Today is Pentecost at my church, as it is in most of Christendom that still follows a liturgical calendar.   The rhythms of the 'church year', with its seasons, commemoration of past saints and various festivals is, indeed, part of Christianity.  In Wesley's always-useful metaphor, they are aspects of tradition, which is one 'leg' of the chair that upholds faith and practice in Methodism.

It is also the first Sunday since the Fresno Teachers Association's Bargaining Team reached a Tentative Agreement (TA) with our employer (Fresno Unified School District).   It is the first Sunday since an effort that began over a year ago to obtain a fair contract from administration, one that honored teacher time, provided a modest boost in salary and restored the value of our underfunded health benefits.  As the acting record-keeper of FTA's team, I took more than 160 pages of notes in 10-point Calibri, to the tune of over 50,000 words of abbreviated and often cryptic remarks about over 200 hours of meetings.

I say that not to brag, but just to point out how involving and dense the assignment has been.   From the very beginning, I knew that it would be huge amounts of additional work for which I would never receive any real additional compensation.   I would do it because I know that it would help me to the same extent that it would help the rest of my colleagues individually, and because collectively it would have a very positive impact not only on the teaching profession in the San Joaquin Valley, but on many other employees of Fresno Unified represented by other collective bargaining units.   These units typically have parity clauses in their contracts, sometimes called 'me-too' clauses, that guarantee that whatever basic terms are agreed to by FTA with the district on salary and benefits would apply to the other units as well.    So it's not just teachers that stand to gain from a fair contract:  custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and so forth would all tend to do better.

That, in turn, transfers millions of dollars from the public agency that employs us into the local economy.   Families of teachers and other district employees have more money to make their bills, better health benefits to cover the unpredictable challenges, and greater ability to demonstrate income to realtors and bankers.  Because of this deal, there will now be more district employees who will now be able to get a mortgage, settle in the communities they serve and start raising families of their own.   The monies they spend  will stimulate the local economy, encouraging businesses to create more jobs and augmenting the tax base that helps feed local government, including Fresno Unified.   This is a big win not just for teachers, but for the Fresno community, that the largest employer in the county is poised to offer its employees substantially-improved wages and health benefits.

Has all my work been worth it?   Yes.   But is the work over?   Not quite.  The Association's Rep Council must approve sending it to our membership for an up-or-down vote (ratification).   The Rep Council meets on Monday.   If the TA is approved by the Rep Council, it goes to our members on Friday, June 13th.   In two sessions on that date, teachers by the thousands will be asked to approve the agreement.   At that moment, I will finally be able to breathe easier about the 362 days I spent on the Negotiating Team.   I will know that while it is not a perfect agreement, it was almost certainly the best deal that could be obtained at this time.   Since I am also on the FTA's Executive Board for another year, I will work in that role to help implement and monitor the terms of the new contract.   And, behind the scenes, I am going to work to improve the often-fractious and polarized governance of the Association.

At some point, one hopes, the fire that has burned inside and sustained this journey will be extinguished, and I can turn my attention to other interests.   But the fire has burned long and hard, and has left its mark on me. If I feel some satisfaction on the outcome, I also feel a little wounded on the inside.   It is hard to turn off the often-adversarial nature of the process, to quit running potentially-confrontational scenarios in my head when I'm trying to go to sleep at night, to suppress---again and again---the very real worry that all of my FTA work has left too little time for family, too little time for friendship, too little time for my church and my music and my students.   A price had to be paid to get this agreement.   So, today, on Pentecost, I will pray for another kind of fire:  the movement of the Spirit, to convict me of my shortcomings, purify my motives and prompt my future actions.



Previously, I talked about how my experience as a classroom teacher and my commitment to examining scientific evidence led me to reconsider my opposition to same-sex marriage.   Now, I want to talk about another line of reasoning whose roots are in law and in history.

The opponents of same-sex marriage (which, in this state, means the backers of Proposition 8) made essentially three arguments in the public square as to why it was necessary to add a new provision to the California Constitution's Declaration of Rights.   It is worth considering these related and distinct arguments separately.

Proponents of Prop. 8 argued that:

1)     Exclusively heterosexual marriage was "an essential societal institution", so in order to preserve this institution, it would be prudent to formally redefine marriage in the the state constitution.

2)     If marriage in California was not explicitly defined as a heterosexual institution, children in the public schools would be taught that "gay marriage is OK", contrary to what their parents, community organizations or houses of worship might be affirming.

3)     Gay residents of California did not have the right to "redefine marriage for everyone else."

More generally, the Prop. 8 logo contained the words "Restore Marriage", while the main organization that sponsored (and which continues to sponsor) Prop. 8 is known as ProtectMarriage.com.

So the backers clearly believed that the way to get people to vote for the ballot measure was to convince them that the institution of marriage was threatened if it was not restricted to heterosexual couples.  Formal redefinition of marriage as an exclusively heterosexual arrangment in the state constitution was needed to restore what had never been explicitly stated, but always assumed as normative by the common culture.  The institution of marriage had to be protected from homosexuals, who would otherwise destroy it.

Now, there can be no denying that the backers of Prop. 8 had history on their side in at least one respect, which is the fact that the Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage was widely assumed for most of this country's history to not differ significantly from the state in terms of sexual orientation.   The expression "heterosexual marriage" would've been foreign to the thinking of virtually all Californians in much of the state's history, because marriage was impliticly understood to be a union of one man and one woman.   Supporters of marriage equality have to acknowledge that the diversity they celebrate today was not acknowledged in the past, and that the notion of "gay pride" is actually a recent, albeit proactive movement that was prompted by near-universal rejection of homosexuals in the popular culture.

But that is not the same thing as arguing that the laws of California in and of themselves inherently privilege any particular sectarian understanding of marriage, either today or in the past!

In fact, until 1977 there was no mention of gender or orientation in California statutes regarding marriage, which was defined as "a personal relation arising out of a civil contract, to which consent of the parties making that contract is necessary."  In that year, a nervous legistlative committee realized that there was nothing specific in the language prohibiting same-sex marriage, and so added the phrase "between a man and a woman" to the statute.   The first attempt to redefine marriage in California was not prompted by those arguing for marriage equality, but for those who wished to prevent anything but heterosexual unions being recognized as valid in that state!   To put it another way, prior to 1977 no particular understanding of marriage was privileged in California law, and the first attempts to privilege any particular understanding was taken by those opposed to marriage equality.

As it so happene, at no time after 1977 did those Californians who spoke of "gay pride" and (eventually) "marriage equality" ever attempt to redefine marriage in California law.  Rather, advocates of marriage equality used the courts to attempt to obtain the same legal protections and benefits accrued opposite-sex couples, by invoking long-established California statutes.  Eventually, the California State Supreme Court ruled that, in fact, it was the opponents of marriage equality who had attempted to redefine marriage in California law, beginning in 1977 with an act by the legistlature and continuing with a ballot measure (Proposition 22) which was the state's attempt to emulate DOMAThe state would go on to rule that those attempts to redefine marriage as such were unconstitutional, because such redefinitions inherently deprived same-sex couples of a fundamental right.  

Now, this brief of the state's legal history is filled with technicalities that a lot of people find impossible to discuss objectively.   As with DOMA, which explicitly condemns homosexuality on moral grounds, the ballot inititiaves proscribing same-sex marriage in this state was largely an exercise in privileging the attitudes of beliefs of many (but not all) heterosexuals at the time they were placed on the ballot.   Supporters of Prop. 22 and, later, Prop. 8 might have made the specific arguments I listed above, but the heart of their "argument" is that their traditional understanding has always, by tradition, been privileged in that state, and in order to protect their understanding, its position of privilege must be formally affirmed by the laws of the state.   How to privilege that understanding?  By-----redefining it!

What an irony!   Defenders of traditional marraige claimed that laws are needed, because "gays don't have the right to redefine marriage for everyone else", yet it was not gay-rights folk who actually attempted to redefine the civil compact of marriage, but their opponents.   If gay residents of the state didn't have that right, why did non-gay residents of the state have that right?  How could defenders of traditional marriage make that argument with a straight face?   The answer, of course, is that they couldn't, and lawyers for the backers of Prop. 8 have never attempted to make such an argument in court. 

The truth is, the majority of voters does have the right to redefine marriage in California's state Constitution if they so choose, because if such a right didn't exist, no one would've attempted to pass a ballot proposition to do exactly that.  That's why, ultimately, Prop. 8 is doomed whether or not SCOTUS affirms all, part or none of it this summer: as the voters move on this issue, it will no longer be possible for a minority to impose their privileged definition of marriage on the majority.

I have more to say on this subject in the future.   Let me just conclude by emphasizing that the real motivation for Prop. 22, Prop. 8 and DOMA are the same: to privilege a traditional understanding of marriage, and thereby deny same-sex couples the social, psychological and legal benefits of marriage.   You can't sugar-coat it: there is an entire class of persons who feel that their morals and traditions are under assault, who feel that honor and duty requires them to use the apparatus of the state to privilege their views, even if the consequence of that action is deprive gay men and women (and their children) of certain benefits.  There are not content to let the same constitutional guarantees of religious liberty protect both themselves and homosexuals equally.  Rather, they believe that the very existence of gay people and their families pose a threat to their conception of the moral and social order, and that the laws of the state must be leveraged in favor of their beliefs and against both the beliefs and the welface of same-sex couples and their families.

If I have said anything that is inaccurate or unfair with respect to such persons, I encourage comments.

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I haven't posted much of late, and I'm probably not going to be posting much in the future, either.  

I've had so much additional work from various quarters in the last year that this blogging pasttime had to either start to significantly benefit other areas of my life, or else be neglected.  

But today, I'm wearing red, and with some free time courtesy of "Spring Break", this teacher has a chance to say something about an issue that's become important to me in the last few years:  marriage equality.

First of all, as a practical matter, I've never seen any convincing evidence that same-sex couples make worse parents than couples of the opposite sex.

Interestingly, when I was younger, I assumed the opposite was the case: that, in order to promote healthy development, that it was important for young men and women to have healthy role models of both sexes in their immediate family.  Reasoning this way, I argued that while I had no animus against homosexuals per se, that the state could justifiably prohibit same-sex marriage on the grounds that the state had a vested interest in acting when possible to promote the optimal development of minor children.

Well, turns out that my assumptions are terribly flawed.   It seems that the stability of the family unit is far more important than the gender or orientation of the parents.   Whatever contribution relative to healthy development is made by homosexuals versus heterosexuals seems to be so small that it's easily swamped in the noise of all the other factors that arguably can make childhood heaven or hell for a young person.   Homelessness, unemployment, addiction, the reckless accumulation of debt and marital infidelity seem to pose far greater threats to the health and well-being of the child, because all of these items appear to contribute directly to the breakdown or dysfunction of the family relationships that sustain the child's development.   Divorce or abandonment, especially in adolescence, can be particularly traumatic for young people.   Again, compared to the obvious bludgeoning of the child's circumstance by these factors, the role of gender and sexual orientation is so muted that it probably can't even be estimated with any degree of reliability.

Now, it could be argued that homosexuality is just part of a continuum of aberrant behavior, and that it could be seen as symptomatic of other issues that directly threaten the family.   Again, the data doesn't seem to bear that out.   When comparing committed couples who have been together for a decade or more, the incidence of things like homelessness or addictive behavior does not seem to vary significantly based on the parent's sexual orientation, especially when compared with heterosexual couples who were not married.   The American Psychological Assocation has made a number of recommendations, including the following:

1)  There is no scientific basis for concluding that gay and lesbian parents are any less fit or capable than heterosexual parents;

2)  There is no scientific basis for concluding that the children of gay and lesbian parents are any less psychologically healthy or well adjusted;

3)  The institution of marriage offers social, psychological and health benefits that are denied to same-sex couples;

4)  The children of same-sex parents will benefit if their parents are allowed to marry.

So, the available data does not in any support my original position on same-sex marriage.   It suggests, in fact, quite the opposite.   I am now in my fifties, and whether I like it or not, it appears that something that I confidently asserted for much of my adult life simply lacks evidential support and probably reflected stereotypical (and limited) experiences with gay people, rather than any real understanding of what it might be like to be any sort of parent with grown children.

This realization came gradually to me, and I should probably express gratitude for the many gay people who may have heard my clever rationale for denying them oppotunity, yet continued to engage me with courtesy and dignity. While I certainly don't think I ever held homophobic views, I definitely was ignorant, and I definitely was operating under stereotypes that discouraged me from thinking critically about my views.   Thank God I have an opportunity to make my mea culpa now, though to be completely honest, it wasn't logic that initially propelled me to reconsider my views, or even increased familiarity with the social science literature on the topic.   It was the practical experience of having a very diverse student population, including kids who were nerds, misfits or even (as some claimed) "gay."


Teaching was a second career for me.  During my forties, as I gained experience in the classroom, I came to see that the one putdown that was still universally accepted by my students was the word "gay", which had become a stand-in insult for anything that the present clique might regard as outlandish.  It wasn't necessarily hate speech as used by most of my students, but it was clearly acceptable practice for them to use this term in such a way, and I came to realize that this caused a few students more than discomfort, but pain.  This was disruptive to the learning environment, but it was not enough in my view to forbid the practice on practical grounds.   What was needed, I felt, was a sound justification not based on sentiment, but logic, as to why we should not use the word "gay" as a put-down.  Yet, as an agent of government, it was probably not be prudent for me to advocate for "gay rights" per se in a public school classroom.   That would create even more controversy and disruption of the learning environment.

Searching for a professionally-appropriate way to protect these students from this sort of language, I realized that the reason the word could be used in a perjorative way had to do with it having originally been embraced as an identify statement.   Few people wake up in the morning and announce to their bathroom mirror their pride at their particular sexual orientation, but for many homosexuals it became essential in the late 20th century to develop a self-descriptive term that was empowering, rather than clinical.   Heterosexuals who bemoaned the loss of a "perfectly decent word" (gay) from their lexicon had missed the point:  gay people had chosen to call themselves gay, as a means of identifying themselves in a fashion that was assertively positive.  Indeed, "gayness" was often deliberately invoked in the phrase of "gay pride."   Thus, what made the use of the word "gay" as an insult so obnoxious was that it attempted to invert the target's positive self-image, and turn their very identity against them.

This was a revelation for me, personally.   The very next time a student used the word 'gay' as a put-down, I matter-of-factly explained that for many people in our state, the word 'gay' described their identity, in the same way that the word "Jew" or the word "black" might describe another person's sense of their self.   "We should never use another's identity as a weapon against them," I would say.  And, at some point, that saying became a mantra, because (of course) students being students, that particular "teachable moment" would come again.   I can honestly say that in my classes, that sort of moment is becoming less frequent.   What was a mantra, adopted out of convenience as a way of finessing disruptive behavior, has gradually become a core belief that informs not only my instruction, but how I view others.   I disagree with political conservatives on many points, probably more so now than at any point in my life.   But I no longer view it as legitimate to use words like "conservative" or "Republican" as a put-down; such folk, like everyone else, deserve to be engaged on the basis of their ideas and not rejected on the basis of how they identify themselves.  

To be consistent with my classroom practice,  a fair-minded person would have to reconsider the arguments made against same-sex marriage with respect to the claimed (negative effects), rather than simply assume that (being gay) that somehow such unions must be sub-optimal with respect to children's development.  It was at this point that, for the first time, I made a serious effort to understand the social science literature, to see if it would actually provide any support for my earlier rationale.   The discovery that such evidence was not forthcoming was not entirely a shock.   My mind was prepared to consider the possibility that I was wrong.  What was surprising, however, was that confronted by the evidence it still took time for my views to crystallize.

So, to summarize what I've written, the scientific evidence that is available suggests that marriage equality provides a net benefit to society as a whole, but I was only prompted to carefully consider that evidence (and thus modify my views) on the basis of practical challenges of managing conflict in a public school classroom.   That is, I was persuaded as much by necessity as reason to find another way.   In my next post, however, I will discuss the legal and historical rationales for and against same-sex marriage, and how they form an eerie parallel to the "creationism vs. evolution" struggle that has been so formative for me as a science educator these last twelve years.

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