Today’s message is about change and hope.
When I was in 5th grade–when dinosaurs roamed the earth–my family moved and I started at a new school. Right at the beginning, some of the kids drew me aside and told me two things. First, I shouldn’t play with a girl named Nancy because she was dirty and she smelled. And second, I shouldn’t play with a boy named Todd because he was gay.
I remember being faintly bewildered by these instructions. I had no idea what “gay” meant (this was 1976). And Nancy seemed clean enough to me. It didn’t dawn on me until some years later that Nancy was the only African American kid in the class. As for Todd, he’d had an early growth spurt. He was tall, slightly pudgy, and awkward.
I eventually became friends with Nancy, who turned out to be a quiet, smart girl with a great sense of humor. Todd moved away.
Now, I’m not stupid. I know prejudice hasn’t magically disappeared over the past decades. But I’m pretty sure things are getting better.
This weekend my 13-year-old daughter had a friend over. They were watching Merlin and cooing over how cuuuuuuute Arthur and Merlin were together and Look how that hill behind them totally looks like a heart! When I was a teenager, none of us spent our sleepovers shipping m/m.
And yesterday my 9-year-old announced that there would be no school today because of MLK’s birthday. And MLK, she explained, was a man who fought for equal justice. Because people used to have to use different bathrooms or sit at the back of the bus because of the color of their skin, and duhhh! Everyone’s created equal.
Last year, both of my kids raged at the injustice that their aunt couldn’t legally marry her girlfriend. How stupid! said the younger one. You’re supposed to be able to get married if you love each other.
I live in a conservative part of California (a very red pocket in a blue state), and I teach a university class where we talk about prejudice. We start out discussing the history of racial and ethnic prejudice in this country, then talk about religious bias. My students are ethnically and religiously diverse. About half of them are immigrants or the children of immigrants. They’ve often experienced these biases themselves and they feel passionately that they’re wrong. Then we turn to homophobia. I begin with a thought experiment: I ask the straight men in the class to imagine they’re at a bar and a woman who’s totally not their type hits on them. What do they do? The guys laugh. Some say they’d be flattered. Some of them say if it’s late enough, they’ll buy her a drink. Some say they’ll see if she’ll buy them a drink.
Okay, I say. Now suppose you’re at that bar and a guy hits on you. What do you do?
Here’s where it gets interesting. The guys used to make horrible noises. Some of them looked angry. A few of them even admitted they might hit the man, or at least call him names. Several said they’d be really upset that someone thought they were gay.
But I’ve been teaching that class for 18 years now, and in recent years I’ve been getting very different reactions. Now, most of the guys shrug and say they’d tell him they weren’t interested. Several say they’d be flattered. Some say they’d see if they can get a free drink out of him.
I think this is progress.
I know plenty of people are still treated like Nancy and Todd were. As I said, prejudice is a subject I study academically, and it’s also something I’ve experienced personally. I’ve heard plenty of stories from my students too–like the kid who came to that class one day with a swollen black eye and the aftermath of a concussion because he and his boyfriend had been jumped outside a gay bar.
But you know what? I hope things are getting better.