” held recently in Garland, Texas.

In my first commentary, I discussed the controversy surrounding the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative’s (AFDI) cartoon caricature context of the Prophet Muhammad where two men opened fire on a security officer stationed outside the contest building. The officer brought down the shooters killing them both. By my bringing attention to the Islamophobia guiding AFDI’s event, a few readers of my commentary accused me of “blaming the victims.”

In actuality, I did no such thing. AFDI and its leader, Pamela Geller, have a far-reaching history of Islam bashing, and their event in Texas fit clearly into that framework. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows extremist hate group, defines AFDI as an extremist right-wing organization. To caricature the Prophet Muhammad, while clearly protected by the First Amendment’s “freedom of speech” clause, can also be seen as an act of hate and bullying for the goal of insulting, inciting, inflaming, demeaning, and provoking.

Pamela Geller said on Fox News: “Islam is not a race. This is an ideology. This is an extreme ideology, the most radical and extreme ideology on the face of the earth.” She asserted that President Obama is the “love child” of Malcolm X. In addition, she said that “Obama is a third worlder and a coward. He will do nothing but beat up on our friends to appease his Islamic overlords.”

Some supporters of AFDI confuse and conflate “free speech” with “accepted” or even “tolerated speech.” For me, while I understand that what AFDI is doing has been classified under the category of “free speech,” that does not mean that I have to tolerate it by not speaking up. I understand that we cannot take AFDI to a court of law to issue a cease and desist order against its tactics, nor would I want to do so. However, I have the right, as well, to take this case to the court of public opinion and call it out for what it is: a hateful reaction to an already minoritized and misunderstood group of people in the United States and worldwide.

I certainly do not place the French magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in the same category as AFDI since Charlie Hebdo operates as an equal opportunity magazine satirizing many religions, including denominations of Christianity and Judaism, plus politicians, celebrities, artists, and entire nations. AFDI, on the other hand, functions solely to defame and attack Muslims and Islam more generally.

AFDI metaphorically dumps barrels of blood into the sea hoping to attract sharks. Unfortunately, by following the bait, the two shooters in Texas, apparent radical jihadists, ceded the moral high ground and transformed AFDI from the perpetrator of bigotry into the seeming victims of attack.

As progressive people of all backgrounds and identities, however, we cannot allow those who would do violence to set the agenda and control the narrative. For in the insightful words of poet and activist Audre Lorde, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” In other words, by our employing the oppressor’s tactics of violence, we will never end the oppression.

As in so many other movement struggles, we must challenge Islamophobia with acts of non-violent civil disobedience by writing commentaries, engaging in social media campaigns, organizing peaceful protest rallies, speeches, and letter writing drives. We must maintain the moral authority, and expose the negative stereotyping, scapegoating, bullying, and intimidation by the bigots and bashers.

To dismantle the oppression, we must break the cycle of the radical extremists responding violently to the words and actions of the reactionary provocateurs. Non-violent resistance has the potential of giving voice to and halting the wheels of oppression from running over the marginalized, the bullied, the disenfranchised, and the profiled. It has the potential of realigning relationships of power. If you doubt this, study the words and deeds of such notables as Leo Tolstoy, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Mark Twain, Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, Cesar Chavez, and so many others in progressive social change movements.

In the final analysis, we are all affected by oppression, even when that oppression is not directed at us specifically because we are all diminished whenever any one of us is demeaned.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

May 10th, 2015 at 8:55 pm

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Cartoons of Free Speech or Hate?

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Within two of the most prominent monotheistic religions in the world, Judaism and Islam, tradition dictates it blasphemous and highly insulting for any person to physically depict their G*d in Judaism, and the Prophet Muhammad in Islam, even positively or respectfully. So why then did the so-called American Freedom Defense Initiative (AFKI) and its leader, anti-Islam activist Pam Geller, organize their “Muhammad Art Exhibit and Cartoon Contest” at the Curtis Culwell Center in Garland, Texas, a small suburb near Dallas? Geller offered a $10,000 prize to be awarded for the “best” cartoon caricature of Muhammad.

According to Geller, as well as the invited keynote speaker, far-right politician Geert Wilders, head of the Dutch Freedom Party, the event was called as an exercise in free speech. Evidently, Geller chose the site in reaction to a pro-Islam gathering, “Stand with the Prophet” held there last January. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which follows extremist hate group, defines AFDI as an extremist right-wing organization.

Expecting trouble and the possibility of violence, Geller expended an estimated $10,000 to the Garland, Texas police force to cover security costs for the two-hour event, and violence is, indeed, what they got. Two men identified as Elton Simpson and Nadir Soofi, using automatic weapons, opened fire on a security officer stationed outside the contest building. The officer, using only his service pistol, was able to bring down the shooters, possibly saving many other lives. The two men died of their wounds.

The shooters actions cannot be condoned, for violence in the face of hate only brings about more hate, thus creating an unending cycle. I am at a complete loss, though, to understand how this event could be justified as free speech.

“Muhammad fought and terrorized people with the swords. Today, here in Garland, we fight Muhammad and his followers with the pen. And the pen, the drawings, will prove mightier than the sword,” said Wilders during his address to the estimated 200 attendees. Geller continued the justification in an interview with CNN: “It’s dangerous because increasingly, we’re abridging our freedoms so as not to offend savages.”

To caricature the Prophet Muhammad in reflection of the perverse actions of some extremists who use their distorted interpretations of Islam as their battle cry is equivalent to depicting Jesus in response to the abhorrent acts of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVey or the sorted activities of white supremacist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. Though these so-called “cartoons” may stand within the protected categories under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, and though I am not calling for them to be outlawed, I see these caricatures as acts of hate and bullying for the goal of insulting, inciting, inflaming, demeaning, and provoking. In so doing, they place U.S. citizens and members of our military in jeopardy of violence throughout the world.

Some supporters of AFDI confuse and conflate “free speech” with “accepted” or even “tolerated speech.” For me, while I understand what AFDI is doing has been classified under the category of “free speech,” that does not mean that I have to tolerate it by not speaking out. I understand that we cannot take AFDI to a court of law to issue a cease and desist order against their tactics, nor would I want to do so. However, I have the right, as well, to take this case to the court of public opinion to call it out for what it is: a hateful reaction to an already minoritized and misunderstood group of people in the United States and worldwide: Muslims.

Essentially, AFDI is engaging in bullying of an already oppressed minority. It may be seen as “free speech,” but it certainly is not courageous. I ask then, who are the “savages”?

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

May 5th, 2015 at 12:04 am

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Little Hope in Baltimore for the “2s,” “3s,” and “4s”

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In virtually all the university courses I teach in the field of education, I conduct what invariably turns out to be a valuable and poignant activity for the pre-service teacher educators enrolled in the course. The simulation represents the ways in which our society, along a continuum of very high to very low, encourages and enhances to discourages and reduces the individual’s motivation to learn and succeed in life.

I begin by alerting students that we are going to engage in a class activity. I travel around the room placing a playing card face down on each student’s desk. (I always include a “Joker” card.) I tell them not to look at their cards. I then stand in front of the room and provide directions. I model by taking a remaining card from the deck, and without looking at it, I place it face outward upon my forehead.

As an aside, on a couple of occasions, as I displayed a card on myself, students broke into loud and sustained laughter. As an out gay professor, the card I chose was a “Queen,” which was quite fitting in my case.

I tell students that they will circulate around the room with their cards upon their foreheads, and they will respond or treat others in terms of their cards. The “2” card is the “lowest of the low,” and “Ace” is the highest of the high, with other cards on a continuum in between. They are not to tell each other what are their cards. They can use body language and verbal language, but no touching one another in any way.

When they begin to realize what their cards are generally or specifically, they are to line up in ascending order from “2s” at one side of the room to “Aces” on the other side. Again, they cannot tell or correct other students if they place themselves out of order in the line. I am continually surprised how quickly most students determine their cards.

After students arrange themselves in a single-file line, I begin at the “lower” end by asking each student in turn to announce what they have determined as their card. After announcing, students can then look at their cards. I am always curious to see where the students with the “Joker” card situated themselves in the line.

Once each student has had a chance to announce and glance at their card, I engage the class, while remaining in their line positions, in a discussion by asking the following questions:

  • For the people on the lower end of the room, how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you?
  • For the people in the middle section, from people who determined they are around “5” through “9,” how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you (to be treated sort of “average”)?
  • For the people on the higher end of the room, how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you?
  • For the “Joker,” how did you determine your position?
  • How did people treat you?
  • How did that feel to you?
  • For everyone else, how did you respond to the “Joker”?
  • How does this activity simulate the ways people treat each other at this school, in our society?
  • For the people on the lower end of the room (then in the middle section, then on the higher end of the room) imagine you are a student in the early school years, how might your card affect your self-esteem and motivation to learn and succeed in school and in later life?
  • How does this activity simulate the concepts of privilege and subordination in terms of social identities?
  • Continue discussion.
  • Students then return to their seats.

Baltimore City

I convey this activity now in light of recent events in Baltimore, Maryland in which we have witnessed a number of protest demonstrations with some violent clashes with police, all sparked by the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray, an unarmed African American man who died in police custody of an apparent partially-severed spinal cord for simply running when approached.

Baltimore City is not unlike many inner cities throughout the country with a broken criminal justice system, where unemployment rates for black youth tops 50 percent, and black adult unemployment hovers around 20 percent. Blight saturates neighborhood. Local schools, in areas with dwindling funding, results in lack of resources and low teacher salaries, high student dropout rates, and diminishing educational outcomes for those who remain. Community services are few, and generally, hope for the future is a scarce commodity.

Without condoning the clashes with police, rock throwing, looting, and arson against local businesses, when a society generally and police forces more specifically consistently treat its citizens like “2s,” “3s,” or “4s,” when people see no hope for a better future, when parents fear for their children’s very lives, the inevitable eruptions should can come as no surprise.

As a white man, in terms of race and gender, I am according automatic and unearned benefits and privilege withheld from people of color and women. I was born at the higher end of the classroom as, yes, a “Queen” at the very least, but more likely a “King” or an “Ace.” For white people who cannot seem to understand reactions of a community to the death of one man, all you have to do is look in the mirror to determine your card. Then imagine you were dealt a “2,” “3,” or “4.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 29th, 2015 at 3:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Marriage Equality Not Left to States or “Democratic” Popular Vote

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As the U.S. Supreme Court will decide this summer whether to legalize marriage equality for same-sex couples throughout the nation, I have often heard it said that this issue should be left up to the individual states to decide in legislative house or in the voting booth by the people. As the argument goes, this is a states-rights issue, and the national government should not intrude by imposing its will on the states. In addition, numerous other objections abound by a number of conservative politicians and theologians.

Many conservative and political individuals and organizations oppose marriage for same-sex couples for the stated reason that, according to them, so-call “Judeo-Christian” tradition – a term I reject since it obscures the major differences between these two monotheistic religions — dictates that God has ordained marriage between one man and one woman, and this has been the case throughout millennia. They also argue that children need both a mother and father to develop “normal” and “healthy” lives.

For the sake of discussion, however, I would like to refute some of the theocratic and political claims of so-called “God’s law” and the alleged consistency in the foundation of marriage. I argue that the institution of marriage throughout time and culture has always been and continues to evolve, transition, and undergo redefinition.

Early Religious Teachings

Let’s look at some of the religious teachings, many of which point out that the institution of marriage was constructed very differently from what some today consider as “traditional marriage.”

Approximately 4000 years ago, Abraham (commonly referred to as “the father of the Jewish and Arab people” and Patriarch of Jews, Christians, and Muslims) was a distant ancestor of Shem, son of Noah. When his wife Sarah was unable to conceive, as it is written, Sarah told Abraham to conceive a child with his Egyptian maidservant Hagar, who thereafter had a son, Ishmael. Soon afterward, Sarah also conceived a son, whom they called Isaac. After Isaac’s birth, Abraham banished Hagar and Ishmael into the desert.

In addition, according to the Jewish Bible, for example, Deuteronomy 25:5 “When brothers live together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a strange man. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her to himself as wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her,” and Deuteronomy 25:6 “And it shall be that the first-born whom she bears shall assume the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out from Israel.”

I’m not hearing any so-called “Judeo-Christian” leaders calling on men in childless marriages to take on mistresses, and once they conceive, to banish them and their children from their towns, or for men to marry their brothers’ widows even if the men themselves are already married. Where was the requirement for only one man and one woman? Was this how we do and should define “traditional marriage” today?

Moreover, prior to 1967, 17 states within the U.S. prevented consenting adults from engaging in sexual activities, let along marriage, with anyone from another so-called “race.” In the case of Loving v. Virginia, 388 U.S. 1 (1967), the Supreme Court of the United States declared the state of Virginia’s anti-miscegenation statute, the so-called “Racial Integrity Act” of 1924, unconstitutional, thereby overturning Pace v. Alabama (1883) and ending all race-based legal restrictions on adult consensual sexual activity and marriage throughout the U.S.

The plaintiffs in the case were Mildred Loving (born Mildred Deloris Jetter, a woman of African descent) and Richard Perry Loving (a man of white European descent), both residents of Virginia who married in June 1958 in the District of Columbia to evade Virginia’s law. Upon returning to Virginia, police arrested and charged them with violating the act. Police entered their home and arrested them while they slept in their bed. At their trial, they were convicted and sentenced to one-year imprisonment with a suspended sentence on the condition that the couple leaves the state of Virginia for a period of 25 years. At the trial, the judge, Leon Bazile, used Biblical justifications, “God’s law,” to convict the couple:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, Malay, and red, and He placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with His arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that He separated the races shows that He did not intend for the races to mix.”

I wonder whether religious and political conservatives who are today calling Judge Vaughn R. Walker, who ruled California’s Proposition 8 banning same-sex marriage as unconstitutional, an “activist judge” would also brand members of the Supreme Court who struck down anti-miscegenation laws as “activist judges” as well.

Redefining the Purpose of Marriage and Women’s Rights

The purpose of marriage has undergone changes throughout time and space: some societies considered marriage as a social requirement, or as a religious obligation, or even as a civil responsibility to supply citizens for the country. Some cultures promoted arranged marriages, childhood marriages, others encouraged marriage later in life.

Marriage has often been connected to property rights and not to love and romance. Fathers often figuratively and literally owned their daughters. Upon marrying, fathers transferred rights of ownership to the husbands, and women forfeited rights to all assets they may have acquired before marrying, and were denied rights to acquire property or the wages they earned during marriage.

The New York State Married Women’s Property Act of 1848 and amended in 1849 redefined property rights between married couples by stating, in part: “The real property of any female who may hereafter marry, and which she shall own at the time of marriage, and the rents, issues, and profits thereof, shall not be subject to the sole disposal of her husband, nor be liable for his debts, and shall continue her sole and separate property, as if she were a single female.”

“For the Sake of the Children”

While family constellations come in many variations — single parent, blended, extended, communal, and many others — I hear many people who defend marriage solely for different-sex couples on the basis that the best interests of the children are served only in living relationships with one father and one mother.

All reputable scientifically-based research studies have found that outcomes for children raised by lesbians or gay men are neither better nor worse than for other children in terms of issues involving “peer group relationships, self-esteem, behavioral difficulties, academic achievement, or warmth and quality of family relationships. In addition, a study by two researchers at the University of Southern California found that children with lesbian or gay parents show more empathy and appreciation for social diversity, and they are less confined by gender-role stereotypes. In fact, there simply is no data substantiating any claims that different-sex couples raise physically- and psychologically-advantaged children compared to children raised by lesbians, gay men, or bisexual people or within same-sex coupled households.

I remember back to the early 1990s, when residents in a section of Los Angeles erupted following the acquittal of police officers accused of exerting excessive force against motorist Rodney King. A few weeks later, the fictional TV character, Murphy Brown, played by Candice Bergen, gave birth. Vice President Dan Quayle, in his own inimical fashion, concluded that the riots in Los Angeles were caused by a deterioration of “traditional family values” as represented by the unmarried Murphy Brown.

Ross Parot, Texas billionaire and would-be independent presidential candidate, declared on ABC’s 20/20 in 1992 before his withdrawal from the race that if elected he would not appoint “adulterers or homosexuals” to high position of government. “No, I don’t want anybody there that will be at a point of controversy with the American people,” said Perot. “It will distract from the work to be done.”

In the fall of 2011, as I watched from my then home in Ames, Iowa the political TV ads by the candidates running in the all-important first-in-the-nation Republican Iowa Caucuses, a recurring theme emerged. In their attempts to appeal to the estimated 60 percent of Iowa Republican caucus goers who define themselves as Evangelical Christians, most of the candidates emphasized their “so-called Christian family values,” which, by the way, opposed marriage for same-sex couples and inclusion of LGBT members of the U.S. military. We saw this theme most clearly exhibited in Texas Governor’s Rick Perry TV ad “Strong”: “I’m not ashamed to admit that I’m a Christian, but you don’t need to be in the pew every Sunday to know there’s something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school. As president, I’ll end Obama’s war on religion. And I’ll fight against liberal attacks on our religious heritage. Faith made America strong. It can make her strong again.”

In addition, political and theocratic Right groups attempt to ban books on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender themes geared to students over the accusation that these books do not promote “traditional family values.”

One does not have to look far to see a basic confusion (translated as “deception”) in terminology between “family” (denoting a configuration of individuals) and “values” (related to intrinsic human principles and qualities). In addition, the term “traditional family” – currently defined as a family constellation composed of two married parents (a man and a woman) with birth children – is even more problematic because it is a relatively modern invention constructed during the rise of the industrial age. The Right holds it up as THE standard against which all others are judged, even though a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report found that a mere 19 percent of children currently reside within a “nuclear family” with a married birth mother and family who live with them. This is a drop from a relatively low 40.3 percent in 1970.

In truth, the concept of “traditional family values,” as used by the political and theocratic Right, has nothing to do with “tradition,” with “family,” or even with “values.” It has more to do with politics, with separating people into distinct and discrete camps of “us” versus “them,” while blaming and scapegoating “them” for the problems facing our country and our world.

At one time, the Right scapegoated “Communism” and the “Communists” using scare tactics to recruit members into its organizations and bring donations in to fill its war chests. Now, since the relative demise of world Communism and the fall of the Soviet Union, the Right needs other villains to scapegoat to further its own political agendas, and has thus targeted those who fall outside its current definition of the “traditional family,” which include lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, those who fall along the transgender spectrum, people who favor and advocate for protecting women’s reproductive freedoms, and even heterosexuals who either choose not to marry or choose not to bear children.

These politicians, educators, and clergy seem somehow to have forgotten the warning given by poet Walt Whitman: “I say of all dangers to a nation, as things exist in our day, there can be no greater one than having certain portions of the people set off from the rest by a line drawn – they not privileged as others, but degraded, humiliated, made of no account.”

We must as a society, then, expand the definition and remove from our vocabulary words that delineate people according to relationship status, for example, the value-laden terms “unwed mother,” “illegitimacy” and “illegitimate child,” “bastard child,” “out of wedlock,” “bachelor,” “old maid,” “Miss,” “Mrs.” – and consign these words to the archives of history because when currently used, separate people from one another and result in lowered self-esteem.

Marriage Equality a Federal Issue

I argue most emphatically that marriage rights in general, and more specifically, marriage equality for same-sex couples is indeed a federal issue.

This once again reminds me of the concept of “tyranny of the majority” articulated back in the 1830s by Alexis de Tocqueville, French political scientist and diplomat, who traveled across the United States for nine months between 1831-1832 conducting research for his epic work, Democracy in America. Though he favored US style democracy, he found its major limitation in its stifling of independent thought and independent beliefs. In a country that promoted the notion of “majority rules,” this effectively silenced minoritized peoples. This serves as a crucial point because in a democracy, without specific guarantees of the rights of minoritized peoples, there is danger of domination or tyranny over others whose ideas, values, and social identities are not accepted by the majority.

Though, or course, the issues are different in many ways, take the following additional cases for example:

If the issue of prohibiting the practice of slavery were not settled in Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and later codified in the US Constitution, and left to the individual states, I question whether the states would have voluntarily outlawed the practice of slavery, and I believe the practice of legalized slavery would have lasted long after the Civil War in some states.

If the issue of school desegregation were not settled in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education US Supreme Court decision and later strengthen in the federal Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965, and left to the individual states, I question whether the states would have voluntarily relinquished the practice of racial segregation, and I believe this practice would remain to this very day in some states.

If the issue of women’s reproductive freedoms were not settled in the 1973 US Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, and left to the individual states, I believe today women’s rights to control their own bodies would be dependent on their geographic location, thus disqualifying many women from their reproductive rights.

The founders of this country provided a mechanism for the protection of minoritized people against the tyranny of the majority. The checks and balances between the three branches of government: Executive, Legislative, and Judicial, and the authority of federal legislation over the individual states have been seen time and again (though of course not perfectly and not without major adjustments and reversal of policy along the way) to offer some form of protection for minority rights and responsibilities. If we leave these important issues of social justice and social inequality to majority rule, then many of the evils that have plagued this country throughout its history will continue long into the future.

While the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees equal protection under the law, (“…no state shall … deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”), our current patchwork of disparate and contradictory laws and state constitutional amendments remains not only confusing but also inequitable. Today, as a gay man, I can marry another man in my home state of Massachusetts and in 36 other states and the District of Columbia, but my marriage would be declared null and void in the remaining states.

The rights of same-sex couples to legally marry WILL NOT compel religious institutions to conduct religious marriages if they are opposed. Religious institutions will continue to set their own standards for conducting marriage ceremonies as they always have, without fear of prosecution if they decide that marriage for same-sex couples stands in opposition to their teachings.

Human diversity is a true gift as evidenced by the fact that “families” come in a great variety of packages, with differing shapes and sizes, colors, and wrappings. If, however, we still need to cling to a common definition of “family,” I would remind us of one offered by singers/songwriters, Ron Romanovsky and Paul Phillips, who tell us that “The definition’s plain for anyone to see. Love is all it takes to make a family.”

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-author with Diane Raymond of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 27th, 2015 at 8:12 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

13 Ways to Create Safe & Supportive Schools for LGBATQQI People

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Throughout the world, on university and grade school campuses, in communities and homes, and in the media, issues of sexual identity and gender identity and expression are increasingly “coming out of the closet.” We see young people developing positive identities at earlier ages than ever before. Activists are gaining selective electoral and legislative victories. Primarily in academic milieus, greater emphasis and discussion is centering on what has come to be called “queer theory” (an area of critical theory), where writers, educators, and students analyze and challenge current notions and categories of sexuality and gender role constructions.

Students are conducting educational efforts around a number of special events, for example:

  • National Day of Silence: a day in mid-April each year when students across the nation take a vow of silence to call attention to the epidemic of oppressive name calling, harassment, and violence perpetrated against lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and intersex (LGBATQQI) students in schools and in the larger society.
  • National Coming Out Day: October 11 each year in the U.S., October 12 in the United Kingdom, set aside to take further steps in “Coming Out of the Closet” of denial and fear around issues of sexual and gender identity as a personal and community-wide effort to raise awareness.
  • National LGBT History Month: originally proposed in 1994 by Missouri High School teacher, Rodney Wilson, it has become a nationally recognized observance of LGBT history (October in the United States, February in the United Kingdom).
  • Bisexuality Day: September 23 to commemorate bisexual awareness and the accomplishments of bisexual people.
  • Transgender Day of Remembrance: November 20 to commemorate the estimated two people killed every day somewhere in the world for expressing gender nonconformity.
  • No Name Calling Week: based on an idea proposed in the best-selling young adult novel, The Misfits (2003) by James Howe, in which four seventh grade friends suffer the daily effects of insults and taunts.
  • National Gay/Straight Alliance Day: January 25 meant to strengthen the bond between LGBT people and straight allies, and in particular recognize and honor Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs), which work to educate peers to stop heterosexism and cissexism in schools and colleges.
  • National LGBT/Queer Pride Month: June each year when members of Gay/Straight Alliances join in annual Pride Marches and other festivities throughout the month in their local communities throughout the country.

The California legislature passed, and Governor Jerry Brown signed into law in 2011, SB48, the first in the nation statute requiring the state Board of Education and local school districts to adopt textbooks and other educational materials in social studies courses that include contributions of LGBT people.

For LGBATQQI youth and allies, this information can underscore the fact that their feelings and desires are in no way unique, and that others like themselves lead happy and productive lives. This in turn can spare them years of needless alienation, denial, and suffering. For heterosexual students, this can provide the basis for appreciation of human diversity and help to interrupt the chain of bullying and harassment toward LGBATQQI people.

California was also the first state to ban so-called “Reparative” or “Conversion Therapy” in August 2012: a cruel and oppressive pseudo therapy intended to change a client from homosexual or bisexual to heterosexual, or transgender to cisgender.

Though we have experienced many gains in recent decades, however, we still have far to travel. The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), in it 2013 National School Climate Survey investigating school experiences of LGBT students in middle and high school found that generally:

“Schools nationwide are hostile environments for a distressing number of LGBT students, the overwhelming majority of whom routinely hear anti-LGBT language and experience victimization and discrimination at school. As a result, many LGBT students avoid school activities or miss school entirely.”

Fully 55.5% of LGBT students across the country felt unsafe at school based on their sexual orientation, and 37.8% felt unsafe because of their gender expression. About one-third missed at least one full day of classes in the past month over safety concerns.

Many pedagogical strategies are available to educators in teaching about issues of sexual and gender identities and expressions and by helping to ensure cultural pluralism. A number of educators base their pedagogical approach on constructivism. Derived from leaders in cognitive psychology (including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner), it involves a student-centered educational method emphasizing the active role of the learner, whereby students “construct” or build understanding making sense of the information, and utilizing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Key characteristics of constructivist instruction include: organizing material and lessons around important ideas, acknowledging the importance of students’ prior learning, challenging the adequacy of prior learning, providing a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, assisting learners in how to learn, viewing learning as a joint venture between students themselves and between students and educator(s), and assisting students in assessing their knowledge acquisition throughout the process.

While it is not my intention here to give a comprehensive narrative on how to bring equity in terms of sexual and gender identity in the public schools—for what might work effectively in one school might not function in another—some foundational guidelines for educators and school administrators can be considered.

  1. Assessment: Hold public hearings, and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of LGBATQQI youth, their families, and school staff. This can help in assessing the overall “climate” or your school.
  2. Policies: Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting LGBATQQI students from harassment, violence, and discrimination. Include “Sexual Identity & Gender Identity and Expression” as protected categories in your anti-discrimination policies. Extend benefits to LGBATQQI employees on par with heterosexual employees.
  3. Personnel Trainings: Schools are encouraged to offer comprehensive training to all school personnel in violence prevention, suicide prevention, and specifically the needs and issues faced by LGBATQQI youth.
  4. “Safe Zone” Programs: Implement and participate in a “Safe Zone” program in your school. Following a comprehensive training, participants are given a sticker, which they can affix to their classroom or office doors stating that their room is a safe zone for discussions related to sexual and gender identities, and that if students have any questions, they can come to the person who displays the sticker to receive resources and referrals.
  5. Gender Inclusive Facilities: Schools are encouraged to provide gender inclusive facilities, including restrooms and physical education changing rooms. Most gender inclusive facilities people are advocating include primarily single-user lockable restrooms. These types of facilities substantially increase safety for all users.
  6. Support Groups: Schools and communities are encouraged to offer school- and community-based support groups for LGBATQQI and heterosexual youth. Thousands of schools across the United States and other countries have established these groups, generically called “Gay/Straight Alliances.”
  7. Counseling: Schools and communities are encouraged to provide affirming school- and community-based counseling for LGBATQQI youth and their families.
  8. Library Collections: School and community libraries are encouraged to develop and maintain up-to-date and age-appropriate collections of books, videos, CDs, DVDs, journals, magazines, posters, internet websites, and other information on LGBTQQI issues.
  9. Educational Forums: Schools are encouraged to organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to sexual and gender identities and expressions.
  10. Curriculum & School Programs: Schools are encouraged to include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information on LGBATQQI issues at every grade level, across the curriculum, and in other school programs and assemblies. Also, announce LGBATQQI issues and events in your school and local community newspapers.
  11. Adult Role Models: Schools are encouraged to select and hire “out” LGBATQQI faculty and staff to serve as supportive role models for all youth.
  12. Teacher Certification: Include information and trainings on LGBATQQI youth issues in college and university teacher education programs.
  13. Continuing Education:
  • Educate yourself to the needs and experiences of LGBATQQI youth and their families. Without having the expectation that it is their responsibility to teach you, listen to, and truly hear their voices when they do relate their experiences to you. Attempt not to become defensive, argumentative, and do not downplay or minimize their stories. These are their experiences, their perceptions, and the meanings they make, and, therefore, it is not up for debate. (Dialogue not Debate)
  • Attend LGBTQQI cultural and community events.
  • Wear pro-LGBTQQI buttons and T-shirts, and display posters.
  • Interrupt heterosexist and cissexist jokes and epithets.
  • Be aware of the generalizations you make. Assume there are LGBATQQI people at your school, in your workplace, and in your community.
  • To sensitize yourself to the concept of heterosexual privilege, notice the times you disclose your heterosexuality if you define as heterosexual.
  • Monitor politicians, the media, and organizations to ensure accurate coverage of LGBATQQI issues.
  • Work and vote for candidates (including school board members) taking pro-LGBATQQI stands.
  • Use affirming or gender-inclusive language when referring to sexuality and gender identities in human relationships in every-day speech, on written forms, etc. Say the words “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “asexual,” “transgender,” “intersex” each day in a positive way.

No matter how loudly organizers on the political and theocratic Right protest that this is merely a “bedroom issue,” we know that the bedroom is but one of the many places we write our stories and histories. Therefore, while each October is a good time to begin the classroom discussions, I ask that our full stories be told throughout the year.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 18th, 2015 at 4:32 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Ways of Raising Issues of Religious Pluralism in the Schools

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Someone said to me once that throughout the ages, more people have been killed in the name of religion than all the people who have ever died of all diseases combined. I don’t know whether this is actually the case, but I do think it highlights a vital point: we continually reject, oppress, and kill others and are killed by others over differing belief systems. How many wars are we going to justify in the name of “God,” our “God” versus their so-called “false god(s)”?

Today, the United States stands as one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. This diversity poses great challenges as well as great opportunities. I would ask, though, with all that is happening in our country and around the world enacted in the name of religion, how religiously literate are we as a nation?

According to the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public Life, great many U.S.-Americans have very little knowledge or understanding of “the tenets, practices, history and leading figures of major faith traditions – including their own.” In addition, “many people also think the constitutional restrictions on religion in public schools are stricter than they really are.”

Over the years, the Supreme Court has clarified the ways in which the First Amendment relates to public schools in the cases of Engel v. Vitale, 1962 and Abington v. Schempp, 1963. The court ruled that schools may not sponsor religious practices, though they may teach about religion as an academic topic. In addition, while not ruling directly on the matter of religious holidays in the school, the Supreme Court let stand a lower federal court decision (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District, 8th Circuit, 1980) declaring that recognition of religious holidays may be constitutional when the purpose is to give secular instruction about religion or religious traditions rather than to promote any specific religious doctrine or practice.

An inclusive model, one that ensures individuals’ and groups’ freedom of as well as freedom from religion is the concept as well as, I would suggest, the national goal of “cultural and religious pluralism.” The Jewish immigrant and sociologist of Polish and Latvian heritage, Horace Kallen (1915), coined the term “cultural pluralism” to challenge the image of the so-called “melting pot,” which he considered inherently undemocratic. Kallen envisioned a United States in the image of a great symphony orchestra, not sounding in unison (the “melting pot”), but rather, one in which all the disparate cultures play in harmony and retain their unique and distinctive tones and timbres.

Many pedagogical strategies are available to educators in teaching about world religions and by helping to ensure religious pluralism. A number of educators base their pedagogical approach on constructivism. Derived from leaders in cognitive psychology (including John Dewey, Jean Piaget, Lev Vygotsky, and Howard Gardner), it involves a student-centered educational method emphasizing the active role of the learner, whereby students “construct” or build understanding making sense of the information, and utilizing problem-solving and critical-thinking skills. Key characteristics of constructivist instruction include: organizing material and lessons around important ideas, acknowledging the importance of students’ prior learning, challenging the adequacy of prior learning, providing a certain amount of ambiguity and uncertainty, assisting learners in how to learn, viewing learning as a joint venture between students themselves and between students and educator(s), and assisting students in assessing their knowledge acquisition throughout the process.

While it is not my intention here to give a comprehensive narrative on how to teach and bring about religious pluralism and equity in the public schools—for what might work effectively in one school might not function in another—some foundational guidelines can be considered:

  1. Assessment: Hold public hearing, and/or conduct interviews, or distribute research surveys in your school, community, and/or your state to access the needs, concerns, and life experiences of members of different faith communities and non-believers. This can help in assessing the overall religious “climate” or your school.
  2. Policies: Schools are encouraged to develop policies protecting students, faculty, staff, and administrators of every faith and non-believers from harassment, violence, and discrimination, and to provide equity of treatment that adapt for religious accommodations.
  3. Personnel Trainings: Schools are encouraged to offer training to all school personnel, including guidance counselors and social workers, in religious diversity and bullying prevention, and specifically to address the religious accommodation needs of students and school personnel.
  4. Library Collections: School and community libraries are encouraged to develop and maintain up-to-date and age appropriate collections of books, videos/DVDs, and other academic materials pertaining to world religions and to non-believers.
  5. Educational Forums: Schools can organize and sponsor community-wide forums to discuss issues related to religious diversity and religious pluralism.
  6. Curriculum and School Programs: Schools are encouraged to include accurate, honest, up-to-date, and age-appropriate information regarding religious issues presented uniformly and without bias or judgment. In this regard, when introducing a topic, it is often effective to bring to the classroom or school assembly a panel of outside speakers composed of, for example, individuals who identity within a specific religious faith community or non-believers.
  7. Adult Role Models: Schools are encouraged to recruit faculty and staff from disparate religious and spiritual background as well as non-believers to serve as supportive role models for all youth.
  8. Teacher Certification: Include information and training on issues pertaining to religious diversity and religious oppression in college and university teacher education programs.
  9. Continuing Education:
  • Educate yourself about world religions and the history of religion and religious oppression in the United States and other countries throughout the world.
  • Educate yourself to the needs and experiences of people from many religious and spiritual backgrounds and non-believers. Without having the expectation that it is their responsibility to teach you, listen to, and truly hear the voices of religious minorities and non-believers when they do relate their experiences to you. Attempt not to become defensive, argumentative, and do not try to change them. These are their experiences, their perceptions, and the meanings they make, and, therefore, it is not up for debate. (Dialogue not Debate)
  • Put yourself in the shoes of religious minorities and non-believers, especially during major Christian holiday seasons. Attempt to experience those seasons from their perspectives. What do you perceive? Ask yourself next time you automatically wish someone a Merry Christmas or Happy Easter, or when you are about to send someone a Christmas or even a Season’s Greeting card, whether the person on the other end would truly welcome the gesture, or whether you might be imposing your traditions and values on that person.
  • Attend events of religions other than your own.
  • Be aware of the generalizations you make. If you are of a certain religious background, do not assume that all people you meet are from that background. Assume there of people of other faiths and non-believers in your school, workplace, and community.
  • Monitor politicians, the media, and organizations to assess their level of sensitivity to issues related to religious pluralism.
  • Work and vote for candidates (including school board members) taking positions in support of religious pluralism.

As we learn more about people and their religious ideas, customs, and consciousness different from our own, maybe, just maybe, will we experience a more just, equitable, and, yes, peaceful world.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 17th, 2015 at 3:39 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

From Bullying to Genocides: From Micro to Macro

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As we approach Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day on 27 Nisan (Jewish calendar), sundown April 15 to sundown April 16 this year (Gregorian calendar), I reflect upon my familial history: two scenarios with somewhat varied outcomes.

When I was a young child, I sat upon my maternal grandfather Simon Mahler’s knee. Looking down urgently, but with deep affection, he said to me, “Varn,” (through his distinctive Polish accent, he pronounced my name “Varn”), “you are named after my father, Wolf Mahler, who was killed by the Nazis along with my mother Bascha and most of my thirteen brothers and sisters.” When I asked why they were killed, he responded, “Because they were Jews.” Those words have reverberated in my mind, haunting me ever since.

We later learned that Nazi troops forced most of my Krosno relatives into the surrounding woods, shot them, and tossed their lifeless bodies into a mass unmarked grave along with over two thousand other Jewish residents. The Nazis eventually loaded the remaining Jews of Krosno onto cattle cars and transported them to Auschwitz and Belzec death camps. The handful of Krosno Jews who survived liberation of the camps attempted to return to their homes that had been confiscated by the non-Jewish residents. No Jews reside today in Krosno.

More recently, on a snowy February morning in 2002, while in my university office organizing materials for that day’s classes, I received an email message that would forever poignantly and profoundly change my life. A man named Charles Mahler had been looking for descendants of the Mahler family of Krosno, Poland, and he had come across an essay I had written focusing on Wolf and Bascha Mahler.

Charles informed me that he had survived the German Holocaust along with his sister, parents, and maternal grandparents and uncle, but the Nazis murdered his father’s parents (Jacques and Anja Mahler), sister, and her two children, and other relatives following Hitler’s invasion and occupation of Belgium, their adopted home country.

My cousin Charles related their story in hiding from August 1942 until the final armistice in Europe. His father, Georges, altered the family’s identity papers from Jewish to Christian, and they abandoned Antwerp for what they considered the relative safety of the Belgium countryside. During their plight, members of the Belgium resistance movement and other righteous Christians shepherded them throughout the remainder of the war to three separate locations as the German Gestapo followed closely at their heels. On a number of occasions, they successfully “passed” as Christian directly under the watchful gaze of unsuspecting Nazis.

Though the majority of Jewish inhabitants of Antwerp ultimately perished, many survived. However, at the National Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem (The Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Israel) one will observe “Krosno” chiseled into the glass and the stone walls listing towns and villages where Nazis and their sympathizers decimated entire Jewish communities.

I have learned many lessons in my studies of genocides perpetrated throughout the ages.

Strong leaders whip up sentiments by employing dehumanizing stereotyping and scapegoating entire groups, while other citizens or entire nations look on, often refusing to intervene. Everyone, not only the direct perpetrators of oppression, plays a vital role in the genocides.

On a micro level, this is also apparent, for example, in episodes of schoolyard, community-based, as well as electronic forms of bullying. According to the American Medical Association definition: “Bullying is a specific type of aggression in which the behavior is intended to harm or disturb, the behavior occurs repeatedly over time, and there is an imbalance of power, with a more powerful person or group attacking a less powerful one.”

The problem of bullying and harassment should not be seen simply as involving those who bully and those who are bullied (the “dyadic view”), but rather as involving a number of “actors” or roles across the social/school environment. In one study, peers were present to witness 85% of the bullying incidents at school.

Some researchers have defined the roles various people play. Dan Olweus, international researcher and bullying prevention specialist, enumerated the distinct and often overlapping roles enacted in these episodes:

  1. Those Who Bully: the person or persons who perpetrate the bullying episodes;
  2. Followers/Henchmen(women): those who are active in the bullying process, though a follower of the main “ringleader” bully(ies);
  3. Supporter, Passive Bully/Bullies: those who passively support, condone, collude, or encourage the aggression;
  4. Passive Supporter, Possible Bully: those who are unsure of ways to actively assist those who perpetrate the aggression, though they are with those who bully;
  5. Disengaged Onlookers: sometimes referred to as “bystanders,” aware of the bullying behaviors, do nothing, often stay away from the incidents;
  6. Possible Defender: those who could intervene on behalf of the targets of bullying, but for many reasons may feel disempowered, unsure of ways to assist, fearful of being a target themselves;
  7. Defender of those Who are Bullied: those who either work proactively, or actually intervene, defend, and protect the targets of aggression;
  8. Those Who Are Bullied, The One(s) Who Is/Are Exposed: the targets of aggression.

One piece of my family puzzle met a tragic end, another partial segment survived. In both instances, the bystanders determined the balance of power: in Krosno, many, though not all, conspired with the oppressors, while in Antwerp, many dug deeply within themselves transitioning from bystanders into courageous, compassionate, and empathetic upstanders in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Each day we all are called on to make small and larger choices and to take actions. At a homecoming dance at Richmond High School in California on October 27, 2009, for example, up to ten young men grabbed a 14-year-old young woman who had been waiting outside the dance for her father, dragged her behind a building, and gang raped her for over two and one-half hours with approximately ten witnesses observing. Some even cheered on the attackers. No one notified the police. The perpetrators left the young woman in critical condition.

But then a few years during a horrendous traffic accident between an automobile driver and a motor cyclist resulted in the cyclist being thrust under the burning car, a group of stunned bystanders immediately and without hesitation turned into courageous upstanders by joining in unison, with flames raging around them, to turn the car on its end ensuring that others could pull the young cyclist to safety, thereby saving his life.

So which side are we on? This question brings to mind the old truism: “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”

Today as in the past, no truer words were ever uttered, for in the spectrum from occasional microaggressions to full-blown genocide, there is no such thing as an “innocent bystander.”

Warren J. Blumenfeld is associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa. He is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), and co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

April 15th, 2015 at 8:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized