By Dawn Wolfe
Last year, I was a graduate assistant teaching Freshman English at a rural college in Ohio. And I mean rural – there was a corn field about two city blocks from my apartment, and in fact the school, and the town that has grown around it, are surrounded by miles of ears.
Not necessarily the best place for a bisexual shamanic practitioner from metro Detroit, or so I thought.
My first semester as a teacher seemed to confirm my prejudices, as students wrote papers attempting to prove that all unmarried parents should have to wed, and citing the Bible – not as a literary source, but as a factual one.
But it was my second semester that held both the biggest challenge, and the most pleasant surprise.
As part of my efforts to help my students become more comfortable expressing themselves in print, I assigned a weekly personal journal, with topics to be chosen by the class. We would then take about fifteen minutes each week to discuss what we had written.
One week, one of my students asked if we could write about “gay marriage.” No one in the class objected to the topic, so with some anxiety I okayed it.
At the appointed time, I began our discussion by giving what I thought was an explicit talk about hate speech, about expressing one’s opinion without making others’ wrong. More the fool I, because the discussion went along nicely until I called on the one nontraditional student in the class. “Betty” was roughly in her 50’s, and I always made it a point to call on her as a way to help her feel included with peers who were thirty or more years her junior.
“I think that the fags that want this are sick, and the people who agree with them are sick, too. That’s what Scripture says, and I agree with Scripture,” she read from her paper.
So much for all of my fine words about not making the other person wrong.
I was dumbfounded, flabbergasted, mentally pinned to the floor. In my lifetime, I had known that people like Betty existed, but had the good fortune to never actually meet one. I confronted Betty as best as I could, given my combined inner reaction of shock and killing rage, and our discussion continued.
Chalk up one huge learning experience for an inexperienced teacher, I thought, and assumed the experience was over.
I was wrong.
The student who had first suggested the topic wrote a letter to the school paper, protesting hate speech in all its forms and taking me to task for not responding strongly enough. Believe it or not, I cheered her, both privately and the next time she and I met. Not just because she was correct, but because, before my class, she told me she would never have felt sufficiently comfortable expressing herself in a public letter.
That student took the first brave step; next it was my turn. The next week in class, I began by talking explicitly about the many varieties of hate speech, and why words that slur people’s sexual orientation are just as offensive, even “evil,” as words that slur others because of their race or religion. I never mentioned Betty’s name once.
But the best part was yet to come, because when the next papers were due, I received at least three – out of a class of only twenty-some students – arguing that people of the same gender ought to be allowed full marriage rights.
At the same time, Betty continued to interact with the class as she had before. I’d like to think that she learned something from the experience, if only to express herself more appropriately.
I know I learned several things – about my assumptions about others, as well as better ways to deal with hate speech when I hear it again.
I had assumed that my cow-town students would all have cow-town prejudices, but with a few notable exceptions learned that the reverse was actually true. This has taught me to reach out to the person first and evaluate the actual reaction I receive, rather than make an assumption and write that person off without even making the attempt. I believe that this lesson may have applications for the LGBT movement as a whole, given that we simply must reach out beyond our traditional base to turn our human equality into social and legal equality.
And, while my initial response to Betty was inadequate due to my own inner reactions to her words, I believe that by the next week I’d learned a method of dealing with hate speech without further entrenching the hate, by expressing condemnation of an attitude without condemning the person who holds that attitude. Because, who knows? – Betty may change her mind. I’ve seen attitudes more entrenched than hers change radically, and quickly. At the very least, though, I managed not to give her an actual reason to hate.
And this may, in the end, be the biggest lesson. Because we will win this struggle for our full equality, but how we treat the “losers” – the Bettys of the world – along the way may well determine not only how quickly we win, but how much of our own humanity we retain along the way.