Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Tolerance Backlash Writ Toddler

Like you, I've been fairly dismayed by the recent spate of homophobia-fueled hate mongering by folks who in a less correct era would parade around in Nazi uniforms.
Not that hate-crimes against GLBT people have ever gone away, but it seems now, especially with a right-wing mainstream media dominating the news coverage, that there's many more of them and they are more and more vicious and tragic from younger and younger people. I filed this development away for later consideration. Why, in a society that has more and more valued tolerance, where being gay in many places has become not only acceptable but unnoticeable, are these crimes popping up? 
Yesterday, I noticed a meme that got my wheels turning. Is Sesame Street the problem?
Put aside your immediate visceral reaction for a second, and come along this wynd with me. Admittedly, there's a leap of logic involved across a chasm of muddled thinking, but if I'm right, it would explain a lot of young adult America.
I'm a little too old to have "grown up" with Sesame Street. If I recall correctly, I was something like ten or eleven when it first popped up on public television. I remember it came on just after Yoga For Life with Richard Hittleman, so I would end up catching snippets of it as I came out of my yogic relaxation that ended every one of his shows, and started getting ready for school.
As a father to a young daughter two decades ago, I was delighted to see that it was still on, and was still teaching kids the alphabet and numbers. Yes, things had changed on the show, and in a good way. Somewhere along the way, and under my radar, Sesame Street decided that along with book learnin' there was a crying need for lessons in civics: how to share, how to be polite, and how to accept yourself and others.
Twenty-odd years later, I worry that maybe that wasn't as purely good as I believed it to be.
I worry about the conflict teaching tolerance creates in kids. I blame the parents.
There is no doubt that Sesame Street is a powerful influence on children. Quick, finish this phrase: "On my way to where the air is sweet..."
The show has been around so long because it flat out works. Children learn. They enter school a step ahead of children for a hundred year before them, knowing the alphabet and the numbers. They're able to distinguish colours, and do some basic math. Many of them already know how to read, thanks to those fuzzy little puppets and the humans, adult and children, that inhabit this mythical little street. 
They've dealt with some pretty heavy topics on the show: death, divorce, change. In each, they've encouraged children to share feelings, to seek comfort and support, and to offer a shoulder or a hand to friends who need them. 
And yes, this has also encapsulated under the banner of "difference," gaiety. The show has taken great pains to keep sexuality out of the equation, to be sure, because that's simply too complicated a topic to cover in a few minutes on TV and really deserves a dialogue. 
But accepting who you are, that's part of being gay in the 21st century. We've seen the crash and burn of many public figures who swear they are not gay as they get dragged away in handcuffs for solicitation in men's rooms. The friendly acceptance of who you are is imperative in a nation that is maturing past adolescence, particularly in a world where privacy is no longer a given, where webcams can secretly broadcast your innermost desires to the world.
If you don't know and accept who you are, you simply won't survive. 
That doesn't make the sentiment universal, however. There are powerful forces at work that want us to deny our differences, to accept a homogenous society where we all agree with each other, and that differences are to be feared and hated. Those influences can come home every night at five with the adults in the household. They can come into the home with each FOX News view, or conversation between parents after the child's bedtime that drifts into the ear of the boy or girl.
Here's the part that troubles me: if you force a child to choose between beloved furry characters and splashy colourful graphics and his or her parents, you create a terrible division in that child's soul. That might be fine if both sides of the issue have equal opportunity to address the problem in a calm and colelcted fashion.
But being a parent, I can tell you, is hard stressful work. You won't always be able to keep your cool, particularly when it comes to emotional issues like sexuality, issues that raise panics in things as simple as accidentally brushing up against another naked man in the locker room at the golf course, or the glimpse of another woman's panties in a shoe store.
If something as neutral as those encounters can embarass and stress an adult out, how does that adult handle a TV show where gay is okay? He or she probably rails long and loud (which explains the backlash to things from the recent "True Blood" parody to Katie Perry's appearance).
The message the child takes is that gay is okay, except that Dad/Mom says its not.
And Dad/Mom hold that child's life in their hands. Their future, the peace of the household, and remember that young children think magically. If Daddy gets angry because Bert and Ernie share an apartment, what's he going to do if I kiss another boy/girl? Or marry one?
Hate becomes easier than love and tolerance. And the same panic that mommy and daddy grew up with infests yet another generation of that family, and possibly worse because the filter of knowing and being friends with gay men and lesbians hasn't been installed yet as they reach the difficult adolescent years, a time when hormones make logical thinking impossible, even if the brain is quite ready to handle it.
One can only hope the backlash to the backlash will dampen this recent spate down, and that tolerance will eventually win out. It would be nice if it happened in this generation, and maybe it will. After all, we elected a black man president, and if you asked me even ten years ago, I would have said it would never happen in my lifetime.