Lesbians and Libraries: We’re All Victims Now

The recent fuss over Patricia Polacco’s In Our Mothers’ House has followed a familiar pattern.  First, a mother from conservative Davis County, just north of Salt Lake City, complained when her daughter brought the book home from her school’s library.  The book celebrates a family with two mothers and three children.  Next, the school district decided to keep the book, but put it behind the library counter.  Students would need a parent’s permission to check out the book.  Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union sued, claiming the book must be freely available for all students.

In this case as in so many others, both sides rushed to insist on their own victimhood.

Both sides make the customary arguments.  The ACLU fights for First Amendment freedom.  In the words of one ACLU blogger,

“Removing library books because they ‘normalize a lifestyle that parents don’t agree with’ or contain positive portrayals of LGBT protagonists violates the First Amendment rights of all students to access ideas in a school library on a viewpoint-neutral basis.” 

Conservative Christians claim the books are part of a widespread conspiracy—the “homosexual agenda”—to teach children in public schools that all sexual lifestyles are equally valid.  In this case, opponents of the book cite Utah law, which they say forbids school curricula that promote homosexual lifestyles.

Just as predictably, both sides depicted themselves as the victims.  Consider the author’s defense.  Polacco, writing on the ACLU’s blog, told the story of the book’s origins:

“One year I was visiting a fourth grade class and the teacher had arranged for me to hear essays that her students had written entitled: ‘My Family.’ . . . one little girl stood up and began to read. She was immediately asked to take her seat by an aide. The aide said scornfully, ‘No dear…you don’t come from a real family…sit down!’

“This child came from a family of two mothers and two adopted siblings. I was so appalled and insulted on that child’s behalf that I immediately, after school that day, went back to my hotel room and wrote, In Our Mothers’ House.”

From the other side, one commenter on a conservative Christian website asked, “Does the ACLU also require that Bibles be on the shelves!”  Another lamented, “Law suit by law suit [the ACLU] are coarsening the moral fabric of America, and our children are the victims!”  A third chimed in, “I don’t hate these people [i.e. homosexuals] & if they want to live this way that’s their business but don’t try to push it on the rest of us!! God help them!!”

Clearly both sides in this school-library dispute focus on their own victimhood.  The ACLU insists that hiding such books behind library desks hurts families.  Polacco argues that treating some families as illegitimate hurts children.  Conservative Christians, for their part, worry about the creeping influence of the ACLU.  Conservatives fret that they have no voice in public institutions.  Their books, most notably the Bible, have been “kicked out,” while books that denigrate traditional lifestyles and morals are promoted.

Neither side publicly notices their own strengths.  We will not hear conservative Christians gloating over the Christian-friendly policies of this Utah school district.  Nor will we hear ACLU types celebrating the power and influence of their national watchdog presence.

Does the rush to victimhood matter?  Only in the sense that a cornered animal fights the fiercest.  By reassuring ourselves that we are the true victims, we condone any escalation in culture-war rhetoric or strategy as a matter of simple self-defense.  If we are all victims, we all have the moral high ground; we all have license to fight dirty.

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  1. Jojo

     /  November 25, 2012

    Dear Mister Laats, first, let me tell you that I have really appreciated your book and that I am a regular viewer of your blog (I check your blog daily). Still, I grow a frustration about what you are trying to achieve on your blog, which is to act as a diplomatic agent and to try to understand the fundamentalist’s point of view, in order to deflect the “cultural war”. In doing so, you tend to play the card of a rather naive symetry, specially on this post. I think understanding and explaining is one thing. It is part of your job as an historian (I can relate to that, as I am a social scientist, french speaking, so my english is not that fluent). But there is a moment were you are far too indulgent and your symetrization fall flat. It is hardly fair to act as if there is a symetry in this case, as if both claims were ethically, politically and factually valid. You cannot act as if the pain suffered by LGTB people is equal to the so-called pain of a fundamentalist mother who is affraid to see her daughter exposed to the very fact of a plural and diverse world (where lesbian mothers can be good mothers). As a scholar you should be at least pragmatically attached to the value of this exposure. You think you are a playing nice and acting like a real post-secular liberal, but you are only giving credit and legitimacy to a religious exclusivist and intolerant viewpoint that is not able to live in a plural and diverse social world. The liberal neutrality has a limit, it reaches its limit with fundamentalism, as fundamentalism is NOT a reasonable comprehensive worldview and there is no way to make peace with it (it thrieves on conflict, and you know that very well).

    • @Jojo, You make a valid point. Even if we hope to discuss and observe the “culture wars” without deepening them, at some point we need to realize that we are also persons with a stake in the outcome of these debates. At some point, we need to take a position, not merely seek to understand each side with sympathy. For me, the clearest case of this comes with the issue of school desegregation in the USA. Historically, the effort at school desegregation in the 1950s-1970s represented an enormous intrusion into local cultures. White majorities–not just in the South, but nationwide (see, for example, Ron Formisano’s Boston Against Busing)–often reacted viscerally and even violently to desegregation efforts.
      Should policy-makers have respected local cultures? Cultures in which whites excluded African Americans from access to decent public services? Should policy makers have concluded that the moral claims of segregation and desegregation were culturally equal? I don’t think so.
      But I disagree that this is what I was doing in this post. Here I was not saying anything about the validity of either side’s arguments. Rather, I was only lamenting the way these controversies follow a predictable and unproductive path. Each side in a case like this seems to know its role, and to play it without much hope of winning. Rather, the plotlines are well known by all players in advance, and the controversy shuffles along like a rerun of a show everyone has seen so many times it has lost its interest. Instead of hoping to achieve something, each side only preaches to its own choir, hoping to demonstrate the validity of its own claims to victimhood.
      I do think it is legitimate to notice the equality of these adopted roles. This is a different thing than to assert a moral equality between the two sides.

      • Jojo

         /  November 26, 2012

        @ Adam Laats, it is true that you were not saying anything, explicitely at least, about the validity of either side’s arguments. But, in fact, implicitely, when you emphasize “the equality of these adopted roles”, i.e. a common claims to victimhood, and when you treat both positions of victimhood as rethorically equal, it is as if you gave the two sides a moral equality (because they can both claim to occupy a position of victimhood). I know it is not what you wanted to do, but it is a consequence of what your post is doing. To avoid such a consequence, you need to deconstruct “the equality of these adopted roles” and to refuse the claim of victimhood of the fundamentalist. I also think you took a good example in your kind response to my objection. Following to what you have written, I will say that scholars and educators should not pay to much respect to the fundamentalist’s culture.

  2. Jojo

     /  November 25, 2012

    If I may dare, I will add a line Corey Robin made in the end of his chapter on Judge Scalia (in The reactionary mind) : “without his more liberal colleagues indulging and protecting him, Scalia (…) would have a much more difficult time. The conservatism of duresse oblige depends upon the liberalism of noblesse oblige , not the other way around. That is the real meaning of Justice Scalia”.
    It really seems to me that Corey Robin’s line grasps something really true about american politics. Fundamentalism is not nice at all. It’s not the best move to act as if being nice to it will do the job.

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