Tolerance Shouldn’t be Controversial

A story in today’s New York Times discusses how religious conservatives are angry about new programs designed to put a stop to anti-gay bullying.  From the headline, “Early lessons in tolerance prompt fights over ‘hidden homosexual agenda’,” you can see that the story is about bigots and the people who are fighting against them.  What is this homosexual agenda we hear so much about, anyway?  I’m pretty sure nobody is advocating for universal or even an increase in actual homosexuality; as far as I can tell, this “agenda” is nothing more than tolerance and acceptance.  And this should never be controversial.

If you’ve spent any significant time in a public school in the past…I don’t know, at least 15 years, you’ll recognize that students who are gay, students who have mannerisms that are considered gay, and students who do not fit firmly within expected gender norms are regularly harassed and bullied in schools all over the U.S.  This is a problem that teachers, administrators, some parents and most students have been aware of since I was in middle school back in the late 90’s and early 00’s.  Yet political debates about gay marriage and nondiscrimination statutes prevented the country from taking action for far too long, leading predictably to self-injury and suicide on the part of several students who had been teased and taunted in school.  Recently, the media took notice of this kind of awful behavior when a student at Rutgers jumped off the George Washington Bridge after being caught on tape while he was hooking up with another man.

In response to the recent spate of suicides by students who had been targeted by homophobic bullying, many school districts are instituting long-awaited and desperately needed campaigns for tolerance and acceptance.  The goal here is to prevent or at least limit the amount of anti-gay bullying that goes on in schools through a course of education about gayness and homosexuality.

Ellen Kahn of the Human Rights Campaign said very clearly, “When you talk about two moms or two dads, the idea is to validate the families, not to push a debate about gay marriage.”  There just isn’t any advocating of the “gay lifestyle” as such, which is what analysts at Focus on the Family seem to believe.  It’s such a crazy argument to be having, it seems that some on the side of tolerance aren’t sure how to approach these issues.

One mother, criticizing a new plan in Helena, Montana which would guide teaching about sexuality and tolerance, said blatantly “Anyone who reads this document can see that it promotes acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle,” whatever that might be.  What is a homosexual lifestyle?  Is it characterized by anything other than having sex with someone of the same gender?  I’ve had the privilege of spending time with many people who identify as gay and lesbian, and I haven’t been personally able to discern this distinct “lifestyle” that right wingers constantly point to.

There is a bigger problem revealed here than a few wingnutters who don’t want teh gayz taking over the country.  The New York Times, a respectable institution for journalism, publishes a story with this kind of headline, and readers assume that there are two valid, equally compelling points of view on the subject.

In this week’s episode of Real Time with Bill Maher, he makes this very point about media coverage of the Tea Party and budget issues.  This example of, on the one hand, an agenda of tolerance for all people and, on the other, an agenda of exclusion and discrimination is just the same: the media portrays it as a legitimate debate and tries to find a place for balance in between the two.  In the same way, the media looks for ways to be unbiased in covering tea partiers who advocate cutting taxes and balancing the budget (which are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE!) and Democrats who argue for letting some tax cuts expire and balancing the budget.  There isn’t a middle ground here: one side is right, and the other is absolutely wrong.  That’s it.

Education is about looking at every side of an issue and really trying to understand it, so on that front, I commend the New York Times for highlighting both the push for a more inclusive anti-bullying curriculum and also the resistance to this movement.  Yet, the coverage of this issue can’t responsibly be “unbiased” and balanced, because the two sides just aren’t pushing for equally compelling causes.  This isn’t bias on my part I promise you, it’s just painfully obvious.  Tolerance and exclusion: are these both values we should teach in public schools?  How about acceptance and hatred – are both of those equally valid?

Education is about tolerance and acceptance.  It is not and should never be about exclusion, hatred and bullying.  Simple as that!

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