Thursday, April 03, 2008

A gay male teacher as "surrogate family?" A very dicey notion


A few days ago, ABC News gave us a story about how some school districts were encouraging teachers to act as “surrogate family members” to help underprivileged kids stay in school. I gave the link and some notes in this posting, toward the end of the posting on the Issues blog:

I have some more reaction to all this, and some of it may sound a bit brutal, as well as frank. In making some of these comments, I’m recalling how overwhelming, overbearing, and downright intimidating Paul Rosenfels could become in those talk groups at the Ninth Street Center in New York back in the 1970s. “Be cause I said so, it is so.”

I did sub for about three years (with one long break), and I did run into this. There were situations where kids needed a surrogate father. I found myself (as a sub) in some delicate situations a couple of times. And I realize that this complicates things further, because the story was intended to apply to permanent teachers.

You can guess the political context: gay teachers, tracking back to gays in the military and “forced intimacy.” That’s right. To present a news story like that with all the “politically correct” hype about inner cities is a bit reckless without looking deeper. My own reactions are complicated enough to wonder whether they fit “Weekly Standard” or “Mother Jones” most closely, because they run both ways.

What some kids need is emotional connection. There is a similar problem, at a very basic level, with eldercare. What seriously disabled parents need is unconditional love and emotional connection from the kids, regardless of all the political and moral arguments that run around the situation (“personal responsibility,” etc.) There is an element of forgiveness, Christian style. Because we are dealing with problems that should not happen except for neglect and wrongdoing. Who throws the first stone?

What I find is that I am most unwilling to give out that emotional connectivity gratuitously, to suspend my own emotional selectivity (which was a good thing in the Ninth Street Center’s world – up to a point). Particularly, I cannot make something "right" that I don't think is right just by "protecting" someone or talking down to their emotions. I also find that, at age 64, I would be much more open to doing so in teaching jobs (especially dealing with disdanvantaged kids) had I married and had kids myself. It might even be OK had I married and created a lineage, and then divorced because I was gay. I still would have experienced procreation and the emotional responsibility it creates. Then I would be ready for this. But I never did that. I spared the two young women that I dated in the early 70s the grief of any pretense of this. They both married happily an monogamously, and had good families, with real passion, as far as I know.

On some assignments, students (usually teenage girls) would as if I was married and had kids, and then, “why not?” It went beyond just asking “are you gay” (the obvious DADT question). A couple times I got them off the subject by talking about episodes in TheWB’s Smallville, Everwood, and particularly One Tree Hill (teenage girls seemed to like Chad Michael Murray). But they less privileged kids were especially suspect. Why did I not think enough of my own blood or family to want to continue it? In their world, where culture may give no other expressive opportunities or than family formation, that’s how they seem to see this situation.

As I indicated back in February 2008 (Feb 18), I was somewhat of a social outcast as a kid. I was reminded that I was not “manly” or “competitive” enough, and that was taken to mean that I should not have a family, given the “overrationality” of my teenage brain and the way it calculated “self-interest”. I would have a psychological interest not only in (“psychologically feminine” in Rosenfels terminology) “submission” but in judging, at least privately, who was “worthy.” A lot of this goes on under the table in the gay male community. I see a “Mr. Right” somewhere and my gut emotional reaction is that this is someone whose appearance demonstrates “virtue” or represents my values. Soon, nothing else is “good enough” to be worthy of sexual attention.

Imagine, then, my sense of personal affront. I am supposed to pretend (in front of immature teenagers) that I really am “competitive” enough to have had a wife and kids and kept one wife for a lifetime, when “rationally” that’s not true. Maybe this is utilitarian thinking or “radical individualism” run amok, to the point that its own logic force contradictions. Almost nothing could be more offensive. That kind of expectation of connection and fake “intimacy” borders on sexual harassment. That is how I experience it.

If I were a 22 year old gay male who could present himself as competitive (even better an African American) and chose teaching because of the obvious need for young male teachers (even as surrogate "role models"), being expected to do this might well be all right. But not for a 64 year old who has lived in a separate “dominion” (urban “exile”) for three decades. There is just too much history, social and political hostility to overcome.

But I am also forced to realize a couple of other things. One is a moral precept to be sure. If I can be critical of others for their “failings” (which are many) when they demand emotional attention that I don’t want to give them, why can’t they be just as judgmental about me for failing to even try to reproduce? That does represent the “moral thinking” in many religious areas. After all, the world is a dangerous place. It doesn’t guarantee a smooth ride. It demands hardships, and they are not always allocated equally. (Think about Job.) Then, why not at least say that someone who will enjoy some of the perks of a more privileged life should at least take the risk and responsibility of continuing a biological lineage before insisting on how own agenda, most of all me, an only child: The only answer that the conventional gay community offers is “how you are born” or “who you are.” But that doesn’t work for other areas.

Then, again, there is “personal responsibility.” Remember how in the 1980s, the religious right wanted to hold gay men accountable for their own afflictions during the AIDS epidemic. They talked about “behavior based disease.” There was an “element” of truth to this. But then, twenty years later, we are faced with the enormous problems or aging and degenerative disease, and with the idea that much of this could also be prevented with “lifestyle” or “behavior” (never smoking, reducing calories and fat, exercise, etc) or “personal responsibility.” Sounds like the same convenient finger pointing. There is almost no reason, ideologically, not to blame the afflicted for their own “sin” if one insists.

The “reproduction” problem leads to another twist that comes back into focus, and helps explain the “public morality” of the past and the vehemence with which I was expelled from college in 1961 (other blogs). In many social circumstances, the presence of gay men provokes less secure straight men into fearing that they too will have trouble “performing” because of lack of “competitiveness,” that they too, can fail physically, This is the great dirty little secret of McCarthyism that no one wants to admit, even today (although Randy Shilts pointed this out in his massive “Conduct Unbecoming” about gays in the military). In fact, gay male “culture” sometimes “brags” that it can judge “who has it”. Understandably, this puts a lot of people on edge, perhaps intentionally. This whole process may help explain the popularity in the past of male “rites of passage” or “tribunals” or outright hazing. It was supposed to make all young men see themselves differently, accept their fungibility, and be prepared to function as husbands and fathers, however troubled their past adolescence “competitively.”

Recently, evangelicals Jackson and Perkins in their book “Personal Faith, Public Policy” (review: ) pointed out the dangers of “utilitarianism”, however circuitously; back in 1990, Allan Carlson had discussed the dangers of “the logical consequences of radical individualism” in his “Family Questions.” (In this regard, it’s interesting to see the unconditional emotions that surface in the eldercare issue in the three recent programs on eldercare on PBS and ABC; see my TV blog on April 1-2). They do have a point. Philosophers have debated how design a world that offers “absolute justice” in human terms, winding up with our “isms” at times. Consider how, under communism, fascism, extreme Christian fundamentalism, and radical Islam, various people believe in an absolute moral ideology (religiously based sometimes) that seems to “rationalize” results that work to the advantage of those who grew up in the respect system and became conditioned (even sexually) to respond to its values. The effect of these ideologies, with their self-righteousness, is to remove individuals from personal emotional risk. They do not have to take the chances that they can be wrong if they have to become more open emotionally to others on terms not of their choosing. They have an ideology that protects them and helps them function. Sometimes they do not even see the downstream results of their beliefs for others, until outside influences (the West, sometimes through wars) force them to. Then to avoid “religious”, ideological or personal shame, they will sometimes even surrender their own lives in spectacular fashion, as history has shown. Freedom always entails some risk like this, taking the chance that you can be wrong about everything, because there is no way to make everything just. This observation takes the idea of “responsibility for others” or involuntary family responsibility, linked to the gay marriage and adoption debates, to a whole new level.

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