Fighting Everyday Bigotry Answering Uncomfortable Questions

I live in the Bible Belt, so that means I’m used to hearing some rather conservative views on family life from my students.  I once had a student write an essay claiming that all creation myths except Genesis were completely false because they weren’t in the Bible.  This kind of extreme thinking shocks a few of my friends who don’t live here.  The truth is, I was more shocked by the fact that she completely missed the entire point of having the students read the myths in the first place. 

I reacted mildly (although I did fail the paper, for what should be obvious reasons) because I’ve spent my life as a religious outsider in a place where Evangelical Christianity is the standard religious practice.  I’m used to the arguments most people make when it comes up, and I’m also used to directing discussions toward issues of tolerance and acceptance when it pops up in the classroom. 

 Yesterday, though, was one of those moments when the students got so upset that the room devolved into chaos for about ten minutes. It was all I could do to get the students to calm down.  

They are writing essays about culture.  I have a student who is writing about how American culture values “freedom of choice.”  One of her examples was marriage, in which she listed ways in which Americans have the right to make their own decisions about who to marry or how to marry.  She used the availability of same-sex marriage (in some places in the U.S.) as evidence.   So far, so good, right? 

When I put the example on the board in my afternoon class, most of the students in the classroom gasped and hissed at me.  “That’s against God!”  one student insisted.  “That’s illegal!” another called out. I  heard “that’s completely disgusting!” from somewhere. Several insisted that I erase the phrase from the board.

I refused.  “First of all,” I said, “Same-sex marriage is legal in some places in this country. The marriages aren’t recognized by other states, but it is legal in the states that allow it. It does represent the ability to choose who we marry. It’s a good example.” 

“But we don’t even want to look at it! It’s against the Bible!”  One young man was completely adamant.  I had to struggle to calm him down to explain that he was getting off the point. The point was that it is legal in some places. “And besides,” I said, “You can’t deny that something exists just because you don’t like it or you are opposed to it.” 

He looked straight at me and said, “So how do you feel about same-sex marriage?” 

I hate this moment. This isn’t the point of my classes and I try very hard to avoid ever putting too much of my own opinion into the discussion. I simply try to introduce students to news ideas in an objective way.   I sighed.  I said, “I won’t tell you my exact stance. I will tell you this, however.  I don’t believe in judging people. That isn’t my place.  I try to give people the benefit of the doubt until they give me a reason to behave otherwise.  It’s not my place to tell someone else what to be or how to live.” 

A girl in the front row said, “But it is against God. Don’t you believe in God?” 

I really didn’t want to answer this question.  “If you really want to know how I feel about God, I think it is God’s job to judge other people, not mine.” 

At that point, a few other students jumped in to try to calm down the hysterical contingent.  It didn’t work very well.  We ended the class period with me having to almost yell, “Bring your novel next time!” 

I try to remain objective in the classroom because of this very philosophy about letting God do the judging. I don’t have anything against Christianity specifically; I was raised in the same religious environment as most of my students. I sincerely feel that all world views ought to be given respect. 

This little exchange, though, made me realize that if I don’t act as an advocate for tolerance and equality that some of my students may never have to even consider the idea, especially if they won’t even look at the phrase “same-sex marriage” on the whiteboard.  Even in a society as pluralistic as ours, it doesn’t take much for a person to retreat into a cocoon of hateful ideas.  

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