Josie was six when she met Mark and Philly. Was it too soon?
Lynn and her daughter Marian (Josie’s mom) had a conference in Maui. Josie and I tagged along. It was our usual arrangement, me tending to the grandkid while they took care of whatever the business required. Mark and Philly were living on the Big Island in those days. We took a puddle jumper over and stayed with them for a couple of nights. Mark met us at the airport, we had lunch, then swung by to pick up Philly for some sightseeing. Josie’s always been an open and friendly kid, but you’d’ve thought she’d known Philly forever. We stopped at a Quick Mart so he could pick up snacks and bottled water. Josie said, “I’ll go!” and we watched them walk in hand in hand. Mark said wryly, “Looks like your six year old and my six year old are getting along just fine”. Philly was genuinely interested in Josie, no condescension. Treated her like the full human being she was. Some adults have a hard time doing that. Josie recognized a kindred soul.
Mark and Philly had been married seven years by then (I’d been the best man, back in Boston) and together nearly ten years before that. They had a pretty little house on the lower slopes of a dormant volcano. There were feral kittens in the yard and we talked with Josie about what their names might be. One night we all went outside and watched the Perseid meteor shower, an explosion of lights and drama that we’d never be able to see in Alabama. We looked into the caldera of Kilauea and went swimming with the sea turtles at Waikōloa Beach.
I think Philly’d had some sort of high-powered job when I first met him (insurance? finance? something lawyerly? I never paid it much attention), but on Hawai’i he’d settled into early retirement and domesticity. He and Mark had an easy, teasing rapport, the patterned rhythms of two quite different people who’ve been making a life together for a long time; Mark, the entrepreneur, the instigator, the innovator, the adventurer, the social director; Philly, a little shy, perpetually bemused smile, alert to the sensibilities and sensitivities of the people around him. It was easy to be there. They liked having guests, knew how to tend to their comfort without any undue fuss. One night Philly fixed a fabulously elaborate dinner while Josie followed him around, ostensibly helping. He gave her little tasks, praised her, listened to her. She was content, happy, secure and at home. When Mark drove us to the airport, Philly stood on the doorstep sobbing while Josie waved goodbye out the back window snurfling her tears.
A year later (2012), Mike Huckabee organized “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” and Josie’s dad & step-mom (she was spending every other weekend with them) were eager to show their support for the corporation’s anti-marriage equality stance by joining the throngs getting sandwiches. Chick-fil-A was one of Josie's favorites and they offered to take her even though it was mid-week. Marian asked her, “Do you know why they’re having a special day to buy Chick-fil-A?” “Because they love the food?” said Josie, a little puzzled by the question. “No, it’s because they don’t think people like Mark & Philly should be able to get married because they’re both men.”
Josie was shocked. “But they love each other! They belong together!” she sputtered, outraged at the wrongness of it.
She was in 2nd grade. Imagine, if you will, that Alabama’s HB322, signed into law in the spring of 2022, was in place back then. It commands that teachers in kindergarten through fifth grade “shall not engage in classroom discussion ... regarding sexual orientation or gender identity in a manner that is not age appropriate or developmentally appropriate...”
Picture her talking with her friend Troy, expressing her outrage, but to her surprise, Troy says, “Two guys can’t be married! Jesus says so!” “Does not!” says Josie, stung, although now she’s not sure. They go running to the teacher. “Miss Emily!” says Josie. “Troy says my friends Mark and Philly can’t be married, but they love each other!” Troy interrupts. “Tell her it’s bad, Miss Emily! My Dad told me!”
What is poor Miss Emily to do? What can she say that’s “age appropriate or developmentally appropriate”? She’s diligently combed through the Alabama Core Teaching Standards and the Alabama Educator Code of Ethics as instructed by the State Board of Education. No clear guidance there. What she knows very well, however, is that if a parent complains, disciplinary action with the very real possibility of being fired is likely. Perhaps it’s safest to derail the topic entirely. “That’s not something we talk about in school.” Maybe that’s the best she can do. Maybe it’s what she believes anyway.
The kids will talk, of course. They’ll fill in the gaps as best they can, aware they’ve touched on something forbidden and not quite sure what to make of it. Josie’s confused now. Has she done something wrong? How is it possible that her teacher could think there was something wrong about Mark & Philly, something so bad that it can’t even be talked about?
These laws (Alabama’s is based on Florida’s) are billed as protecting parents’ rights, but which parent’s rights being violated now? Marian wants her daughter to grow up to be loving and accepting and supportive of people who are trying to make their way through a complicated world. Doesn’t she have a right to expect the public schools to reinforce this? Why are the rights of the parents who want to shield their children from even knowing about the existence of homosexuality more important and worthy of being enshrined in law than Marian’s?
Was it developmentally inappropriate for Josie to get to know a married gay couple when she was in the first grade? It’s true that this exposure had a big impact on her. Having spent a couple of days in Mark and Philly’s company, for ever after it will be impossible to convince her that there’s something wrong about two men who love each other being married. Is this what the law is trying to prevent? Is this what those parents are afraid of?
“Age Appropriate”. Such a loaded phrase. What does it mean? Educators spend a lot of time examining the research on child development, psychological and physical, to make recommendations about what sorts of material across all subjects is “appropriate” for kids at different ages. But the freaked out parents and the politicians who pander to them aren’t looking at research and they certainly don’t trust education experts. Who knows better than me what’s best for my kid?
The fundamentalist Christian belief train runs something like this: Sex outside of marriage is wrong. Children are impressionable, easily tempted to do the wrong thing. Tell them not to do something and that’s what they’ll want to do. Tell them about sex at all, and about deviant sex in particular, and they’ll want to try it out. It’s the wickedness in their natures. At home, the parent can at least try to control what they hear and see. (For digital natives in 21st century America this is, of course, impossible, but parents have always been good at fooling themselves about the control they have over what their children know).
Is the fear that if a teacher speaks approvingly of a homosexual relationship it will somehow entice the child to become gay? Or is it more insidious – that the teacher secretly wants to turn the kids gay and is seductively nudging them into it. They’re groomers! It’s the homosexual agenda. They can’t have kids of their own so they have to take ours! Groomers are everywhere! (Three years ago, Twitter averaged 940 “groomer” mentions a day; by the time the Governor of Florida signed his version of the bill it was up to 11,000; a week later, 80,000.) Does it seem strange that these parents have so little confidence in their children’s sexuality that they believe the kids can so easily be turned? If you need to try that hard to keep the kids properly rooted in their assigned gender with the proper opposite sex attraction, doesn’t that imply it’s not all that hard-wired to begin with?
There’s a bit of sleight of hand in the way the law is phrased. It seems to say that discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity is allowed, as long as it’s done in an age appropriate or developmentally appropriate way. Isn’t that reasonable? But the people behind the law are more straightforward – Senator Shelnutt, who introduced the amendment, said, “We don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about homosexuality and gender identity in schools, they should be learning about math.” Not appropriate ever. Which keeps the decision making easy and unambiguous.
The only sex education that Alabama’s ever required is that at some point between 5th and 12th grade kids have to be told about HIV/AIDS, presumably for the purpose of terrifying them that sex equals death. Beyond that individual school systems are on their own. Up until 2021 it was required that if there was any sex education it must emphasize abstinence and stress that homosexuality is socially unacceptable and illegal in the state. That latter point has not been true since the Supreme Court ruling in 2003 (Lawrence v. Texas) but the law stayed on the books. The clause about homosexuality was finally removed when the law was revised to require students to use the restrooms of their assigned birth gender. Grandmotherly Kay Ivey, who’d been Lt. Governor before being propelled to the Governor’s chair when the previous occupant was kicked out due to a sex scandal, said, “There are very real challenges facing our young people, especially with today’s societal pressures and modern culture. I believe very strongly that if the Good Lord made you a boy, you are a boy, and if he made you a girl, you are a girl.” It’s that revised law to which Senator Shelnutt attached his amendment.
All of which makes me think I’ve been asking the wrong question. I wanted to understand better what these parents are so afraid of, but maybe that’s not it at all. These parents aren’t just motivated by an irrational fear of what might happen to their darling children, they’re responding to an unquenchable determination to do what’s right. And not just for their kids, but for all kids. For the good of the nation.
The Christianist (Christian nationalist) tendency has always been strong in this country, particularly here in the South, but it is now in the ascendent nationwide, more overt than ever. Here’s Colorado Representative Boebert, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk. ... The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church. That is not how our Founding Fathers intended it."
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," says the Constitution, and how very difficult this has turned out to be in practice. The Christian High School coach who performatively prays on the 50-yard line after each game and invites any student who wishes to join him is ostracizing those who refuse the invitation, but the Supreme Court ignores what that does to their right of free exercise. The secular humanist expects the state to be neutral. It expects that the governor should not let her very strong belief on the nature of boys and girls lead her to sign laws infringing on the rights of those who believe differently. The Christianist thinks such neutrality is absurd, ungodly, dangerous. There can only be one truth.
In Miami-Dade County the County Citizens Defending Freedom has successfully led the drive to revoke the approval of two sex ed textbooks for middle & high school. The CCDF is a fledgling Christianist organization determined to “empower citizens to defend their freedom and liberty, and place local government back into the hands of the people.” The sentiments sound lofty, but in practice it's all about sex and what kids are exposed to in schools and libraries. Particularly critical is making sure there is no mention of abortion or homosexuality. What is especially chilling, and revealing, is that the CCDF leadership either homeschool or put their kids in private school. So they’ve already got their own kids protected. Miami-Dade has an opt-out policy for any parent who is uncomfortable with any portion of the approved sex ed curriculum, but CCDF’s defense of liberty and freedom does not extend to empowering parents who want their children to get an education the CCDF leadership disapproves of. They’re determined to protect all the children even if the kids’ own parents won’t. Similar actions are occurring all across the country as Christianist activists take over local school boards.
There was an essay recently in the NYT about the importance of good sex education throughout grade school. The authors describe the research, all the data showing how teen pregnancy is reduced, domestic violence and bullying are less frequent, people are happier and healthier, society as a whole is improved. They’re not wrong, but they're missing the point. They’re presuming a shared interest in the outcomes. The Christianist is focused on keeping their child (and yours) from sin. All that other stuff is distraction.
People like me want Miss Emily to say that what Mark and Philly share is just as good and valuable as what any other happily married couple have. That’s all. But Troy’s father is determined to see that Troy grows up believing the opposite. He can’t protect Troy forever from “today’s societal pressures and modern culture” but he is damned well going to try. That’s his job as a good dad.
Every parent wants to protect their kid, wants them to grow up to do what’s right. Troy’s father wants him to be a good Christian. Marian wants to protect Josie from the meanness that comes from intolerance. They both know that homosexuality exists. Troy’s father wants to protect him from that knowledge as long as possible. Marian wants her daughter to know it’s okay.
There isn’t any way to reconcile these. A more modest Christianity remembers Jesus’ admonition to “render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the thing that are God’s” and thinks it means being mindful of the two separate realms (this is how I was taught it in Catholic grade school). The Christianist rejects this interpretation utterly. There can be no compromise on the things that are God’s.
In the world the Christianists are trying to create there are no blurry edges at the borders of a binary sexuality. There is no ambiguity about right and wrong. People understand what their place is and the only legitimate use of government is to enforce the rules of behavior. Troy’s dad wants his son to grow up straight and true. But much sooner than he imagines, the boy will see the disconnect between the real world he lives in and the world his parents wish it to be. The books he’s not supposed to read, the videos he’s not supposed to watch, the people he’s not supposed to meet, all will show him a real world that is far more complex, strange, and wonderful than the narrow world of his father, tightly bounded as it is by fear, anger, self-loathing and hate. He’ll have to learn to deny one or the other. What will that do to his sense of self, of family, of how he ought to behave with other people? How will he try to protect his own kids, if that time ever comes? And from what?
Josie is a senior now and encouragingly sane. She’s been doing some work for me afternoons this summer, so we talk. “Are you sure you’re not hiding some deep trauma,” I tease? She laughs and assures me she’s fine. Asked how she’d like to be described she says, “optimistic”. She prides herself on being a good friend. She’s the peacemaker among her group of Southern girls. She tells me how she and her friends use social media, as an enhancement of their IRL relationships, not a substitute. They stay away from the drama and the hateful stuff. She keeps her phone nearby but never makes me feel I’m competing for her attention. I ask what kind of sex ed she’s gotten, and she says, “The basics, in 5th grade.” A bit in a hygiene class when she was a freshman and there’ll be a bit more this year. Never a mention of contraception or homosexuality. But in a world awash in sex and romance and pornography she thinks that she and her friends – male and female – have a pretty accurate and healthy knowledge about sex, “about how people ought to treat each other.” She has high standards for relationships, won’t put up with disrespect or deceit from the boys she’s been involved with. Where did this knowledge come from? She’s thoughtful. “I don’t really know. It’s just... there.”
A great deal from her Mom, for sure. Some from me and Lynn, who’ve been with her since the day she was born. And certainly some has roots in a pretty little house on the slope of a volcano where she met her friends Mark and Philly at such a terribly inappropriate age.