Over the past month or so, few issues have been more debated or publicized locally than the announcement that North Park library will hold a “Drag Queen Story Hour” in February.
The purpose of this column is not to add to this debate but rather to try to take a perspective I feel is important for us to consider in moving forward as a community. As the banter and objections continue to intensify, I worry the result will ultimately benefit few.
The issue surrounding the story hour, and the broader transgender topic, is one of the most complicated issues existing in our world today. For those interested in my study and opinions regarding the topic, you can find my five-part series (published in the Evansville Courier a couple of years ago) at the following link: james-schroeder.com/index.php/transgender/.
Whenever a subject matter is this complicated and it involves deep-seeded issues such as religion, personal identity and children, it is bound to be a very dicey subject. Because of this, I believe it is our responsibility as a people to learn more and really consider what we are saying before we say it (and at times, consider not saying certain things at all). Otherwise, what may have been well-intentioned can appear otherwise, and may result in reduced effectiveness and perceived harm.
I think it’s also very important to see that many involved in this debate simply are coming from different paradigms, which is why communications may appear like birds passing by each other. There is a religious paradigm, which indicates that transgender issues threaten a person’s morality and even eternal destination. Then, there is the paradigm of ultimate autonomy, which indicates individuals have a right to engage in activities as long as they do not directly restrict a basic right (e.g., life, liberty, pursuit of happiness) of another.
What happens so often is that when people come from different paradigms, and do not take the time to acknowledge this is occurring (but instead expect that others should adopt, or at least adhere, to their own paradigm or belief), conflict and divisiveness is likely only to increase. There are no easy solutions. But the underlying key to trying to work through this always starts with one word: empathy.
Empathy does not mean that I have to agree with you, but it does mean I have to make every effort possible to understand it from your perspective and/or life experiences.
Although I do believe a few people opposing the story hour do so out of hate, I also know many have good intentions based in what their conscience says is infinitely important and thus is, “worth fighting for.” However, as we all know, good intentions don’t necessarily translate to the best, most effective means.
For starters, two of the primary ways opposition has been expressed is through petitions and protests. Both are the rights of citizens in a democracy, and both can serve a functional role. However, when they involve what is perceived as opposition (often an unempathetic one at that) against a particular group of people (e.g., those of gender variance), it becomes a very tricky, emotional situation. Although protestors may in fact love the people with which they disagree, holding picket signs and making public statements doesn’t come across as caring and compassionate for the people they oppose. Furthermore, when a group of people, previously silent about all the positive things that our library system has done for the Evansville area (of which, as a regular visitor to North Park library, I can fully attest) comes out in full force against one in a hundred things of which they disagree, it can come across as rather ungrateful and single-minded (regardless of how it is intended). Just as important, it can be an ineffective means of addressing the issue in the long-term.
At the risk of frustrating certain people that I know and love, I propose a modified approach. What if petitions or letters in matters such as these started with an honest, caring admission regarding the intent and difficulties of those they are challenging — in a sense, an empathetic opening that conveys at least an attempt to recognize why others might see this story hour as necessary or useful. Beyond this, if protesting publicly is still desired, then instead of just utilizing signs with big, bold letters conveying only disagreement and disdain, use two-sided signs with reasonable print that encourage reading, not grandstanding.
One side of the poster could include genuine statements of gratitude for what the library does while the other articulated why this particular program is concerning (or this could be done on both sides to allow for easier visibility). If you think these ideas are Pollyannaish or just downright stupid, please feel free to email me through the contact information below. But the last thing our community and country needs right now is deeper division.
On the flip side, I do have concerns about how the story hour came to be and just what it is suggesting. For starters, the decision to offer this was not done with full disclosure and discussion (most specifically with the library board). Anytime an issue of this sensitivity is not discussed and vetted properly, problems are going to arise. But beyond the process, I believe there is a better way to increase the knowledge and empathy for those who exhibit gender variance and/or cross-dressing preferences. On the Drag Queen Story Hour (DQSH) website, it reads as follows:
“DQSH captures the imagination and play of the gender fluidity of children and gives kids glamorous, positive and unabashedly queer role models. In spaces like this, kids are able to see people who defy rigid gender restrictions and imagine a world where people can present as they wish, where dress-up is real.”
This focus gives me immediate pause. For someone who has worked with individuals who experience gender variance and is well aware of the significant issues involved with being transgender or cross-dressing, we all should be clear. This is a serious, important matter and should be treated as such. We are not talking about dressing up for Halloween or male actors posing as females in a play. We are talking about matters that, if pursued or embraced by a particular youth or adult, significantly alter many of the central aspects of their human experience.
Any reasonable review of the matter, or discussion with an individual for whom this is an issue, makes this very clear. Just as I would never promote alternative sleep, dietary, media or activity patterns, especially with kids, as being part of a playful, glamorous, imaginative existence, so I do not feel that we should be promoting this issue as such.
Given this, instead of the story hour, what I would love to see the library do is have a series entitled (something like) “Learning to Love Your Neighbor.” This series would be targeted toward high school age and adults and would feature diverse members of our community. I include high school age because I feel they are the stage where both intellectual development and life experiences could promote a reasonable discussion (unlike younger youth). While one presenter might talk about living as transgender in a cisgender world, another might describe growing up as a black child in a largely white suburban community, and yet another might describe the challenges of being a priest midst the revelations of the sex abuse scandal. Although each would require courage for the person presenting, they could provide a rich, real look at unique experiences that could enable us to see a greater truth and humanity in the people who live all around us.
Although many (such as myself) were fortunate to grow up in situations of limited prejudice or discrimination, we all have a story worth telling ― one that could be useful and formative for generations to come. If the library offered this, I would be excited to attend.
Ultimately, this is just the beginning of a conversation this community needs to have. As a parent, I am willing to say what some parents might be afraid to publicly state. That is, I hope my kids embrace the gender that aligns with their biological sex, even though I will love them unconditionally no matter what path they take.
Beyond any religious teachings, I believe this alignment affords them the most advantageous opportunities from a psychological, physical and social perspective. But even more importantly, excluding spiritual aspirations I have for them, I hope they pursue a pathway of the three h’s: health, happiness and harmony. I realize, though, that they are ultimately going to make their own choices as they get older. In the meantime, it is paramount for me to learn all I can, including from those of which I may have a different perspective, so I can help guide them toward these h’s of life as they hopefully remain cognizant of the h’s that could come after. I hope all of you will join me in this way.
As this is just the beginning of the conversation, I am working to co-organize a moderated, civil, authentic panel discussion with a diverse group of community leaders. This will be open to the public, but clear guidelines will apply for participation and attendance. More information about this will be made available in the coming weeks.