Last week, I covered the first round of forums in the Pikes Peak Community College Civil Discourse Series, “Talking About Culture,” for The Paper.
As a reporter, I’m obliged to leave my commentary out of the story, and much of the material I gathered at the forums, from students and faculty alike, did not make the final story after editing, so I thought I’d write my own reflection on the event here.
First, I want to address the remarks Lucas Holland made at the Rampart forum on people choosing to be LGBTQ.
I used to think like Holland. I grew up in a conservative, Christian household. I went to church most Sundays, where I often heard pastors preach the same talking points about people becoming gay because of childhood trauma. I might have known a couple gay people in high school, but I was never close to them, so it was easy for me to believe the argument the pastor was pushing.
Then, years later, one of my closest Ranger buddies in the Army came out to me and a few others as gay.
I served in 2nd Ranger Battalion – a bunch of 18-to-24-year-old, hyper-masculine, type-A-personality males. These men throw around ruthless, berating, and demeaning jokes about homosexuals, women, and all things feminine all day as if it were casual dialogue – it’s just the culture there.
My buddy couldn’t have enjoyed it. No one would want to be talked about like that. No one would choose it. If my buddy could have just chosen to be straight so he wouldn’t have to hide his pain and anger every time he heard the word faggot, I’m sure he would have.
So, awkward as it was, I asked my Ranger buddy if he felt he was always gay or if it was a choice he made. His reply stopped me dead in my tracks.
“When did you choose to be straight?” he said.
And I wish I would have asked Holland the same question.
I realized then that people do not choose their sexual orientation any more than they choose to be left-handed or right-handed.
Seeing LGBTQ people as victims of trauma assumes they somehow need to be healed, that they somehow need to be fixed – as if they were alcoholics or drug addicts. It is insensitive, demeaning, and divisive. It makes them into a category of “Others,” a category of sub-humans.
The United States has a long history of creating groups of “Others” to demonize, scapegoat, and exploit, going back to its European colonial roots, which was the main focus of the Centennial forum.
The Native Americans were called savages and heathens by the first colonists, who justified their slaughter as “God’s work.” American revolutionary Thomas Paine demonized the English king in Common Sense by comparing him to the Catholic Pope and claiming Jews and Muslims created kings to rile the ignorant lower classes into revolt. America’s racist slavery system remained until the Civil War’s end in 1865, and Jim Crow lasted another one hundred years. The Irish became the immigrant scapegoat of choice in the mid-19th century, followed by the Chinese in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Even Italians used to be considered one of the “black” races according to US immigration law, until Italian Americans made the case that Christopher Columbus was Italian and, therefore, part of America’s origin story.
J’Amie Sirvaitis, a history major, and I had a great conversation about how much of our racial division in America comes from our inability to honestly confront our history, especially in K-12 education. He said so much of our history, from slavery and the Civil War to Jim Crow the Civil Rights Movement, is “whitewashed” and not given the attention it deserves in early education.
At the Downtown forum, Alex Malone, coordinator of High Impact Practices at PPCC, said he had read about a history textbook in Texas being changed to refer to slaves as “unpaid laborers,” exemplifying Sirvaitis’s point.
Professor Amy Cornish made a similar comment at the Downtown forum. When she taught in K-12, she was not allowed to discuss race and racism with her sixth graders, because it was too sensitive a subject.
Personally, I think policies like that do children a disservice. If kids do not talk about race in school, they’ll get their ideas about race from somewhere else – friends, family, media, etc. Considering the power of media on influencing perceptions of race, as clearly demonstrated by Kimberly McCabe’s comments in the story, it is quite imprudent not to counter that influence with rational, informed discussion in the classroom. Students should not have to go to college before they learn there is in fact no biological justification at all for the concept of race.
Furthermore, why the concept was developed has to be part of the conversation. Why do we create Others to scapegoat, subjugate, and exploit?
True, much of it is to blame on simple human ignorance and xenophobia, but propaganda and profit also play a large role.
Many of the first settlers of the American colonies were poor Englishmen who would sell themselves into indentured servitude for a number of years to pay for the voyage across the Atlantic. At the end of their servitude, they were promised their own plot of land. However, it became a common practice of the Virginia colonial government to prosecute these servants for absurd crimes in order to extend their sentences and exploit them for more free labor. When a group of these white indentured servants and African slaves, led by Nathaniel Bacon, rose up in rebellion against the government of Virginia, the governor stole more land from Native Americans to appease them.
Bacon’s Rebellion set a precedent in American policy that continues to this day, at home and abroad.
The governor of Virginia in 1676 would rather kill and steal from the Natives than quarrel with his own lower classes, just as the US government today would rather violate their treaty with the Standing Rock Sioux and force the Dakota Access Pipeline through their reservation than put it across farms owned by white North Dakotans or face a lawsuit from Energy Transfer Partners for shutting the project down. Likewise, the US government would rather overthrow Hussein in Iraq and Ghaddafi in Libya before they stop trading their oil in US dollars, killing millions and destabilizing the entire Middle East, than face an American public up in arms over high gas prices at home.
Someone always profits from dividing up the population and pitting one group against another – the wealthy and powerful – and that aspect went largely unaddressed at the Civil Discourse forums.
The taxes the British imposed on the American colonies which led the Sons of Liberty to rile the lower classes into revolt only affected the wealthiest American colonists. Wealthy plantation owners benefitted from maintaining slavery into the mid-19th century. American steel tycoons benefitted by demonizing the Irish and forcing them to build their railroads for low pay under horrific conditions. Then, those same tycoons later accepted the Irish and turned their propaganda on the Chinese – the new wave of cheap immigrant labor. In World War One, Woodrow Wilson created the Committee on Public Information to pump out war propaganda demonizing the Germans as “huns” and “barbarians,” riling the public into a belligerent, nationalist hysteria, all to protect the investments of Wall Street bankers and American industrialists in the European arms races. And the examples go on and on.
If we are to truly heal the cultural divisions within American society – racial, ethnic or otherwise – we have to understand that those divisions were not simply the result of ignorance and xenophobia, but that they have also been intentionally engineered by those in power seeking to exploit us.
There is plenty of historical evidence to suggest that people are more likely to unite when they have a common enemy than out of feelings of love, sympathy, and good will. And while I understand PPCC’s aim is not to start a revolution, calling out that common enemy seeking to divide us will help us realize that are all in the same fight together – that hating “the Others” only plays into that enemy’s hands, only aids in our own exploitation.