Anoka

February 2nd, 2012

My history teacher, Mr Emerson, talked about the origins of the First World War as “a long fuse and a short spark”. This blog post was triggered by the short spark of an article I read today, but the long fuse goes back at least twenty years. It’s going to be somewhat more personal and emotional than usual.

First, the short spark: this article in Rolling Stone. Not a publication I’ve previously paid much attention to, but I saw this particular article linked to by Kevin Arscott (Media watcher extraordinaire, writer of butireaditinthepaper.co.uk and editor of The New Journalist). The article is six pages long – a very potted summary follows: in the town of Anoka, Minnesota, pressure from parents led to the introduction of a school board policy that “homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle”. This led to teachers and school staff not being able to act against homophobic bullying of teenagers, for fear of losing their jobs for breaching the policy. This, aggravated by the presence of lots of kids who had been told (at home and at church) that homosexuality is morally wrong, led to the suicide of nine teenagers in two years.

This is genuinely a tragedy. There, but for the grace of God, go I. My experience of school – even though I had the benefit of going to a well-heeled, fee-paying secondary school in leafy southern England – is that other people are quite capable of making your life hell, and many will take great pleasure in doing so. Going to the school authorities about being bullied – in my case about the by-comparison-trivial business of having my packed lunch routinely stolen – inevitably makes matters worse, as the bullies know exactly who squealed on them. But at least they made an attempt to resolve the problem and punish the perpetrators. For a school to completely turn its back on students who are being bullied and threatened by their fellow pupils, to cut them off from all emotional support, is a dereliction of duty, and a perversion of the Christian ethos.

I was spared much of this – I was slow on the uptake, and didn’t “come out” until my early twenties. In many ways I’m grateful – I was physically and emotionally a lot more mature at that stage, and was able to deal with the tension between my own beliefs and my experience. I was also able to deal with being rejected by several churches. Through reading material published online, I was able to see through the theological arguments over what is and is not acceptable and come to my own conclusions, as an adult. Teenagers are not able to do this in the same way – they’re still seen in the eyes of the law and of the church as being under the direct control of their parents, and of the school system in loco parentis. So to restrict teens’ access to knowledge, ideas and emotional support is criminal. They need to learn about themselves, and not have the public school system be hamstrung by the strongly-held beliefs of some parents.

I have to say that I’m growing increasingly impatient with the churches’ lack of constructive engagement with this issue. My own preferred denomination – the Church of England – is particularly lousy at this. The need to “not rock the boat” with the conservative believers has kept liberal churchgoers in limbo for decades. Their inability to solve the seemingly intractable question of the ministry of women doesn’t bode well on the issue. I would refer anyone interested to the following recent events:

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I am rapidly losing patience with the CofE and much of the wider Church. However lovely many of its individual members may be, I’m not sure that I want to be part of an organisation that takes these kinds of attitudes – particularly when I can see how devastating the results of taking this attitudes to extremes can be.

May the dead children of Anoka rest in peace. I’m praying that no more follow them to an early grave.

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