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Blog: Humanist Voices

In the Feb. 26th Star Tribune conservative commentator Katherine Kersten inadvertently revealed why we need anti-bullying legislation in the state of Minnesota. Designed to close glaring loopholes in current policy in order to stop bullying in schools, the anti-bullying legislation to which she refers couldn't be a more mundane and mechanically pragmatic piece of public policy. (You can read it here.) However, when twisted through Kersten's mentality of paranoid reaction, this transparent and straightforward legislative text becomes a frightening piece of moral subversion enforced by the power of the state, a slippery cover story concocted by big city liberals and sophisticates to hide some sinister true agenda. Her essay ignores honest and straightforward argument in favor of mock alarm and bewilderment designed to light fuses of fear. The State of Minnesota can do better than to listen to voices of fear. In fact, it must, in order to serve justice and fairness for all students.

Kersten writes,

"But a glance at the bill raises troubling questions. Why doesn't it protect all children equally, instead of singling out for favored treatment children of "protected classes," such as race, sexual orientation, and "gender identity and expression"? Why are traditional victims of bullying, like kids who are timid or viewed as nerds, invisible in this bill?"

The first dog whistle is seen right here with "protected classes," redolent, it seems, of the fallacious "special rights" claim made against LGBT people seeking marriage equality: "They can already marry...people of the opposite sex. Why do they need special rights?" -goes the line you've no doubt heard before. Kersten wants readers to believe that the state is creating a special class of people with special rights that other students don't enjoy. Actually reading the bill dispels any such notion, but she might be counting on her supporters to not do so.

I counted this list of categories appearing three times in the bill:

4.14 - 4.19: "...relates to the actual or perceived race, ethnicity, color, creed, religion, national origin, immigration status, sex, age, marital status, familial status, socioeconomic status, physical appearance, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, academic status, disability, or status with regard to public assistance, age, or any additional characteristic defined in chapter 363A of a person or of a person with whom that person associates, but the conduct does not rise to the level of harassment."

She refers to kids who are "timid or viewed as nerds" as being "invisible" in this bill. However, note how this contradicts what she writes about a little later:

"Advocates maintain that since our state's current law is only 37 words long, it cannot offer kids real protection. They neglect to point out that the great majority of Minnesota school districts has adopted the Minnesota School Boards Association's six-page model anti-bullying policy, which — while protecting children and including a detailed definition of bullying — gives districts the flexibility they need to address local problems with local resources."

In other words, current policy works, except that it doesn't at the same time. It's adequate when it comes to LGBT students, but inadequate for non-LGBT students. But if it's inadequate for non-LGBT students, then presumably this must be on the basis of some reason--namely that there is evidence of bullying. But we're supposed to ignore this same evidence of bullying when it comes to LGBT students?

Further, why would Kersten cite the case of timid and nerdy students if her implication wasn't that policy should be strengthened to better protect them? And if such students warranted stronger protection, shouldn't this also apply to LGBT students as well? Apparently not, according to Kersten.

Speaking of religion, note that the bill refers to "religion"--see the quoted text earlier. Naturally, if Kersten mentioned religion in her essay it would undermine her conspiratorial claim that this legislation isn't about stopping bullying but furthering some agenda of "political correctness." If there were some hidden gay or liberal agenda behind the bill, then why does it also insist on preventing bullying on the basis of religious belief?

Asking whether legislation currently on the books is adequate to protect the "timid" and those "viewed as nerds" is a reasonable question, and I don't have the answer for it. But even asking the question compels the reply that evidence of bullying should be guiding policy. And this is precisely the motivating thrust of this bill--the overwhelming evidence that LGBT students have been underserved by current policy.

Kersten writes,

"Astonishingly, the bill does not require parental notification for either students who have been bullied or those accused of bullying."

"Astonishingly"? Although I suspect she knows better, taking Kersten at her stated incredulity, the reason has to do that an estimated 40% of homeless youth are LGBT, kicked out of their homes by bigoted parents, likely the great majority of them religious and for religiously motivated reasons:

"I need to ask my fellow Christians to wake up to the terrible fact that far too many LGBT youth are being abused and rejected in Christian homes," writes the Forney Center's [which houses homeless LGBT youth] executive director, Carl Siciliano. "Many conservative Christians are increasingly preoccupied with fighting against the equal treatment of LGBT people in our society. And no one suffers more harm from this fight and the intolerant climate it creates than the LGBT children of too many of these Christians."

Kicking children to the curb because of non-heterosexual gender attraction gives us a clue as to the depth of hatred, fear and intolerance some religious parents have for LGBT people. It is really so "astonishing" to see why a bullied youth might not want his or her parents to know about a truth he or she can't talk about?

Fortunately, it appears that the bill smartly takes into account the double risk some students face with parents who themselves are bullies.[2]

If Kersten's ostensible astonishment about the lack of a requirement for parental notification is an accurate gauge of her feeling, then she could have asked someone about why there is no requirement of parental notification. After all, she is writing for state's largest newspaper and has some professional obligation to know these things.

If she knows why there is no requirement for parental notification, and we have to assume she does, then it follows that either a) Kersten isn't fully aware of the potentially dangerous repercussions to LGBT youth of intolerant parents, or b) she is aware of this but finds is acceptable because even though abuse, violence, neglect and homelessness may result from some cases of parental discovery, in other cases intolerant religious parents will simply do what Kersten perhaps thinks they should do: Use techniques of religious coercion or deconversion therapy or relentless observation and discipline to hopefully force the gayness out of the young person.

Quoting material from the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, Kersten writes,

"In a safe school, for example, science teachers "acknowledge the gay identity of Francis Bacon (creator of the scientific method)" and art teachers identify the artist Frida Kahlo as bisexual. In math class, students analyze "LGBT demographic trends" — for example, creating charts illustrating the "number of same-sex couples raising children, number of adopted or foster children in LGBT-headed households.""

We are meant to be alarmed by this. It speaks to a popular myth on the right that legitimate academic content is being replaced with political programming.[1] It also signals to the social conservative that the unmentionable might be mentioned--that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer identified people exist, have existed historically, and have made major contributions to society, and they haven't needed to seek forgiveness from a god, turn to Jesus for help, or deny who they were.

And for Kersten this is a problem. It also has been for all the racists and anti-Semites and misogynists and bigots of history. The mind of pre-reflective prejudice, regardless of time or place, continually reinvents or taps into the mechanisms of invisibility. How does this work? Keep the truths of the oppressed Other hidden. Keep out of general awareness their day-to-day toils, sufferings and indignities. Don't let them tell of their experiences, tell them what their experience should be. Don't see them for who they are, see them for what you want them to be. Ignore their totality, and subsume it under the partial renderings of one's own projections. Pick out exceptions of behavior and present them as accurate generalizations.

When you note in a classroom that Francis Bacon was gay or that Frida Kahlo was bisexual, you're directly contradicting the invisibility of LGBT individuals, and you're also cutting off the oxygen the purveyors of invisibility use. When you learn that composers, scientists, novelists, poets, political leaders, and painters can also be gay or lesbian, and that they can have lives no less satisfying than anyone else, you learn that their sexual orientation is just as important to them but no more important to them as it is to heterosexuals. You learn that being gay is being fully human, and that being gay means you can be sufficiently and fully self-possessed of everything needed to live life, to have relationships, to work, play and to love.[2]

What's remarkable about Kersten's apprehension is that it presents her and us with another dilemma. Either Kersten hasn't learned this elementary historical lesson about invisibility, or if she has, she's untroubled by the idea of reproducing it in the schools, thus perpetuating one of the necessary conditions of anti-LGBT exclusion, discrimination, bias, abuse and violence.

Kersten isn't the only one contributing to a climate of irrationality and fear in the state. Not by a long shot. Reporter Andy Birkey writes about a prominent Minnesota Pastor, Rev. Dale Witherington, who recently spoke of a "secret society that has 45 goals to make America into a godless nation and how the safe schools bill, tax increases, unionization of child care and gay marriage all play into that plan." The Rev. also claims that the anti-bullying bill will result in pornography being used as instructional material in the classroom.

Witherington is in good company. Spend a modicum of time on right-wing comment boards online, or anywhere gays get visibility in the media and the public is given the opportunity to comment, and you'll quickly discover a deep murky river of paranoia and conspiracy unmoored from any rational thought process. Kersten's essay only differs in degree.

This legislation may do nothing to address the unreasoning swamp fever of religious and social conservatives when it comes to LGBT equality. But it will hopefully fortify some young people against the outrages the ignorance of their elders inevitably produces.


For a little more historical context about the patterns of discrimination backed by claims of "religious liberty," you might want to read this.



[1] Of course, there's no such thing as value-free or politically neutral education, and whatever values underlie a curriculum necessarily reflect some perspective that has political implications. When that perspective is equality under the law, the burden of proof falls on the political opposition to argue otherwise in terms of universally available knowledge and standards of reasonableness. Opponents of LGBT equality haven't been able to meet that challenge in my view.
[2] (See bill section starting at 5.20 (note 6.7-6.8 "notifying the parent of the reported target of the prohibited conduct")) The key phrase is "at the school administrator's discretion" (6.6)

-Eric Snyder





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