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Porous Paper “Wall of Separation” in the U.S.

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In what only can be seen as a violation of the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clauses, and the unmasking of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between Church and State (religion and government)” as the lie that it has been throughout the history of this country, the United States Air Force refused to reenlist a technical sergeant who has more than 10 years of service because he scratched out “So help me God” on his reenlistment contract.

According to his lawyer, Monica Miller with the American Humanist Association, “He was told he had to swear to those words, or else he would have to leave the Air Force.” The sergeant, based at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada whose name has been withheld, has until his current term of service ends in November 2014 to sign the form, including the religious oath. Section 5.6 of the enlistment/reenlistment form, the “Active Duty Oath of Enlistment,” reads as follows:

I, (state your full name), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic, that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.”

Monica Miller asserts that challenges to Air Force policy are of its own making. Before last fall, the enlistment oath included the parenthetical sentence, “(Airmen may omit the words ‘So help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.”). The Air Force, however, deleted this sentence in the newest updated version. The matter now is currently under review by the Department of Defense.

According to the wording of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” two separate clauses or concepts relate specifically to religion: the “Establishment Clause” and the “Free Exercise Clause.” The first forbids government from passing any laws or enforcing any policies that establish an official religion or favoring any religion over others. The second clause restricts government from trampling on the rights of individuals to practice the religion or non-religion of their choice.

Contrary to Texas Governor Rick Perry’s contention that “freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion,” the Constitution of the United States, and expanded by numerous court decisions throughout our history, does, in fact, grant the right of freedom of as well as freedom from religion. Perry uttered his attitude when signing the so-called “Merry Christmas” bill into law that permits schools in his state to display religious symbols around campus.

A Little History

Virginia was one of the first states following the Revolutionary War to address the issue of religion and government when Thomas Jefferson, who held deist beliefs, drafted “An Act for the Establishment of Religious Freedom” in 1777. Jefferson’s proposal passed into law in 1786 in Virginia. Then, constitutional framers such as Jefferson and Madison negotiated a compromise with Protestant sectarians, which led to the clauses written into the First Amendment of the United States Constitution.

Though nowhere in the U.S. Constitution does the phrase “wall of separation of church and state” appear, it was originally drawn from a letter President Thomas Jefferson sent on January 1, 1802 to the Danbury (Connecticut) Baptists Association. In a previous letter to Jefferson, the Baptists, who were then a minority denomination, expressed their extreme concerns that the First Amendment, by expressly granting “the free exercise of religion,” implied that this freedom, granted by government, is therefore an alienable right since what the government gives, the government likewise can withdraw.

“Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals….But sir, our constitution of government is not specific….[T]herefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights” (Danbury Baptist Association, 1801).

Jefferson had his own concerns over the potential erosion of religious liberties granted in the First Amendment, which he expressed in a letter to fellow co-signer of the Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Rush:

“[T]he clause of the Constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity through the United States; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians and Congregationalists” (Jefferson, 1800).

So with the current case against the Air Force, and in countless other instances — from “In God We Trust” on our currency, “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, religious invocations at Presidential and other government inaugurations and ceremonies, chaplains reciting religious invocations at Congressional gatherings, publicly funded religious decorations and celebrations at government building in Washington, D.C. and throughout the country, an official publicly funded Easter Egg Roll on the White House lawn, “…and God Bless the United States of American” ending virtually all Presidential and other elected officials’ speeches — do we really have a “wall of separation” and freedom from religion in the United States.

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).

 

 

 

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

September 15th, 2014 at 8:51 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Why I Will Not Pledge My Allegiance (to Any Flag)

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Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.” Albert Eisenstein

Originally published in the September 8, 1892 issue of The Youth’s Companion, a widely circulated children’s magazine, the Baptist minister, Francis Bellamy, wrote the Pledge of Allegiance in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the voyage and arrival of Christopher Columbus to what would later be called “the Americas.” At Bellamy’s urging, Congress and President Benjamin Harrison passed a proclamation fashioning the public school flag ceremony as the centerpiece of Columbus Day tributes (Presidential Proclamation 335) with the Pledge first recited in public schools on Columbus Day, October 12, 1892.

Suggested originally around 1948 by Louis A. Bowman, an Illinois Attorney and Chaplain for the Illinois Society for the Sons of the American Revolution, the idea of adding the two words, “under God,” gained popularity by 1951 when the Knights of Columbus, the world’s largest Catholic Fraternal Service Organization, passed a resolution to lobby the President, Vice President, and Congress to make “under God” a universal and permanent addition to the Pledge.

This (Christian) theocratic imposition, which passed Congress and signed into law by President Dwight David Eisenhower, found itself officially inserted into the Pledge on June 14, 1954 (Flag Day), and also printed onto currency, “In God We Trust,” in 1957 during the formative years of the so-called “Cold War” as a reaction to the “Godless” Communist Soviet Union. (“In God We Trust” was minted on U.S. coins by the Department of the Treasury in 1864 during the period of the U.S. Civil War.)

This past May, the American Humanist Association, a progressive group, surveyed 1,000 U.S. adult citizens regarding what they felt about “under God” in the pledge after reading the following statement:

“For its first 62 years, the Pledge of Allegiance did not include the phrase ‘under God.’ During the Cold War, in 1954, the phrase ‘one nation indivisible’ was changed to read ‘one nation, under God, indivisible.’ Some people feel this phrase in our national pledge should focus on unity rather than religion.”

After reading this brief account, 34% of respondents said they felt “under God” should be removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. This included the vast majority of atheists, 41% of non-Christians, and even 21% of Christians said “under God” should be taken out of the Pledge.

I find it highly problematic that the Supreme Judicial Court in my home state of Massachusetts ruled on May 9 this year that “under God” in the Pledge does not discriminate against atheists. The court asserted that while the wording may contain a “religious tinge” (what?!), it reflects patriotic practice rather than religion. Also, since it is voluntary, the Pledge, with “under God,” may continue to be recited daily in public schools.

I have long refused to stand at attention, place my hand over my heart, take off head coverings, and recite the Pledge.

“I pledge allegiance…”

…no I don’t since to do so amounts to nothing more than a hollow gesture of talking some sort of talk. As I was taught in English classes to avoid the passive “to be” verb, likewise “to pledge” amounts to a passive and shallow form of (non)action…

“…to the flag…”

…a mere piece of cloth, and like the words of a pledge, represents merely a symbol, which can signify nothing beyond the threads, the dyes, and the stitches holding it together…

“…of the United States of America…”

…and for all those with insufficient background knowledge of its history, its multiple cultures, its people, and its relationships to other countries of the world, what are they pledging allegiance to?…

“…and to the republic for which it stands…”

…yes, a government in which citizens have the right to vote for elected officials representing them, which is a concept and an empowering reality when enacted and carried out. However, we have a history and a legacy in this country that has denied and continues to deny, by law and by practice, this right as we currently are witnessing in parts of our country, for example, in North Carolina, Florida, and other states in their “voter suppression” statutes.

“…one nation…”

Yes, indeed, a single nation. But let us never forget that this nation, this E Pluribus Unum (“from many, one”) came the diversity from the entire world: the traditions, the languages, the cultures, the religions, the belief systems, the totality of the human experience, which must be acknowledged, supported, cherished, valued, and nurtured never again compelled to melt away into a Eurocentric, Protestant and oligarchically-dominated, patriarchal, racist, classist, adultist, heterosexist, cissexist, ableist, ethnocentric stew of ruthlessly mandated conformity…

“…under God…”

But what ever happened to that grand U.S. vision of a wall separating religion and government, more commonly known as a “separation of Church and state,” even though primarily Christian houses of worship take “church” as their titled designation? “Under God” certainly has much more than a “religious tinge.”

“…indivisible…”

…yes, possibly in the sense of commitment to make this “a more perfect union,” but with this experiment we call “The United States of America,” the process, our democratic process, is bound to be messy, with divisions and fractures inevitable, but hopefully with mechanisms and systems continually expanding that encourage diversity of thought and identity while maintaining the process of perennial change and progress…

“…with liberty…”

…though defined in many ways depending on the individual who defines it, I see “liberty” as individuals’ inherent right to define, to identity, to name themselves, to develop and maintain their sense of agency and subjectivity without others defining or controlling them. I ask us to access whether we as a society have truly reached that point.

“…and justice for all.”

Yes, all. Not only some – of certain socially dominant groups. I wonder whether this overriding notion of “rugged individualism,” with all this talk of “personal responsibility” coming from certain quarters on the political Right, amounts to double speak meaning, instead, that we need not maintain any of the safety nets put in place to assist our most vulnerable residents.

On the other hand, for in the words of the Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

To ask (read as “compel,” though the Supreme Court ruled that schools cannot mandate) young people, some just entering public school, to stand head uncovered (Christian tradition signifying respect) with right hand (“right” in many cultures, most notably in the history of the Catholic church, standing for good, for righteousness, for a shield against the evil inherent on the “left” – the side of the Devil – as in “sinister” from the French) over the heart (the “love” organ) to recite words, some of which many young people neither understand nor can pronounce – “indivisible” for example – which were originally recited to commemorate the leader, Christopher Columbus, of ruthless imperialist conquerors, smacks of jingoistic indoctrination at a time before young people’s cognitive and intellectual developmental facilities have reached a stage of heightened critical consciousness.

My intent here is to distinguish between two terms — terms that are often used interchangeably, but in actuality, while connected in some ways, are unique and distinct. The terms are “Patriot” and “Nationalist” with their corresponding concepts of “Patriotic” and “Nationalistic.”

A “Patriot” according to my copy of Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary is:

  1. “a person who loves, supports, and defends his or her country and its interests,” and
  2. “a person who regards himself or herself as a defender, especially of individual rights against presumed interference by the federal government.”

A “Nationalist,” according to my dictionary is 1. “a person who has devotion and loyalty to one’s own nation,” and 2. “a person who has [and here we see the crucial difference] excessive patriotism or chauvinism, which is a zealous and aggressive patriotism or enthusiasm for military glory, a biased devotion to any group, attitude, or cause.”

I often wonder how many people who vehemently advocate for the recitation of the “Pledge of Allegiance” and adamantly affix and raise U.S. flags to porches and house lawns as they exaltedly wave them atop their speeding cars and pickup trucks, how many of these people take the time actually to vote in local and national elections? How many of them volunteer to remove litter from parks or serve meals at soup kitchens? How many of them write letters to the editors of local and national media, and stay current on issues, laws, and policies affecting their communities and their nation? And how many of them truly understand the histories, the peoples, the governmental and economic systems, the traditions, the languages – for that matter, the actual locations – of many other countries across the planet in contexts other than having to learn about these nations when international tensions arise?

Rather than conducting an exercise in thought control, this act of adult and institutional infractions upon our youngest citizens to circumvent the development of a critical interrogation of the status quo, let us instead awaken a culture of critical consciousness in the development and enhancement within us all of deep inquiry as lifelong learners about our country (along the entire spectrum from the inspired vision undergirding this great nation to the gashes and ruptures along the way), about the relationship between our country and other countries across this orb we know as “Earth,” to ever challenge, to engage, to work toward the advancement of the ideal on which our country rests, to eventually become that magnificent tapestry of individual threads of unlimited beauty and, yes, liberty and justice for all. Aside from words, let us fertilize the dream to fruition.

After weighing the facts, after making an informed decision, after determining whether reciting the Pledge of Allegiance has merit for you as an individual, and if you believe saying it is in line with your views and attitudes, go for it! But how informed are 5 and 6 and 7 year-olds in our schools when their teachers encourage them to stand at attention and recite the Pledge? Oh sure, a student or a parent or guardian can have the student opt out of standing with their classmates in front of the flag in recitation. However, this opting out is very intimidating for the person who chooses to do so. They often face subtle and even overt pressures.

As we all have the freedom to pray and observe or not observe religious practices within our private spaces, so too, we have the freedom to pledge our allegiance to our country. I am questioning whether public spaces, such as schools and massive sporting venues, are, in fact, appropriate spaces.

The United States stands as a creative and noble concept, a vibrant idea, a vital and enduring vision, a process and progression toward, but it does not yet attain nor yet reach that concept, that idea, that vision. It is, rather, a work in process. Yes, our country has come far in working for liberty and justice for its residents, but we still have far to go. And this is possibly what separates the patriot from the nationalist, for the patriot understands and witnesses the divide, the gap between the reality and the promise and potential. The nationalist on the other hand is often unaware or does not acknowledge that a gap exists between the potential and the reality.

This month, the U.S. commemorated the bicentennial anniversary of our national anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner.” I also refuse to sing this at sporting events, symphony concerts, and other public events again while standing, head uncovered, right hand placed over the heart…, but that’s fodder for another commentary.

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

September 14th, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Violence & Xenophobia Face South Asian & Middle Eastern Communities in U.S.

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One day following the commemoration of the attacks on September 11, 2001, the organization, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), released its report on the conditions of South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities in the United States. Researchers collected data between January 2011 through April 2014 documenting incidents on two levels: hate violence and xenophobic rhetoric by political figures.

The report titled “Under Suspicion, Under Attack” found an increase in the volume and force of hate violence, and also a greater intensity in xenophobic expressions by political leaders since its last report released in 2010. The new report documents over 160 hate-related violent attacks and political expressions against these communities with the vast majority against Muslims.

Researcher characterize the chilly climate surrounding members of these communities emphasized by profiling and surveillance by agencies of law enforcement, and “the growth of an Islamophobia ‘industry’ that demonizes Muslims via the Internet and media, xenophobic political speech, and hate violence, among other elements.” Overall during the period under investigation, one hate crime was perpetrated on average every 3.5 days.

Looking back to the 2008 presidential election, we all routinely witnessed Islamic xenophobia. Members of the political Right challenged and spread rumors regarding Barack Obama’s cultural, social, and religious background, political philosophies, U.S. birth status, and patriotism. Insinuations flew about his supposed Islamic background connected to his alleged Marxist and Fascist (which is a contradiction) political influences.

Opponents referred to him as “Barack Hussein Obama” – with emphasis on “Hussein” — in their attempts to connect him not only to the Muslim faith, but also to the former ruler of Iraq. In actuality, his middle name is indeed “Hussein,” which in Arabic translates to “good” or “beautiful.” Furthermore, since this country was founded on the notion of freedom of religion, whichever religious or non-religious background any candidate, or any individual, follows should in no way disqualify or call into question their credentials.

“Xenophobia” has been defined as “an unreasonable fear and hatred of foreigners or strangers or that which is foreign of strange,” and Islamophobia can be defined as prejudice and discrimination toward the religion of Islam and Muslims who follow its teachings and practices. Like racism and sexism, for example, xenophobia and Islamophobia comprise much more than fears, for they are taught and often learned attitudes and behaviors, and, therefore, falls under the category of oppression.

Two months following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, on February 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 authorizing military officials to operate “military areas” as “exclusion zones,” from which “any or all persons may be excluded.” This order justified the exclusion and forced relocation of all people of Japanese ancestry from the entire Pacific coast into concentration campus in the interior U.S. Though the country was at war with Germany and Italy as well, and though no single case of suspected Japanese American espionage activity was ever proven, the government stripped an estimated 110,000 Japanese U.S.-American citizens of their constitutional protections and their property, and transported them long distances.

It was not until 1988 when Congress passed legislation apologizing and providing monetary reparations to Japanese Americans for this tragic chapter in U.S. history. The legislation confirmed that the actions taken by our government were founded on “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.”

Fast forward to the horrendous events of September 11, 2001. A national poll found that 31% of U.S. residents asserted that our government should incarcerate Arab Americas in concentration camps as we did with Japanese Americans during World War II.

I wonder whether we have learned anything from our history? To stereotype and scapegoat all people of South Asian and Middle Eastern backgrounds for the events of 9/11 is as invalid as blaming all Christians for the despicable actions perpetrated by Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber who was a devout Christian.

I am continually reminded by Santayana’s warning: “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

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

September 12th, 2014 at 6:21 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

LGBT Youth & the Tyranny of Christian “Conversion Therapy”

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“The role of religion is paradoxical. It makes and unmakes prejudice. While the creeds of the great religions are universalistic, all stressing brotherhood (sic), the practices of these creeds are frequently divisive and brutal.” (Gordon Allport, p.444)

Living on a conservative Christian mission in Florida with his Southern Baptist minister parents, Samuel Brinton lied about his emerging feeling for other boys as a pre-teen because he feared his parents’ reactions. After acknowledging that he was attracted to his best friend Dale when he was 12, Samuel’s father told him he had AIDS, and repeatedly punched, burned, electroshocked, and inserted needles into his fingers to “cure” him. Eventually, Samuel felt forced to lie by telling his parents that he was actually heterosexual.

His parents sent him to a “religious therapist” who told Samuel that “I want you to know that you’re gay, and all gay people have AIDS,” and then placed pictures of men dying of AIDS before him. However, soon after arriving at Kansas State University, Samuel “came out” to his parents again, who told him he would not be welcomed home and threatened him if he returned. But he turned his life around. Following graduation, he attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and in 2010, Samuel Brinton was chosen as the top LGBT activist in the U.S. by Campus Pride, a national organization working for the rights of LGBT college and university students.

At age 14, Lyn Duff came out to her parents as lesbian. Not being able to accept this revelation, Lyn’s mother whisked her immediately and involuntarily to Rivendell Psychiatric Center in West Jordon, Utah where she was forced to undergo so-called “conversion therapy” to cure her from what doctors at the facility termed “gender identity disorder” and “clinical depression.” Though Rivendell was not officially aligned with the Church of Latter Day Saints, Lyn remembers that on numerous occasions throughout her six-month incarceration, Mormon missionaries visited her, and her “therapy” was highly religious in tone.

This so-called “conversion therapy” really amounted to “aversion” techniques including watching women same-sex pornography while being forced to smell ammonia, being subjected to hypnosis, psychotropic drugs, and solitary confinement. Staff also imposed so-called “behavior modification” by requiring Lyn to wear dresses, and forced punishments of cutting the lawn with a small pair of scissors and scrubbing floors with a toothbrush. After being locked up for 168 days, Lyn somehow escaped Rivendell, and went to San Francisco where she lived on the streets and in safe houses.

She eventually connected with a local journalist, an attorney, Legal Services for Children, and the National Center for Lesbian Rights, and she fought and won in the courts a legal emancipation from her mother. A lesbian couple adopted her when was 15, and today Lyn Duff serves as a successful activist and journalist for the Pacific News Service and for KPFA radio’s Flashpoints.

Many of the more extreme Christian Right groups and religious ministries push what they refer to as “Christian therapy” for the purpose of, as they phrase it, removing people from the “deviant homosexual lifestyle.” It is important that parents, social workers, and other mental health professionals know that these so-called “therapies” go by such names as the X-Gay religious ministries, Exodus International, Homosexual Anonymous (a cynical co-optation of 12-Step program method of recovery), PFOX (Parents, Families, and Friends of X-Gays and Lesbians (an obvious rip-off of the LGBT allies support network PFLAG — Parents, Families, and Friends of Gays and Lesbians), and so-called “conversion therapy” (a.k.a. “reparative” and “reorientation” therapy), which promise conversion to heterosexuality if the person has the requisite motivation to change.

These tyrannical and bogus “therapies” have been harshly condemned by reputable psychiatric organizations. For example, the American Psychological Association passed a resolution, August 14, 1997, which read in part:

“Whereas societal ignorance and prejudice about same-gender sexual orientation put some gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning individuals at risk for presenting for ‘conversion’ treatment due to family or social coercion and/or lack of information…. Whereas some mental health professionals advocate treatments of lesbian, gay, and bisexual people based on the premise that homosexuality is a mental disorder…. Therefore be it resolved that the American Psychological Association opposes portrayals of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth and adults as mentally ill due to their sexual orientation and supports the dissemination of accurate information about sexual orientation, and mental health, and appropriate interventions in order to counteract bias that is based in ignorance or unfounded beliefs about sexual orientation.”

In addition, the APA, in 2008, passed a resolution, “Transgender, Gender Identity, & Gender Expression” opposing “all public and private discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived gender identity and expression and urges the repeal of discriminatory laws and policies.”

California in August 2012 became the first state, followed soon after by New Jersey, to outlaw the practice of “conversion therapies” for people under the age of 18 after reviewing reports of the destructive nature of these alleged therapies. A number of other states are currently considering similar legislation.

While his state was holding hearings on the issue, a young man testified in front of the New Jersey Senate Health Committee on March 18, 2013:

“My name is Jacob Rudolph. I am an LGBT teen. I am not broken. I am not confused. I do not need to be fixed.

Jacob Rudolph, Lyn Duff, Samuel Brinton, and many other young people have cut to the very heart of the issue by showing us all that the problem does not reside within those of us whose sexuality and gender identity and expression differs from the majority, but rather, rests within a society, including a (hopefully) shrinking minority of religious denominations that adhere to a circumscribed view of human diversity.

Returning to Gordon Allport’s opening quote referring to the paradoxical role of religion to make and unmask prejudice, likewise, religious texts — between disparate religions and between denominations of the same religion, as well as within a single text — on close examination, stand paradoxically and even contradictory. Moreover, individuals and entire denominations often interpret identical scriptural passages very differently, and they also emphasize and adhere to some readings while disregarding and even dismissing others. One particular passage seems to stand out in the Christian Bible when we attempt to answer the question, “Where do we go from here to ensure a just and equitable worldview?” I suggest the following:

“If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ you are doing right. But if you show favoritism, you sin and are convicted by the law as lawbreakers.” (James 2: 8-9)

For a comprehensive investigation, see: Conservative Christian Beliefs and Sexual Orientation in Social Work: Privilege, Oppression, and the Pursuit of Human Rights, edited by Adrienne B. Dessel and Rebecca M. Bolen, Council on Social Work Education, 2014.

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

September 8th, 2014 at 2:28 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The Many Ways We All Lose in a Heterosexist Environment

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“I find it paradoxical that we live in a society where love of difference makes one the same, while love of sameness makes one different.”

I cannot help thinking about something Frederick Douglass, who escaped enslavement and worked for the cause of liberation, once said when he described the dehumanizing effects of slavery not on those enslaved alone, but also on white slavers whose position to slavery corrupted their humanity. While the social conditions of Douglass’s time were very different from today, nonetheless, I believe Douglass’s words hold meaning by analogy: “No [person] can put a chain about the ankle of [another person] without at last finding the other end fastened about [their] own neck.”

Though it cannot be denied that oppression serves the interests of dominant group members, eventually it will backfire and the chain will take hold of them. Therefore, I have come to understand that within the numerous forms of oppression, members of targeted (sometimes called “minoritized”) groups are oppressed, while on many levels, members of the dominant or agent groups are hurt. Although the effects of oppression differ qualitatively for specific targeted and agent groups, in the end everyone loses.

This is true as well within the social oppression called “heterosexism,” which I define as the overarching system of advantages bestowed on heterosexuals. It includes the institutionalization of a heterosexual norm or standard, which establishes and perpetuates the notion that all people are or should be heterosexual thereby privileging heterosexuals and heterosexuality, and excluding the needs, concerns, cultures, and life experiences of people who do not define as heterosexual or gender normative. In truth, heterosexism is pervasive throughout the society, and each of us, irrespective of sexual or gender identity and expression, stands at risk of its harmful effects.

First, heterosexist conditioning compromises the integrity of people by pressuring them to treat others badly, which are actions contrary to their basic humanity. It inhibits one’s ability to form close, intimate relationships with members of one’s own sex, generally restricts communication with a significant portion of the population, and, more specifically, limits family relationships.

Heterosexism locks all people into rigid gender-based roles, which inhibit creativity and self-expression. It often is used to stigmatize, silence, and, on occasion, target people who are perceived or defined by others as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, but who are, in actuality, heterosexual.

In addition, heterosexism is one cause of premature sexual involvement, which increases the chances of teen pregnancy and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Young people, of all sexual identities, are often pressured to become heterosexually active to prove to themselves and others that they are “normal.”

Societal heterosexism prevents some LGBT people from developing an authentic self-identity, and adds to the pressure to marry someone of another sex, which in turn places undue stress and oftentimes trauma on themselves as well as their spouses and children.

Heterosexism, combined with sexphobia or erotophobia (fear and revulsion of sex) results in the elimination of discussions of the lives and sexuality of LGBT people as part of school-based sex education programs, keeping vital information from all students. Such a lack of information can kill people in the age of HIV/AIDS. And heterosexism (along with racism, sexism, classism, sexphobia) inhibits a unified and effective governmental and societal response the HIV/AIDS pandemic.

With all the truly important issues facing the world, heterosexism diverts energy and attention from more constructive endeavors. It also prevents heterosexuals from accepting the benefits and gifts offered by LGBT people, including theoretical insights, social and spiritual visions and options, contributions in the arts and culture, to religion, to education, to family life, indeed, to all facets of society. Ultimately, it inhibits appreciation of other types of diversity, making it unsafe for everyone because each person has unique traits not considered mainstream or dominant. Therefore, we are all diminished when any one of us is demeaned.

The meaning is quite clear: When any group of people is targeted for oppression, it is ultimately everyone’s concern. We all, therefore, have a self interest in actively working to dismantle all the many forms of oppression, including heterosexism.

I believe we are all born into an environment polluted by heterosexism (one among many forms of oppression), which falls upon us like acid rain. For some people, spirits are tarnished to the core, others are marred on the surface, and no one is completely protected. Therefore, we all have a responsibility, indeed an opportunity, to join together as allies to construct protective shelters from the corrosive effects of prejudice and discrimination while working to clean up the heterosexist environment in which we live. Once we take sufficient steps to reduce this pollution, we will all breathe a lot easier.

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

September 4th, 2014 at 1:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized

School REsegregation Since Brown & Different Languages of “Race”

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There are milestones in the history of education where conditions have come together to advance progressive social policy reforms. One such milestone was the momentous United States Supreme Court decision, Brown v Board of Education (Topeka, Kansas), rendered on May 17, 1954. In a unanimous decision, the court ruled that the “separate but equal” clause (set down in the case of Plessy vs. Ferguson, 1896) was unconstitutional because it violated student’s rights as covered under the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution when separation was solely on the classification of “race.” Delivering the court opinion, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that the “segregated schools are not equal and cannot be made equal, and hence they are deprived of the equal protection of the laws.”

The Brown decision rested on accumulated social science research that emphasized the detrimental effects of school segregation on students of color. Following the decision, intransigence on the part of a number of Southern political leaders prevented the law from fully taking effect. In fact, President Eisenhower was compelled to call out federal troops to ensure compliance in Little Rock, Arkansas in 1957. Some Southern governors chose to close some public schools in their states rather than comply with desegregation orders.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 strengthened the Brown decision. Prior to this act, the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution applied primarily to the actions and laws of states. Following the Civil Rights Act of 1964, however, this was extended to include individuals who discriminate. The United States Congress passed the law to protect the constitutional rights of all people in the areas of public facilities and public education, and prohibiting discrimination in federally assisted programs. Title VI, Section 2000d of the Act stipulated: “Prohibition against exclusion from participation in, denial of benefits of, and discrimination under federally assisted programs on ground of race, color, or national origin.” Title VI expressly mandated the withholding of federal funds from institutions, including public schools, which engaged in racial discrimination.

Another milestone in the history of education was an historic piece of legislation, Public Law 94-142, the 1975 Education of All Handicapped Children Act, passed by the United States Congress. This law mandated that to receive federal funds, school systems must provide “free appropriate public education” (FAPE) for every child between the ages of 3 and 18 (extended later to 3 and 21) regardless of how serious the disability. The act was reauthorized and amended by Congress in 1990 and 1997. The amendments renamed this act the “Individuals with Disabilities Act” (IDEA) in keeping with the foundational understanding of emphasizing the person rather than merely the disability. Also, the term “handicapped student” and “handicap” was changed to “child/individual with disability.”

Since the 1970s, however, the pace of school segregation has slowed substantially, and has actually reversed. According to the Educational Testing Service, by the end of the 1990s, in the United States, many public schools were largely segregated by “race.” For example, in the year 1969, 77% of African American students attended predominantly minoritized student schools. This figure declined somewhat by 1980 with 62% attending predominantly minoritized student schools. By 1997, however, the figure had risen to 69%, with 35% of African American students attending schools with 90-100% minoritized students. For Latino/a students, in 1969, 55% were attending predominantly minoritized student schools. By 1997, that number had risen to 75%.

Many charge that “resegregation” is due, at least in part, to Supreme Court decisions, which have accelerated the federal courts’ attempts to terminate existing school desegregation orders. For example, in the 1974 case of Milliken v. Bradley, the Supreme Court virtually released white suburban school districts in Detroit, Michigan from participation in desegregation efforts. In addition, in Board of Education of Oklahoma City v. Dowell (1991), the Supreme Court held that lower courts could terminate previous desegregation orders in those school districts that had attempted “in good faith” to comply, even if this would result in abrupt resegregation.

Other Supreme Court decisions that have increased the drive to resegregate include Freeman v. Pitts (1992) ending aspects of desegregation orders even when other aspects had never been fully implemented, and Missouri v. Jenkins (1995) overturning a plan for magnet schools in Kansas City, Missouri designed to attract white students back to inner-city schools. According to Balkin, these legal decisions, along with social, political, and economic factors have been devastating to many children of color:

“Minority children in central cities are educated in virtually all-minority schools with decidedly inferior facilities and educational opportunities. More than half of black and Latino students around the country still attend predominantly minority schools.”

In addition, the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University found that although the 2000 national census reflected more racial and ethnic diversity in the United States than ever before, students are relatively isolated from this diversity as reflected in data collected by the United States Department of Education from the year 2000-2001. According to the study:

“The racial trend in the school districts studied is substantial and clear: virtually all school districts analyzed are showing lower levels of inter-racial exposure since 1986, suggesting a trend toward resegregation, and in some districts, these declines are sharp. As courts across the country end long-running desegregation plans and, in some states, have forbidden the use of any racially-conscious student assignment plans, the last 10-15 years have seen a steady unraveling of almost 25-years-worth of increased integration.”

Among the study’s additional finding were that white students in one-third of the school districts analyzed became more isolated from black and/or Latino/a students in the school years 1986-2000, and that black students are the “most isolated” from white students in districts that do not have desegregation plans in place or where the courts have rejected city-suburban desegregation plans.”

Balkin correlated the increasing trend toward resegregation with socioeconomic factors and with “race,” stating that only 5% of segregated white schools are in areas of concentrated poverty, whereas 80% of segregated black and Latino/a schools are in such areas. Schools in low-income areas have limited educational resources. As a consequence, students’ educational outcomes in these schools are routinely lower than in wealthier districts.

Blauner writes of a United States in which there exists “two languages of race,” one spoken by black people (and by implication, other people of color), the other by white people. By “language,” he meant a system of meaning attached to social reality, in this instance a “racial language” reflecting a view of the world. This mirrors the conclusions of the Kerner Commission report released in 1968 in its study of urban unrest. It stated, in part, that the United States was moving toward two separate societies: one white and one black (though the report left it uncertain where other communities of color fit into this equation). Many black people and other peoples of color see “race” and racism as salient and central to their reality. Many white people—excluding members of the more race-conscious extremists groups—consider “race” as a peripheral issue, and may even consider racism as a thing of the past, or as aberrations in contemporary U.S. society. Since the 1960s, many people of color have embraced and expanded the definition of “racism” to reflect contemporary realities, while many white people have not.

Although most white people are aware of what Batts terms “old fashioned racism” (taking such forms as enslavement, lynchings, cross burnings, definition of people of color as inferior to whites, legal segregation between the “races,” and others), many white people, asserts Batts, are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the many manifestations of “modern forms of racism” by whites. Batts lists these forms as dysfunctional rescuing, blaming the victim, avoidance of contact, denial of cultural differences, and denial of the political significance of differences.

It must be added that by the 1960s, a number of national black leaders, including Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, Malcolm X of the Nation of Islam, Huey P. Newton and H. Rap Brown of the Black Panthers, among others, questioned integrationist strategies generally and particularly in the schools—deprioritizing and even opposing desegregation—on the grounds that the notion that black students would learn best alongside white students was an inherently racist theory. They charged that an educational emphasis relying on integration was one that deemphasized systemic racist social structures, and one that pushed black people to assimilate into dominant Eurocentric norms and cultural expressions at the expense of black culture and identity. Echoes of these sentiments reverberate to this day.

Clearly, enormous inequities exist in the educational system as it currently operates. Likewise, it is clear that there are no simple or easy solutions to the problem of resegregation and also in the achievement gaps between white students and students of color, for as the old saying goes, “When it takes a long time to walk into the forest, it will, most likely as well, take a long time to walk out of the forest.” We must address the inequities within the system in both the short and long term. For these strategies to prove successful, however, we must also address, as a country, the larger systemic societal inequities that are very often reproduced and maintained within the school districts throughout the United States. Only then can we be assured that the promise of a truly equitable and effective educational system matches the reality.

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 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

September 1st, 2014 at 12:16 pm

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A New Peer Youth Chorus Transforming the World

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I’ve often heard of parents abusing and even disowning young people when they suspect or when a young person “comes out” to them as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or trans*, though except for movies and television episodes, I have never actually witnessed this. That is, until this week when I watched a YouTube video titled “How not to react when your child tells you he is gay.”

The video depicts what looks like an “intervention” by both birth parents and step-mother of 20-year-old Daniel Pierce who suspect that he is gay. When called into the living room, Daniel placed his phone on the “record” mode. After Daniel confirmed his sexuality, his mother stated, “I have known since you were a young boy that you were gay,” but then she accused him of making “a choice” by deciding to be gay.

The two women invoked the name of God and scripture, which soon spun into the three “adults” collectively unloading a verbal tirade before they lay hands upon and physically abuse Daniel across his body. They eventually tell him he is no longer welcomed, and demand that he move out of the house as soon as possible.

I became speechless, mouth open with no sounds audible, upset, literally shaking, tears pooling in my eyes. At the conclusion of the video, images of other youth appeared the YouTube screen, youth who had apparently filmed their reactions. I clicked on one after the other, and as I watched, my depression and outrage softened by the remarkable peer community that immediately and passionately came to Daniel’s defense.

What I witnessed when Daniel’s family of chance failed him, his new peer family of choice stepped in to lift him over their shoulders high above the din and the cruelty. All responders showed true and honest empathy and imagined themselves walking in Daniel’s tattered shoes.

Some talked of their own coming out experiences and the range of support they received from parents and friends. Others replied that though they identified as heterosexual, they could imagine the emotions arising in them if ever having to suffer the rejection and abuse Daniel was forced to endure. Some offered Daniel and other young people coming out advice to garner support. All committed their solidarity, their support, their compassion, and most of all, their love – values and emotions denied Daniel by his birth parents and step mother.

His new cross-racial, cross-sexuality, cross-gender family included as well a cross section of religious commitments from devout Christians to atheists and agnostics. Some showed a deep understanding of scripture, others did not. For some, words came quickly. For others, the sheer surprise and shock of disbelief made it difficult to put feelings and thoughts into words. The deep emotions of outrage, disgust, identification, their cry, no, their demand for justice linked them to one another and to Daniel.

This forum clearly demonstrates the endless possibilities of social media to transform passive bystanders into active empowered upstanders. Daniel’s boyfriend also posted online soon after the incident:

“Bros, my boyfriend got kicked out of his home and disowned yesterday. It’s been a really traumatic experience for him, and I feel so terrible and angry that this happened.

Fortunately, he’s living with a friend for now. Seems like he can be there long-term until he’s able to support himself….

UPDATE: Thanks everyone. I cannot believe how much response this has received…. We are in the debt of everyone on this sub – even before this incident. Daniel is going to be fine, I think. We’ve had numerous people reach out offering words of encouragement, a place to stay, donations, contacting news sources, and so much more. We are glad we could get the word out about this issue that many people will continue to struggle with. I’m sure we will have the opportunity of helping others the way we’ve been helped. :)

This peer family and others like it throughout the country, indeed, the world has inspired me, because there is no going back to the desperately closed and terror-filled times of my youth. The current generation will not go back into those dank closets of fear and denial that stifles the spirit and ruins so many lives.

Oh, they will physically return to their schools and their homes. They will continue to study and play sports, to watch movies, listen to their iPods, text their friends, and write about their days on Facebook. Some will most likely continue to serve as community organizers, and some will go on to become parents, teachers, and political leaders once their school days are behind.

The place they will go to, though, is nowhere that can be seen. It is a place of consciousness that teaches those who have entered that everyone is diminished when any one of us is demeaned; that heterosexism, sexism, biphobia, cissexism (trans* oppression) as well as all the other forms of oppression) have no place in a just society.

Young people have been and continue to be at the heart of progressive social change movements. Youth are transforming and revolutionizing the society and its institutions by challenging overall power inequities related not only to sexuality and gender identity categorizations and hierarchies, but they are also making links in the various types of oppression, and they are forming coalitions with other marginalized groups.

They are dreaming their dreams, sharing their ideas and visions, and organizing to ensure a world free from all the deadly forms of oppression, and along their journey, they are inventing new ways of relating and being in the world. Their stories, experiences, and activism have great potential to bring us to a future where people across the gender and sexuality spectrums will live freely, unencumbered by “religious” and social taboos of cultural norms related to gender and sexuality. It is a future in which all the disparate varieties of sexuality and gender expression will live and prosper in us all.

Their increased visibility and activism has had the effect of shaking up traditionally dichotomous notions of male/female and gay/straight. They are creating a vision of social transformation as opposed to mere reform by contesting and exploding conventional gender constructions, most notably the limiting and destructive binary conceptualizations and definitions of “masculinity” and “femininity.”

I am seeing and hearing a new youth ensemble of all tones and timbres joining in harmony: a spirited hip-hop sound, an energetic rap symphony, a feisty country tune, a religious church choir, and a fast-moving klezmer band, a joyous, angry, and loving cacophony of sound in a major key inspiring us all to dance and sing.

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, Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).

Written by Warren Blumenfeld

August 30th, 2014 at 2:21 pm

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Reflections on a Pre-Stonewall Queer Life

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I travel around the United States and to other country giving presentation and workshops on university and high school campuses and at professional conventions on topics around social justice issues.

Recently, after I spoke about the topic of heterosexism at an east coast university, a student asked me what my undergraduate LGBT student group was like. “Was there much resistance from the administration and from other students?” she inquired. More questions followed: “Did the women and men work well together?” “Were bisexuals and trans people welcomed?” “Was the group’s focus political or mainly social?” “Was there a separate ‘coming out’ group for new members?” “What kinds of campus activities did your group sponsor?”

As she asked me these questions, my head began to whirl with visions of my undergraduate years. I stopped long enough to inform her that I graduated with my B.A. degree on June 13, 1969 – 15 days before the momentous Stonewall rebellion, an event generally credited with sparking the modern movement for LGBT liberation and equality.

Though I later learned that some universities like Cornell, Stanford, and Columbia had officially recognized LGBT student groups before 1969, as a graduating senior, the concept of an “out” person, let alone an organized, above-ground student organization was not even in my range of possibilities.

Heterosexism in the Cold War

I was born during the height of the Cold War era directly following World War II, a time when any sort of human difference was held suspect. On the floor of the U.S. Senate, a young and brash senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, loudly proclaimed that “Communists corrupt the minds, and homosexuals corrupt the bodies” of good, upstanding Americans, and he proceeded to purge suspected Communists and homosexuals from government service.

When I was only two years old, my parents suspected that I might be gay, or to use the terminology of the day, “homosexual.” Shy, withdrawn, I preferred to spend most of my time alone. Later, on the playground at school, children called me names like “sissy,” “fairy,” pansy,” and little girl” with an incredible vehemence and malice that I did not understand.

My parents sent me to a child psychologist in 1951 with I was only four years old until I reached my 13th birthday with the expressed purpose of making sure that I did not grow up “homosexual.” Each session at the psychologist’s office, I took off my coat and placed it on the hook behind the door, and for the next 50 minutes, the psychologist and I built model airplanes, cars, and trains – so-called age-appropriate “boy-type toys.” It was obvious that the psychologist confused issues of gender with sexuality believing that one could prevent homosexuality by imposing “masculine” behaviors.

During high school in the early 1960s, I had very few friends and never dated. It was not that I did not wish to date, but I wanted to date some of the other boys, but I could not even talk about this at the time, for the concept of high school Gay/Straight Alliance was still many in the future. In high school, the topic of homosexuality rarely surfaced officially in the classroom, and then only in a negative context.

I graduated high school in 1965 with the hope that college life would somehow be better for me. I hoped that people would be more open-minded, less conforming, more accepting of difference.

Something Was Missing

To a great extent, things were better. In college, I demonstrated my opposition to the war in Vietnam with others. I worked to reduce racism on campus, and I helped plan environmental ecology teach-ins. Nevertheless, there was still something missing for me. I knew I was gay, but I had no outlet of support through which I could express my feelings. As far as I knew, there were no openly LGBT people, no support groups, no organizations, and no classes or library materials that did anything more than tell me that homosexuality was “abnormal” and that I needed to change.

In 1967, I finally decided to see a therapist in the campus counseling center, and I began what for me was a very difficult coming out process. And then during my first year of graduate school in 1970, I experienced a turning point in my life. In my campus newspaper, The Spartan Daily, at San José State University, I saw the headline in bog bold letters: “GAY LIBERATION FRONT DENIED CAMPUS RECOGNITION.” The article stated that the chancellor of the California State University system, Glenn Dumke, under then Governor Ronald Reagan’s direction, had denied recognition to the campus chapter of Gay Liberation Front.

In the ruling, Dumke stated that “The effect of recognition…of the Gay Liberation Front could conceivably to be endorse or to promote homosexual behavior, to attract homosexuals to the campus, and to expose minors to homosexual advocacy and practices” and “…belief that the proposed Front created too great a risk for students – a risk which might lead students to engage in illegal homosexual behavior.”

Curiosity and Fear

This was the first I had heard of such a group, and the first time I had heard about other LGBT people on my campus. I called the coordinator of the group, and she invited me to the next meeting. Since the chancellor did not permit group members to hold meetings on our campus, they met at a little diner on a small side street a few blocks off campus. Unfortunately, this only confirmed my fears of the underground nature of LGBT life. As I approached the door to enter the meeting, I felt as if I were a member of the French resistance during the Nazi occupation.

Upon entering, I saw around 15 people. I recognized one man from my chemistry class, but the others were strangers. I saw a near even mix of men and women, which made me feel a bit easier. In my mind, I had envisioned 50 men waiting to pounce on me as I entered, but I soon discovered that they were all good people who were concerned about me. They invited me to their homes, and before too long, I relaxed in their presence.

I left San José in 1971 to work for a progressive educational journal, EdCentric, at the National Student Association in Washington, DC. Within a few month after arriving, I founded and became the first director of the National Gay Student Center, a national clearinghouse working  to connect and exchange information between the newly emerging network of LGBT campus organizations within the US.

One year after leaving San José, I read that students at Sacramento State University, represented by the student government, sued the chancellor in Sacramento County Superior Court and won the case forcing the university officially to recognize their group. The court upheld the students’ First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of association by affirming their contention that “…to justify suppression of free speech, there must be reasonable grounds to fear that serious evil will result if free speech is practiced; there must be reasonable ground to believe that the danger apprehended is imminent.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Marty Rogers, one of the founding members of the LGBT group at Sacramento State University, who described how the denial of recognition and eventual court battle was instrumental in the group’s organizing success:

“Being denied recognition, being decreed invisible, reactivated in most group members other similar and painful incidents in their lives. The difference this time was that there was mutual support — from the campus newspaper and from the student government. Two faculty members openly acknowledged their homosexuality through letters to the Acting College President and the campus newspaper—they insisted on being seen. For once, homosexuals were not running and hiding. Publicly announcing one’s homosexuality, an issue which had not really been confronted previously, became an actuality as a result of the denial of recognition.”

Fortified by this precedent-setting case, other campus groups throughout the country have waged and won similar battles.

Hope for the Future

A few years ago, I boarded a subway train car on the Green Line in Boston bound for Boston University where I was scheduled to present a workshop on LGBT history at an annual Northeast LGBT student conference. Also entering the car were four young male students en route to the conference, one whom I remembered from a workshop I had given the previous day.

Once on board, they sat two by two in rows directly in front of me. After a few moments of animated talk and without apparent concern or self-consciousness, one of them reached out his hand and gently stroked the hair of the young man seated next  to him. The other man welcomed and accepted the gesture.

Witnessing this scene, I thought about how far LGBT people had come from the time I attended college as an undergraduate. Tears came to my eyes as I thought back to the pain of coming out of a closet of denial and fear. I saw before me memories of the hard and often frightening work so many of us have been doing to ensure a safer environment for young people to be able to display seemingly simple acts of affection for someone of their own sex, acts which different-sex couples routinely take for granted.

Through my travels to college and university campuses, I come away with the definite sense that conditions remain somewhat difficult for some LGBT and questioning young people today, though we have made some progress. Support systems in many places have been set firmly in place on campuses, and students today appear more self-assured and exhibit a certain joyous and feisty rebellion not seen only a decade or so ago.

Therefore, I realize that though school is still not a particularly “queer” place to be, it is a great deal better than ever before. In solidarity, then, we need to keep up the struggle.

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

August 23rd, 2014 at 1:00 pm

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Ferguson, MO & Beyond Heroes, Holidays, Food, & Festivals

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[African Americans are] born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world — a world which yields [them] no true self-consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.

W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903

For DuBois, this “veil” concept can be taken three ways. First, it suggests the literal darker skin of black people, a physical delineation of separation from whiteness. Secondly, the veil suggests white people’s deficiency or inability in seeing African Americans as “true” U.S.-Americans. And lastly, the veil refers to black peoples’ difficulty under a racist system to see themselves apart from how white U.S.-Americans define and characterize them.

The veil hanging over African Americans, though, operates like a one-way mirror. They can easily see outward onto white America, and in this way, they develop a “double consciousness.” Though not in the truest sense “bicultural,” they acquire a realization of “otherness.” For emotional and often physical survival, they must learn how to operate in two societies, one black and one white. White people have no such veil wrapped around them, and the mirror makes it difficult for them to perceive the realities of African Americans.

This relative inability of white people to see through the veil was reflected in a Pew Research Study of 1000 people conducted between August 14-17. It found profound racial divisions between African American and white people on attitudes surrounding the police killing of Michael Brown, an unarmed African American teen in Ferguson, Missouri this summer on August 9th.

Among the study’s finding, fully 80% of African Americans compared to 39% of white people stated that the fatal shooting “raises important issues about race.” Conversely, 47% of white people versus 18% of African Americans believe that “race is getting more attention than it deserves.” In addition, 65% of African American and only 33% of white people believe the police response went “too far” in the aftermath of the incident.

Blauner wrote earlier of a United States in which there exists “two languages of race,” one spoken by black people (and by implication, other people of color), the other by white people. By “language,” he refers to a system of meaning attached to social reality, in this instance a “racial language” reflecting a view of the world. This echoes the conclusions of the Kerner Commission report released in 1968 in its study of urban unrest. It stated, in part, that the United States was moving toward two separate societies: one white and one black (though the report left it uncertain where other communities of color fit into this equation).

Many black people and other peoples of color see “race” and racism as salient and central to their reality. Many white people — excluding members of the more race-conscious extremists groups — consider “race” as a peripheral issue, and may even consider racism as a thing of the past, or as aberrations in contemporary U.S. society. Since the 1960s, many people of color have embraced and expanded the definition of “racism” to reflect contemporary realities, while many white people have not.

Although most white people are aware of what Batts terms “old fashioned racism” (taking such forms as enslavement, lynchings, cross burnings, definition of people of color as inferior to whites, legal segregation between the “races,” and others), many white people, asserts Batts, are either unaware of or unwilling to acknowledge the many manifestations of “modern forms of racism” by whites. Batts lists these forms as dysfunctional rescuing, blaming the victim, avoidance of contact, denial of cultural differences, and denial of the political significance of differences.

Can we as a society cut through this vail and begin to know and understand those different from ourselves, to have the ability to walk in the shoes of another, to break down these “us” versus “them” notions that separate? First, we must abolish the denial systems that prevent many of us grasping our social privileges.

Depending on our many social identities, we are simultaneously granted certain societal privileges and socially marginalized based solely on these identities. Based on Peggy McIntosh’s pioneering investigations of white and male privilege, we can understand dominant group privilege as constituting a seemingly invisible, unearned, and largely unacknowledged array of benefits accorded to members of dominant groups, with which they often unconsciously walk through life as if effortlessly carrying a knapsack tossed over their shoulders.

This system of benefits confers dominance on certain social identity groups, for example in a U.S. context, males, white people, heterosexuals, Christians, upper socioeconomic classes, temporarily able bodied people, people of a certain age range (young adults through the middle years), and U.S. born, while subordinating and denying these privilege to other groups, for example, females and intersex people, racially minoritized peoples, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, those who do not hold to Christian beliefs, working class and poor people, people with disabilities, young and old people, and non-U.S. born. These systemic inequities are pervasive throughout the society. They are encoded into the individual’s consciousness and woven into the very fabric of our social institutions, resulting in a stratified social order privileging dominant groups while restricting and disempowering subordinated group members.

Another strategy in demolishing the veil is to embrace the notion of critical multiculturalism in our schools and larger society. We must go beyond simply teaching and learning the “feel good” concepts of multiculturalism such as the heroes, the holidays, the food, and the festivals of other cultures. For example, white youth increasingly embrace rap music and hip-hop culture. If it ends here, however, they develop a one-dimensional perspective of the African American experience.

A foundational element in critical multiculturalism includes education for social justice in which the educator’s role is to help prepare future citizens to reconstruct society to better serve the interests of all groups of people, and to transform society toward greater equity for all. The goal is to prepare students in critical skills to analyze institutional and societal inequalities in their own life circumstances and in the lives of others, and to develop skills in taking actions to transform society.

The critical multicultural educational process is not always comfortable and not always neat, but it provides a space for everyone to be heard, to reflect, to engage in critical dialogue, and to enter into a space of understanding, though not always agreement of views and cultures different from one’s own.

Sonia Nieto likens critical multiculturalism to a great tapestry:

“A tapestry is a hand-woven textile. When examined from the back, it may simply appear to be a motley group of threads. But when reversed, the threads work together to depict a picture of structure and beauty. A tapestry also symbolizes, through its knots, broken threads and seeming jumble of colors and patterns on the back, the tensions, conflicts, and dilemmas that a society needs to work out.”

Maybe one day, we white people may escape from our self-imposed hermetically sealed worlds that cut us off from the realities of our neighbors of color, a day when we become fluent in the multiple languages of “race.”

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

August 22nd, 2014 at 7:36 pm

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Letter to Pope Francis on Obliterating the Gender Scripts

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Dear Pope Francis, Your Holiness,

Word is out that you are intending to travel to the United States in September 2015 to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where you will speak at that city’s commemoration of World Family Day. Your arrival here has sparked excitement by United States Catholics and non-Catholics alike who have been encouraged by your efforts to reform and to heal the Church from past policies and actions that have had the effort of turning people away from what has been viewed by many as misinterpretations of scripture and as a massive covering over of sexual abuses.

As a non-Catholic myself, I hope during your talk in Philadelphia you will discuss an inclusive concept of “family” by acknowledging diversity in terms of human sexuality, gender expression, and the multidimensional varieties of human relationships. Unfortunately, your predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, in my estimation, failed in this regard.

For example, in January 2011, Pope Benedict XVI delivered a New Year’s speech to diplomats from approximately 180 countries, declaring that marriage for same-sex couples “threatens human dignity and the future of humanity itself,” and in 2008, during Benedict’s end-of-the-year Vatican address, he asserted that humanity needs to “listen to the language of creation” to realize the intended roles of man and woman. He warned of the “blurring” of the natural distinctions between males and females, and called for humanity to protect itself from self-destruction. The Pope compared behavior beyond traditional heterosexual relations as “a destruction of God’s work.”

Though extreme in his language and tone, Pope Benedict XVI promotes what most of us have been very consciously and carefully taught throughout our lives. Gender roles (sometimes called “sex role”) include the set of socially-defined roles and behaviors assigned to the sex we are assigned at birth. This can and does vary from culture to culture. Our society recognizes basically two distinct gender roles. One is the “masculine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to males. The other is the “feminine,” having the qualities and characteristics attributed to females. A third gender role, rarely condoned in our society, at least for those assigned “male” at birth, is “androgyny” combining assumed male (andro) and female (gyne) qualities.

A fairly simple way to remember the differences between “sex” and “gender” is to consider “sex” as a noun and “gender” as a verb (a repeated action). According to social theorist Judith Butler in her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity, “The act that one does, the act that one performs, is, in a sense, an act that has been going on before one arrived on the scene. Hence, gender is an act, which has been rehearsed, much as a script survives the particular actors who make use of it, but which requires individual actors in order to be actualized and reproduced as reality once again.”

This all conjures up images of the Hollywood movie “The Truman Show” starring Jim Carrey in the lead role as Truman Burbank. The film documents a man who for most of his life remains unaware that he lives within a human-made artificial set of a reality television show, broadcast 24 hours a day to billions of people around the world. The show’s executive producer and director, Christof, placed Truman at birth in the fictitious town of Seahaven, and he manipulates every aspect of his life. (I will leave it up to you to analyze why the director of this farce has been given the name “Christof.”)

To dissuade Truman from exploring past the limits of the constructed set, Christof pretends to kill Truman’s father in a fabricated storm to teach him to fear the water. In addition, actors playing the part of TV news reporters warn of the dangers of travel, and promote the benefits of staying home. However, stemming from some unforeseen glitches in the scenery and unexplained and habitual coincidences in the placement of the actors around him, Truman becomes suspicions until he discovers the truth about the artificiality, manipulation, and control Christof has perpetrated on him for the past 30 years. Truman eventually outwitted Christof and escaped the fabricated set.

Pope Benedict XVI, with his immense power to influence and impact literally billions of people worldwide served as an extreme and fanatical example of a director in the larger coercive societal battalions bent on destroying all signs of gender transgressions in young and old alike, and in the maintenance of gender scripts. Most of us function as conscious and unconscious co-directors in this drama each time we enforce gender conformity onto others, and each time we relegate our critical consciousness by failing to rewrite or destroy the scripts in ways that operate integrally for us.

Those who bully often fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing the socially-constructed scripts handed them when they entered the play of life. Imagine you are a young person on the elementary school playground. There you see a young person assigned “female” at birth who wears her hair short and cropped. She wears jeans and a T-shirt, and plays rough and tumble games with the boys. She loves to climb trees, and comes home with torn and dirty clothing. Up to a certain age, this may be taken as “acceptable” within her gender script as currently written. However, as she ages, possibly by the time she reaches her teen years, her peers and adults direct her to “grow out of this stage,” and label her with various terms.

Originally, when she was younger, people may have called her one of the most common labels, “tomboy,” but as she ages, others more often begin calling her “dyke” or “lezzy,” regardless of her actual emerging sexual identity. Basically, because others perceive her as not conforming to her “feminine” gender role, they call her sexuality into question. In so doing, they attempt to ensure that she performs her role as written. In actuality, this direction functions as the basis in the establishment and maintenance of a patriarchal system of domination, control, and oppression.

Now imagine you are standing on that same elementary schoolyard. You witness a young person assigned “male” at birth who likes to jump rope with the girls, and who prefers not to join in sports activities with the boys. Recently he began learning to play the violin, and he wants one day to perform in a symphony orchestra. When other students call him names like “sissy, “fag,” “momma’s boy,” and “queer” because they perceive him as not reciting his gender script properly, he often cries and isolates from other students. Again, because he does not conform to his expected “masculine” gender role, his peers and adults taunt, harass, and abuse him equating the ways he expresses his gender by questioning his assumed sexuality. In so doing, they are attempting to ensure that he conforms to his requisite gender script, which is the basis of sexism and the operative apparatus maintaining a patriarchal system of male domination.

Pope Francis, I ask that you please teach in your ministry that we must relegate certain words (in all their linguistic variations, languages, and dialects) related to human sexuality and gender expression to the trash heaps of history, words that marginalize, stereotype, separate, limit, and justify oppression, words like “Born Out of Wedlock,” “Illegitimate Child,” “Bastard,” “Artificial Insemination,” “‘Normal’ or ‘Natural’ Sexuality & Gender Identity and Expression,” “Regular Guy,” “‘Alternative’ Sexuality & Gender Identity,” “Red Blooded American,” “Trying to ‘Pass’ as Another Sex,” “Homosexual,” “Homosexual Lifestyle,” “Alternative Lifestyle,” “Gay Agenda,” “Homosexual Choice,” “Chosen Lifestyle,” “Fence Sitters” (bisexuals), “Hermaphrodite” (rather “Intersex”), “Just Confused,” “Just a Stage You’re Going Through,” “You’re Too Young to Know,” “They’re Just Rebelling,” “We Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner,” “Old Maid,” “Maiden Name,” “Confirmed Bachelor,” “None of Those People Are Here,” “Pre-Marital Sex,” “Losing Your Virginity” (rather “Sexual Debut”), “Pre-op” & “Post-op,” “Sexual Reassignment Surgery” (rather “Gender Confirmation”), “Grow Some Balls,” “Man Up,” “Wimp,” “Tomboy,” “Straight Acting,” “Sexual Preference” (rather “Sexual Identity”), “Same-Sex Marriage/“Same-Gender Marriage”/“Gay Marriage” (instead: “Marriage for Same-Sex Couples”), “Act Like a Lady,” “Act Like a Gentleman,” “Speak Man to Man,” “Girly Girl,” “That’s so Gay,” and I could continue ad infinitum. (Please forgive me for all those I left out.)

Each time we rewrite the scripts to give an honest and true performance of life, each time we work toward lifting the ban against our transcending and obliterating the gender status quo by continually questioning and challenging standard conceptualization of gender, only then will we begin as individuals and as a world community to experience what Truman experienced after he lifted himself from the manufactured dome of artificiality. He felt the warmth and brightness of a true sun, and the coolness and wetness of actual rain.

Pope Francis, you too possess immense power to influence and impact literally billions of people worldwide. I hope that you continue to use this power for good in bringing people together and in healing.

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 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

August 15th, 2014 at 3:25 pm

Posted in Uncategorized