Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Good for Randi, and good for the kids as well.

Via the gossip line called the internet I learned something. First, some site which I can't remember referred to me to a piece that Cory Doctrow, author of the fun novel Little Brother, wrote. I went there to find he got his information from Wil Wheaton, of Star Trek: The New Generation and Stand By Me fame, who got it from reading it on James Randi's website. An interesting chain in and of itself.

James Randi has always been one of my favorite people. He has worked hard, in the tradition of Houdini, to debunk mystics and charlatans. For instance, Randi, along with a group of people including my old friend Bob Steiner, exposed the bogus "faith healer" (yes, I repeat myself) Peter Popoff. Even more wonderfully they set up Popoff so that he "healed" a woman of ovarian cancer on his television show, through revelations from God. Apparently God didn't realize the woman was actually a man in drag. Neither God nor Popoff had comments for the media after that fiasco.

Randi also exposed that con man Uri Geller who uses cheap parlor tricks and pretends he has psychic powers. I heard Randi lecture some years ago and followed his career ever since. His view on religion and the supernatural corresponds pretty close to my own. Now in his 80s Randi has publicly stated that he is a gay man. I am not surprised. Certainly my gaydar ticked in regards to Randi for many years. I never said anything since he never said anything. Nor did I particularly care if he was or wasn't. That was entirely his own business and would have zero impact on my view of the man. I admire him for what he has done not because of his sexual orientation. Pretty much as I loathe certain people because of what they have done, not because of their sexual orientation. When it comes down to it, I have zero interest in the sexual predilections of others (unless I see them as a potential bedmate) . But I am entirely interested in what they do and how they act toward others.

Everything about James Randi has told me that he's a good guy. His announcement is worthy of applause for the same reason that truth is important. It is true. Randi, being quite elderly now, had a hard time of it. Much harder than young people today have. Randi's statement reflects the era he grew up in. He wrote: "From some seventy years of personal experiences, I can tell you that there's not much 'gay' about being homosexual." He says: "For the first twenty years of my life, I had to live in the shadows, in a culture that was—at least outwardly—totally hostile to any hint of that variation of life-style." That set the tone for Randi's life in general.

But he says that he has "perceived around me" a change in attitudes and "presently I find that there has emerged a distinctly healthy acceptance of different social styles of living—except, of course, in cultures that live in constant and abject fear of divine retribution for infractions found in various Holy Books." He also believes that he is confident that "young people will find themselves in a vastly improved atmosphere of acceptance." Amen! More on that in a moment.

Randi says he recently watched the film, Milk, about Harvey Milk and that prompted him to come out of the closet. Harvey would be proud. I made sure I sent a copy of Randi's state to Harvey's old friend and ally, Carol Ruth Silver. I have previously said that I think that film will have a long term impact on people and it is showing to do just that. I suspect many a parent has had kids come to them and say: "Mon, Dad, I'm gay," because they saw the film and realized that honesty is valuable and important.

Randi is right, things have changed. It has changed far more than he perhaps has realized. I first became aware of the change because of a young friend of mine, David. We met at a restaurant that he worked at. He was 18 and I was having dinner and doing business with the owner, who doing advertising in a publication I owned. Later I was at shindig that the restaurant sponsored and David sat at my table for dinner. We became friends and I became David's father confessor, his confidant whenever he had drama in his life. David told me how he started going to gay clubs when he was 16. I was shocked by it. I couldn't conceive that happening at the time.

More recently a nephew came out. Again this was no surprise. I told family members that the boy was gay when he was 10-years-old. It was never discussed with him but I always assumed it would be the case. He lives halfway around the world, so I haven't seen him in years, but he was out to his family and had a boy friend by the time he was 18.

I remember reading a New York Times magazine article about gay teens around the country who organize their own dances for gay youth. The article astounded me. It told the story of 13-year-old Austin, from Sandy Springs, Oklahoma who was talking about the gay dance he was going to and how much he regretted that his boy friend, 14-years-old and an athlete at school, couldn't go with him because: "He has the strictest, scariest dad ever."

Because Austin's mother was away at the time, a family friend drove him to the dance in Tulsa—Oral Roberts is no doubt spinning in his grave and probably asking for donations as well.

On the porch of the dance they meet 14-year-old Nick who came out to his parents when he was twelve. He's never dated or kissed a boy but he says "I don't have to have sex with a girl to know I'm not interested." At the dance were 130 other gay teens. Nick told the Times: "When I first realized I was gay, I just assumed I would hide it and be miserable for the rest of my life. But then I said, 'O.K., wait, I don't want to hide this and be miserable my whole life." He was 11-years-old when he made that decision.

One of the funniest moments in the report was when the reporter interviewed Sayre, 12-years-old, who is openly gay at his school:
I asked Sayre if he was interested in any boys at the school. “I like this one guy over there,” he said, pointing toward classmates playing soccer on a grass field, “but I think he’s straight, so that’s probably not going to happen.” A few minutes later, Sayre added that he was in no rush to start dating. “It’s not like I have a lot of options anyway,” he said, echoing what I would go on to hear from many gay middle-schoolers. “I like guys who are nice and caring and don’t act like jerks to everyone. But this is middle school, where guys think it’s funny to pick their nose and fart really loud and laugh.”

This isn't to say it's a bed of roses for these kids. There is no shortage of good Christians willing to torment them. A 2007 survey of gay middle-schoolers found that 81 percent reported being harassed and 39 percent said they were assaulted. Worse yet a majority of them who said they reported it said the school took no action against the bullies picking on them.

But still, this is amazing progress. Certainly when I went to school there simply were no gay students officially. I did accidentally stumble across two junior high students have a go at it in during school hours in a men's room closest to my hygiene class but far from most other classes. I merely walked past them, having caught an eyeful, and sat down in the toilet to go about my business, while leaving them to hastily retreat in fear of being reported—which I never would have done, even then.

The culture has changed. Part of this is due to the bigger shift I have been speaking of, about a post-Christian America. As Christianity, especially orthodox Christianity, loses its power bigotry of all kinds will decline. But even within the Church itself attitudes are shifting. Even a large percentage of evangelical youths no longer support the anti-gay agenda of their parents.

By the time I was in college there were open gay people on campus. Sure it was still worthy of articles in the student newspapers but it was not unheard of. There were gay dances on campus and lots of students attended. Quite a few students had gay friends. But back then that only started in college. Now we have students in middle school coming out to their fellow students. Kids are growing up, who have had gay friends, since before puberty. For these kids, being gay is no surprise.

If there is a public face for that generation it would have to be Daniel Radcliffe, of Harry Potter fame. The boy wizard who seems to have pushed through puberty before our very eyes , and in what appears to be a matter of days, works with a project called the Trevor Project. It is a counseling service for gay youth. Radcliffe, who has made millions from his role as Potter, has given substantial donations to gay causes, even though he is heterosexual. He said he grew up around gay men and has always known gay people. It was only when he was in school that "for the first time I came across homophobia. I had never encountered it before. It shocked me." Radcliffe says: "I have always hated anybody who is not tolerant of gay men or lesbians or bisexuals. Now I am in the fortunate position where I can actually help or do something about it."

But Radcliffe is not alone. Lots of young people feel the same way. So many have growing up, always knowing someone who was gay, that the idea of intolerance is what they find shocking. Polls have repeatedly shown that if marriage laws were based on the wishes of young people that gay marriage would be legal today. The young already are tolerant, it's the old farts who hold act as the brakes on tolerance. And they won't be around much longer. Anti-gay bigotry is literally dying out. And the number of new bigots is insufficient to stop the change. In conclusion, allow me to point to one fascinating example of this change—the photo below.

What you have here is two demonstrations outside the Dutchtown High School in Dutchtown, Louisiana. Keep that in mind, this isn't New York, Massachusetts or California, but in the heart of the Bible belt. The high school was producing a version of The Laramie Project, the heart-wrenching docu-play on the murder of Matthew Shepard.

The infamous bigots from the Westboro Baptist Church announced they were going to hold an anti-gay picket at the high school. The announcement went out but the people from Westboro were nowhere to be seen. Unfortunately for Anthony Battaglia, a local Baptist, he didn't get the word. He went to join the anti-gay protest. On one side of the divide was Battaglia, holding up the anti-gay side, and across from him were some 500 students and locals protesting the protest. One of the students, who was acting in the play, told the local media the protest outside was not a distraction but served as motivation. One student had a clever sign I thought. It said: "Jesus had two dads. Why can't I?"

The morons from Westboro Baptist Church regularly announce pickets at high schools. And every single protest I've read about is the same story. On one side, at most, are a handful of the Westboro cult members. Across from them are hundreds of students and people from the area in counter protest. At Lincoln Southwest Hight School, Omaha, Nebraska, the school asked students to ignore the anti-gay protest from the Westboro crowd. They didn't, instead "several hundred students poured out of the building at the end of the school day with signs, chants and arguments of their own." Some stood there holding hands with same-sex friends as a sign of their support for gay equality.

At Lexington High School, in Massachusetts, the Westboro bigots showed up. They were met by 400 students and residents in the counter-protest, "one by one the 400 counter-protesters held hands and turned around, revealing stickers on their backs that read, 'The Power of Silence.'"

At Long Beach Wilson High School, California, the Westboro group was meet by thousands of students who dissented from their bigotry. Co-principal Sandy Blazer said, "It was a nice, peaceful day considering we had 4,500 kids out here. I knew they would protest hate in a respectful way."

We have reached the tipping-point. Bigotry is no longer the assumed norm. More and more kids will just find it the most natural thing in the world to disclose to their parents and friends that they are gay. And no one will bat an eye. It is precisely because we have junior high students coming out that is safe for someone who is is 82-years-old (Randi) to finally say: "Hey world, I am what I am."

Below is video from the Long Beach protest. At this point the police lost control of the street and hundreds of students surrounded the tiny band of Baptists. This unnerved the police who ordered everyone to leave. It remained peaceful, however. In this video you will periodically catch glimpses of the size of the crowd which was mainly on the other side of the street and stretched in both directions. I have more faith in the young than I do in the adults of the world.

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