PERSPECTIVES

Believe and Let Believe

The editor of Teaching Tolerance writes on critics' objections to the magazine's treatment of gay and lesbian issues

In October 1998, America and the world looked on in horror as a Kansas minister and his followers heckled mourners at the funeral of Matthew Shepard, a Wyoming student murdered because he was gay. One year later, a number of the same protesters stood outside a Virginia church. This time, though, they came to protest not just what they hated but what they feared: hope. At the invitation of evangelist Rev. Jerry Falwell, 200 gay and lesbian Christians were entering into a dialogue with 200 fundamentalist Christians.

"We are here because innocent people of various faiths, racial and ethnic groups and sexual preferences have increasingly had their lives abruptly and violently ended by people with opposing views," declared Falwell, who has long been outspoken in his denunciation of homosexuals as "deviants." His co-participants at the event included Mel White, a minister whose longtime association with Falwell ended in 1991 when White revealed his own homosexuality. It was White who first proposed the meeting in response to a series of high-profile attacks on members of minority groups, as well as a massacre the previous month at a Texas church and the apparent targeting of Christian students in several school shootings.

Rev. Falwell was quick to note that his central belief about homosexuality -- namely, that it is sinful -- had not changed. What had changed, however, was his understanding of how that belief can lead to words and actions that harm others. Recognizing the costs of intolerance in all its forms, he has tried to stake out a small patch of common ground. The implications reach far beyond church walls.

The most consistent criticism this magazine receives comes from educators who identify themselves as Christian and object to our treatment of gay and lesbian issues. One recent letter read, "All people, by virtue of their humanity, deserve caring and respect, regardless of their color, actions or associations. … But for schools and teachers to teach that the gay lifestyle is acceptable … is to trespass on the religious freedom of parents and families who may wish to pass on the values of their faith."

The writer's caution raises an important question for educators: How can we balance parental concerns -- and, often, our own convictions -- on sensitive issues with our responsibility to respect all students?

One partial answer is that we do it all the time. In deference to Christian families, would I refrain from mentioning Islam or ask a Jewish student to disavow her religion? If my family frowns on interracial marriage, do I expect a biracial child to keep his identity a secret? If a student in my class is an atheist -- and what greater affront to "faith" could there be? -- can other parents force him to hide his philosophy?

The English essayist William Hazlitt observed, "The love of liberty is the love of others; the love of power is the love of ourselves." As Rev. Falwell and gay Christians begin their search for an end to hate violence, we are confident they will discover that they share much more than just this common danger.