…and we couldn’t be happier for her.
As everyone surely knows by now, what we had been hearing from several people in the Sugarland Elementary community turned out to be true: the complainant Sherrie Sawyer has no children enrolled at that school, hence the entire challenge process was invalid. Kudos to Superintendent Hatrick for recognizing that the mishandling of this incident was causing damage to the credibility of the school system, and acting to void the decision.
Having said that, I will repeat what I said earlier: Regardless of the standing of the complainant and the other procedural matters, the decision to remove And Tango Makes Three from general circulation was wrong on the merits.
Dr. Hatrick, in the remarks he read into the record late last month, tried to provide insight into the thinking behind his decision. Some critics in the community have assumed that he must, like the complainant, have been driven by ideology to reach the conclusion he did. I think that his remarks show this not to be the case. He is not an ideologue, and genuinely tried to find a good solution. I think that his error, in an admirable effort to be “fair,” was in his treatment of ideological criteria as comparable to legitimate pedagogical criteria.
Here is why I say that. Included among the background facts that he considered in reaching a decision that he describes as “51-49 at best” is this:
The book has already been the subject of considerable controversy across America, whether it has been removed from library shelves or allowed to remain. It has been described as the most banned book in America. I knew that whatever decision I made would be open to considerable challenge.
This is an example of allowing a false equivalency to be created between two groups that are not equivalent; those who support access to a diversity of viewpoints including ones with which they disagree, and those who desire to restrict access to only the viewpoint with which they agree. There is currently a unfortunate notion in the field of journalism that the truth can be found in the “middle ground” between two opposing sides of an argument, but that is often not where it is. Just because there is a “controversy” over an idea or aspect of reality does not mean that the objection to it has merit. A person (or group) who wishes to create a controversy can play this game with virtually any topic:
“Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is very controversial!”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes it is!”
“No…it really isn’t.”
“It is, too!”
“It is not.”
“See? I told you it was controversial.”
In the case of Tango and other books to which anti-gay ideologues have an objection, this circular argument is the formula: The “controversy” is created using the vehicle of a book challenge policy; the fact that the book has been challenged, as we see here, is then used as justification for objecting to it.
There can be no question that the objections to Tango are purely ideological. All of the negative comments about the book have been about the ideas it contains, nothing more. If there is a legitimate objection to the book that doesn’t amount to simple disagreement with the idea that same sex couples can and should be recognized as parents, I have not heard it. While people may freely disagree with this idea and say so, that is not a legitimate reason to restrict access to a book.
Several School Board members noted at the February 26 meeting their hope that the Loudoun community can have a civil conversation about these matters. I agree.
However, a civil conversation can only proceed from the premise that all of those participating in it are equally respected as members of the community and of the human family. Unfortunately, what I have heard, from some members of the community and some members of our School Board, is that they do not recognize the GLBT members of this community as legitimate and equal partners in this conversation.
I particularly applaud Potomac member John Stevens for speaking to the fact that everyone who is expressing their views on this topic has integrity and good intentions, and that we should all try to see those qualities in each other. He specifically mentioned conversing with Community Levee Association President Chris Stevenson, who spoke at the meeting in support of removing the book. He emphasized that although they may not agree, Mr. Stevenson is a good person and caring member of our community.
I know this to be true. There are not that many people who take the time to be actively involved in civic life, and Mr. Stevenson is one of them. He and I are actually allies on a number of other issues. That is why some of the things he said particularly sadden me.
“There is still no general consensus as to whether same-sex parenting is appropriate in society or not,” he said.
What he seems not to understand is this: “Society” is not considering some sort of theoretical proposition that there be same sex parenting. We, our families, are not an abstract idea. We are members of this community. Our children are in the classrooms of our public schools every day, along with the children of heterosexual couples, single parents, and other family configurations. Not only that, a recent report by the the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network indicates a higher than average level of parental involvement by our community.
LGBT parents are more likely to be involved in their children’s K-12 education than the general parent population. These parents are more involved in school activities and more likely to report consistent communication with school personnel. In addition, both LGBT parents and children of LGBT parents often report harassment because of their family structure.
In addition to policies that can put our children at risk – such as the inability of one parent to sign forms for their child – there are other, insidious forms of harassment and discrimination.
Nearly a quarter (22%) of students said that a teacher, principal or other school staff person had discouraged them from talking about their family at school.
“Don’t talk about your family;” It’s appalling to even consider saying such a thing to a child, but it apparently happens. Our high school drama students were told this three years ago, even by some of our sitting School Board members: That even the acknowledgment of GLBT friends and family members is “an inappropriate topic.” Two of these members, Mr. Geurin and Mr. Guzman, made similarly ignorant and prejudiced remarks at the February 26 meeting. This is exactly the sort of mistreatment of our children that inclusive instructional materials are intended to prevent.
Mr. Stevenson also stated that the presence of the book And Tango Makes Three declares to children that our schools are “in favor of one side of a topic.”
I have to wonder: Does he honestly believe that there are no books in our elementary school libraries that present what he would consider his “side” of this topic, that family should be defined only as a Mommy and Daddy with children? I would imagine that virtually ALL of the other books present this view; and yet, in the face of this overwhelming dominance of his “side,” the presence of a single book that presents another viewpoint is intolerable to him? That is simply stunning to contemplate.
This blindness – and I do not say this to be derogatory or insulting, but it needs to be said – is typical of people whose viewpoint has been granted a position of privilege. The special rights they enjoy are completely invisible to them, so they are prone to making the false claim that equal rights for others are somehow “special.” That, I think, is what we are seeing here.
I am more than happy to engage in civil conversation with those who think the book should be restricted, but – just as our commenting policy for this blog states – the starting point for that conversation can’t be disagreement over whether our families have the right to exist. That’s just not on the table.
The real danger, as John Stevens points out, of giving any credence to this sort of meritless complaint is that it can encourage self-censorship:
Even baseless challenges and reversed decisions can have a chilling effect on freedom of speech in our schools. This event and the words of the Superintendent and the Board will not be far from the minds of our librarians when they select new titles for next year. Our policies call for a selection process designed “to bring students into contact with the human experience and”¦ provide a wide range of materials on appropriate levels with a diversity of appeal and point of view,” and I hope that our librarians and principals will remember this and not be reluctant to challenge our diverse students with diverse library collections in the future.
The decisiveness with which the decision was reversed (librarians were directed, not merely permitted, to return the book to general circulation), and the overwhelming public support for realistic diversity in our library collections should give our education professionals the courage they need to follow that selection policy – and we expect that the revised policy for challenges will not allow this sort of thing to happen again.