Friday, August 12, 2011

The sound you hear...

 my hand slapping my forehead.

I came across a petition today, via a Facebook page, which leaves me unable to decide if I should laugh or cry'. It states:
"In this horrific age of LGBT kids taking their own lives, they need to know that they ARE BEAUTIFUL and their lives are worth living. Aside from those that are committing suicide, the bullies that facilitate these tragedies need to learn that homophobia is NOT okay. They need to know that acceptance of their fellow human beings would indeed plant a seed of peace that will reverberate throughout the world. We are not asking that Sesame Street do anything crude or disrespectful. Only that they allow Bert & Ernie to marry or even add a transgender character to the show. It can be done in a tasteful way. Let us teach tolerance of those that are different."

I hope that sound I hear is your hand slapping your forehead.

I didn't grow up with Sesame Street (yes, I'm that old*). It appeared on my horizon when I was about fifteen. I very occasionally watched it with kids when I babysat and, young as I was, I realized I was in the presence of greatness. The show was unlike anything I had ever seen. It treated kids like people with their own ideas and with a valued perspective in the world. Generally, that wasn't something I was used to seeing. Sesame Street celebrated all that was wondrous about a child-like mentality, without patronising... and the songs were catchy! Not having regularly watched the show, I am still able to laugh like The Count, sing Rubber Ducky in its entirety, and 'grouchy' has a depth of meaning in my mind nobody could guess at.

Yet, I am now SO GLAD my daughter has never seen Sesame Street. And it's not because I think the producers would necessarily 'go there' at this point but because, given enough time and distance from the creation of the show, I can see how they certainly could. If the petitioner's Facebook wall is anything to go by, that time isn't as far off as I would like, and I don't want her anywhere near the possibility.

Sesame Street is aimed at children under the age of six. At this age developmentally, children are barely distinguishing between boys and girls other than to sometimes note a slight difference in anatomy. They aren't concerned with gender, sexual orientation, or marriage. A girl is likely to say 'I want to marry my mom' when I grow up. Boys are likely to want to wear barrettes and dresses like the older sister they idolize. I've seen little boys at this age pretend to have babies and breastfeed, and little girls pretend to pee with their 'penis'. At the risk of being accused of over-simplification, but for the purpose of clarity regarding what I mean, parents overly anxious to 'fix' their daughter will react by stuffing their tomboy into dresses, and will push her to play with dolls. Parents overly anxious to demonstrate their enlightenment will begin 'encouraging' their boy to wear dresses all of the time if that's what he wants and, lest they appear bigoted, will get rid of the 'boy toys'. Unfortunately either an attempt to 'fix' or 'encourage' would be a gross over-reaction, and is harmful to the child in question. Instances of child behaviour such as these are not signs of significance regarding gender or sexual orientation, they are simply signs of the gender/sexual neutrality and accepting nature of preschool children.

In her preschool years, my daughter would regularly say things like, "When I grow up I want to be a boy." "When I grow up I'm going to marry Tony (our cat)." "Mom, when can I get a penis?" Lo and behold, a couple of more years have passed and she would now wear a dress and high heels on the soccer field if we would let her, is 'in love' with a boy in the other grade one class who tragically doesn't love her back, and is going to be a fire fighter when she grows up.... and I don't rejoice over, nor do I take these assertions and self-expressions any more seriously than I did the previous ones. I'm still waiting for who she will be forever to emerge... and I will love her through it all and beyond. What I won't do is confuse her with a false sense of choice before it is psychologically and emotionally necessary... and while I encourage her self-expression on every level, I also gently challenge it with the balancing perspective, and through the filter of our faith and the teachings of the Church.

We live too much in a world that has become overly comfortable with pushing adult agendas on children before they are developmentally and psychologically ready to cope with them, or able to internalize them in a healthy way (Toddlers & Tiaras, anyone?). By nature preschool children are already free of judgement, and we are doing them harm by introducing them to, or inviting them to participate in, agendas that wouldn't even occur to them, and are likely to confuse them (why are we making such a big deal out of something that is perfectly obvious to them?).

Going out of our way to disseminate ideas of SSA (Same Sex Attraction) and 'gay rights' at such an innocent and vulnerable age (because Ernie and Bert marrying will inspire questions and thus discussion), is to plant the germ of a seed in children's minds which suggests that gender and sexual orientation are something they can eventually choose (as opposed to discover in themselves). The resulting risk is that they never becoming all they are created to be. I believe it is exactly this which creates difficulties for LGBT kids... they are now growing up in a climate that celebrates their developmental confusion (anything goes... sexuality is completely divorced from responsibility and integrity), rather than within a climate which provides a firm and loving foundation upon which they can constructively struggle. Accepting anything a child presents without question is to imply their questioning doesn't matter... when they instinctively know that it is a big deal. LGBT kids are often indirectly told that their 'orientation' doesn't matter, or that it matters more than their dignity and value as a human being, because everyone around them is either so excited about celebrating diversity, or they are trying to fix them without compassion or respect for the struggle. This would be a cause for depression in anyone, let alone a young and impressionable soul.

And please, don't put words into my mouth... I'm not in any way suggesting that external influences can 'make' a child 'gay'. I'm simply suggesting that irrespective of respect for the dignity of all people, there is a tendency in the minds of many young people today to divorce 'sexual orientation' from sexual expression... they believe it's just fine to 'scratch the itch' with anyone, any time, any place... it's no big deal. Creating an environment where they never have to sort out their inherent developmental confusion because 'it's all good' is as detrimental as is creating an envirment where judgement is feared. In both we are preventing them from ever being fully formed as human beings.

I don’t see this petition as so much a desire to “teach tolerance of those that are different” as it is an attempt to force pandering to a special interest audience (maybe it’s the cynic in me)... and here I'm referring to the parents, not the children. Additionally, bullying is a power issue not a sexual orientation issue, so tolerance of LGBT individuals has little to do with it.  Bullying has more to do with the issues of the bullier, than it does with those being bullied. The petition is confusing two very separate issues.

LGBT kids do need to know that they ARE BEAUTIFUL and their lives are worth living, but this is a wrong-headed approach, and absolutely the wrong platform… and they and other kids (bullies included) don’t need to see more LGBT characters on TV to learn that personhood and dignity are non-negotiable. I don’t need to condone the LGBT lifestyle to love and treat with dignity those who live it and struggle with SSA.

Rather than pandering to special interest agendas, shows for children need to raise the bar… many seem to have lost the wisdom in allowing that if they were to simply espouse the inherent dignity in being human first and foremost, there would be no need to solve all the world’s problems and shape children's characters through specific 'needs' programming. The former charm of Sesame Street, in my opinion, was not it's 'true to life' programming, but it’s ability to teach and witness to values and life without getting mired in the details. The focus needs to be on valuing what we all share in common, and the source of our dignity, not ‘tolerance’ (I actually find this word offensive, trivializing and limiting) for the endless enumeration of characteristics which make any one of us ‘other’ or different or vulnerable.

So, even if Ernie and Bert were gay** (I seriously doubt that was part of the original conceptualization of the characters over 40 years ago)… that isn’t why we love them, or why they draw us into their lives... it’s because they are human and universal FIRST. Ernie and Bert teach more than tolerance... they teach humanity and dignity.***

In the words of a blogger I admire greatly, Steve Gershom:
  • Being gay doesn't mean I'm special or extraordinary
  • Nobody lives without a burden of one kind or another
  • Is it hard to be gay and Catholic? Yes, because like everybody, I sometimes want things that are not good for me. The Church doesn't let me have those things, not because she's mean, but because she's a good mother.
  • I try to make my life a satisfactory answer, to this question and to others: What are people for? What is love, and what does it look like? How do we get past our own selfishness so we can love God and our neighbours and ourselves?
Isn't this what LGBT kids really need... to understand that their sexual orientation isn't the most important quality or characteristic for which they are valued? Don't they need to know they are FIRST amazingly human and universal? Isn't this what we all need (bullies and bullied included)?

...until the next dance!

* I actually came to the realization a couple of weeks ago that I predate Kleenex.

** "Bert and Ernie are best friends. They were created to teach preschoolers that people can be good friends with those who are very different from themselves. Even though they are identified as male characters and possess many human traits and characteristics...they remain puppets, and do not have a sexual orientation."

*** Incidentally, I believe this is where the 'gay pride' movement also misses the mark... they've set the bar too low and made the issue sexual orientation, rather than making it dignity and personhood.

'I'm a Man' an interview with Faith and Family Live!

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