Recently, a controversy erupted over a Pride month event, and a protest against it, at a school near where I live. The reaction to the protest encapsulates the intolerant attitudes of our society.
For the month of June, Burlington Middle School was decorated with Pride decorations, including the ubiquitous and racist Pride flag (see this post for an explanation of why it is racist) and a poster with the Tennessee Williams quote, “What is straight? A line can be straight, or a street, but the human heart, oh, no, it’s curved line a road through mountains.” This quote, understandably, offended straight students. So a group of students protested, tearing down the racist Pride decorations and chanting, “My pronouns are USA.”
(Source: DC Draino Instagram post)
Appallingly but not surprisingly, public officials criticized the protesting students, as opposed to the intolerant displays against which they were protesting.
Members of the Burlington Select Board called the protest “unacceptable” and characterized it as both “intolerant rhetoric” and “displays of intolerance and homophobia.” In reality, however, it was the Pride month celebration that was intolerant and unacceptable, because it involved the display of a racially discriminatory flag, as well as a poster which claimed that an entire group of people do not exist.
A statement by school superintendent Eric Conti was similarly lacking in both logic and moral decency.
Conti described the protest as “hateful,” which makes no sense because there is nothing hateful about standing up against racial discrimination or against the attempted erasure of an entire group of people based on their sexual orientation. (Arguably, it is the discrimination and attempted erasure that are hateful.)
Conti also said that the school system is “obligated to provide a safe environment for all students to feel safe, seen, and respected without retaliation.” This is true, but in the opposite way of what Conti meant: to display a flag that excludes white people and a poster that denies the existence of straight people is to ensure that not all students feel seen and respected. If Conti truly cared about the ability of students to feel seen and respected, the Pride celebration, and not the protests against it, would be the target of his criticism.
Making things even worse, Conti pompously declared that “it is not enough to publicly denounce these incidents as they happen” and called on people to “educate our community on the nature of these events.” Actually, “these events” should not be denounced at all; they should be publicly praised, and the racist and intolerant Pride celebrations should instead be denounced. The “nature of these events” is that people protested against a poster telling them that they do not exist. I fail to understand how that is a bad thing. The Tennessee Williams quote that erases the existence of straight people is what should be criticized here, not the students protesting against it.
Conti’s statement also said: “I recognize that discussions and celebrations of individual identity are complex and impacted by individual values, religions, and cultural norms, the result of which may include expressions of racism, anti-religious hate, ableism, and in this case homophobia. The Burlington Public Schools believe in the individual dignity and humanity of each and every person in our community. We embrace everyone for who they are and for what they bring to our schools and larger community. Let us all work on being kinder toward each other.”
But there is nothing homophobic about maintaining that straight people exist. And the problem is that displaying racially discriminatory flags and a poster erasing the existence of straight people is antithetical to believing in the individual dignity and humanity of each and every person in a community. For straight people and white people, these flags and poster deny our dignity and our humanity. So it is clearly false that the Burlington Public Schools believe in the individual dignity and humanity of each and every person in the community, because if they did, they would be criticizing the Pride celebration, and not the students protesting against it. Similarly, the Burlington Public Schools obviously do not embrace everyone for who they are, because if they did, they would be condemning the anti-white and anti-straight displays, as opposed to the students protesting against them.
People do, indeed, need to work on being kinder toward each other. It is people who display a racially discriminatory flag and a poster erasing straight people’s existence who need to work on being kinder to other people. Again, Conti should be criticizing the people engaging in these discriminatory actions, not the people protesting against them.
“I was shocked and horrified,” one parent reportedly whined. But what people should be shocked and horrified about is the fact that Burlington Middle School held a celebration that discriminated against students based on their race and sexual orientation. It is the discriminatory flags and poster that should cause shock and horror, not the students protesting against them.
This topic might seem unrelated, and I might sound like a broken record for bringing it up in yet another blog post, but I think it is important to mention the horrific things that were done to Confederate statues and Christopher Columbus statues over the past three years. These disgraceful actions were the most unacceptable, intolerant, and hateful actions ever to take place. These actions were more antithetical to individual dignity and humanity, more antithetical to seeing and respecting people, more antithetical to embracing everyone for who they are, and more antithetical to kindness, than any actions that have ever been taken. And when I say “ever,” I mean ever, in the history of the world.
If people truly cared about tolerance, truly cared about seeing and respecting others, truly cared about dignity and humanity, truly cared about embracing people for who they are, truly cared about kindness, then these are the actions that they would be criticizing, denouncing, publicly condemning, and taking a stand against. It demonstrates appalling hypocrisy and complete moral bankruptcy that society does absolutely nothing to speak out against truly intolerant and unkind actions, yet falls all over itself in its haste to condemn a protest involving middle school students who had the audacity to affirm that straight people exist.