Posted by: Catherine Lugg | October 7, 2010

Parents

For the last 11 years I’ve been singing in a church choir at a local Catholic Church. While it’s an incongruous place for a queer theorist and cranky agnostic, my participation makes my devoutly Catholic partner very, very happy. Since the beginning, we’ve been “out” as a couple and I’ve been out as an agnostic and queer academic. And since the beginning, the church folks have been at ease with us. So, I go to Mass most Saturday evenings and sing, as well as drag myself to choir rehearsals on Wednesday nights, dredging up the knowledge that I gained as a working musician from 20+ years ago.

The local parish is only 15 miles away from Rutgers, and since the economy tanked, many of the local public high school’s graduates are opting to attend Rutgers, seeing it as a “buy.” I’ve loved watching the kids grow up and head to Rutgers. For this community, it’s become “our school,” where increasingly many of “our kids go” –although Princeton is only 8 miles away.

What has happened since the suicide of Tyler Clementi is that I’m having a lot of private chats with non-queer parents who are heart-sick over Clementi’s sexual humiliation and suicide. The conversation starts with fast “check-in” after choir rehearsal or after Mass. At first, they say “How are you doing?” and I get a heartfelt hug. But clearly the better question is “How are they doing?” I can see the intense pain they are in over his death. Clearly, I’m not the only one who has been shaken to my core by events. From our conversations, parent after parent can see their own child as Tyler, as vulnerable, as “stomp-able,” regardless of their child’s orientation… perhaps. These parents want to talk with an older queer, the one who’s been a professor at Rutgers for a while, the one who works on queer issues in education. And their eyes are pleading for me to say “Things will be alright.”

But I don’t do that. I can’t do that. Because I have very little power to ensure that things will actually be alright. The data on queer youth and suicide are dismal and have been so for decades. I gently pass along the grim facts to these already worried non-queer parents. However, I stress to them that as parents they have the power to change things, starting with their own children. They must teach their children what is acceptable behavior and what is unacceptable behavior. Bullying and humiliating queers is not acceptable behavior–although it’s seen as perfectly normal in many educational settings. Furthermore, mere tolerance is not nearly enough. You must truly love your neighbor as yourself–if the teachings of Christ mean anything (and yes, I’m a funny one to lean on Christian theology). And finally, as parents, you must love and respect your children no matter whom they eventually love.

Stepping back from all of this pain and anguish, I’m sensing a cultural change…at least in my little corner of the US. After the crucifixion of Matthew Shepard in 1998, there was little reaction by the immediate non-queer community. I think part of this muted response was sheer cultural chauvinism. Shepard’s brutal murder happened in Wyoming, and New Jerseyans can be more than a tad smug about “that would NEVER happen here.”

But it did. And for many of my non-queer neighbors, their world has been turned inside out. Things will never be as safe or secure again. How these parents make sense of the senseless death of Tyler Clementi will reshape the local culture either for good or for ill.

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