Thursday, November 25, 2004


Maryland public school students are free to thank anyone they want while learning about the 17th century celebration of Thanksgiving - as long as it's not God. And that is how it should be, administrators say. Young students across the state read stories about the Pilgrims and Native Americans, simulate Mayflower voyages, hold mock feasts and learn about the famous meal that temporarily allied two very different groups. But what teachers don't mention when they describe the feast is that the Pilgrims not only thanked the Native Americans for their peaceful three-day indulgence, but repeatedly thanked God. "We teach about Thanksgiving from a purely historical perspective, not from a religious perspective," said Charles Ridgell, St. Mary's County Public Schools curriculum and instruction director.

School administrators statewide agree, saying religion never coincides with how they teach Thanksgiving to students. Too much censorship can compromise a strong curriculum, some educators said. "Schools don't want to do anything that would influence or act against the religious preferences of their students," said Lissa Brown, Maryland State Teacher's Association assistant executive director. "But the whole subject of religious toleration is a part of our history and needs to be taught." Brown, a former social studies teacher, said she was surprised to hear schools aren't teaching about the Pilgrims' faith in God.

Teaching about a secular Thanksgiving counters the holiday's original premise as stated by George Washington in his Thanksgiving Day proclamation: "It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor." Such omissions also deny the Pilgrims' religious fervor in the celebration of Thanksgiving, as related by Harry Hornblower, an archaeologist who spent years researching the history of the holiday..... But researchers like Hornblower aren't mentioned in classrooms. "We don't focus on religion, because it is not a part of our curriculum," said Sandra Grulich, Cecil County Schools' elementary school curriculum coordinator.

Opponents of censorship worry that by omitting such religious material from lesson plans, educators are compromising their students' education. "School administrators need to get a backbone," said Joel Whitehead, president and lawyer at the Rutherford Institute, a constitutional rights defense organization. "We are in real danger of throwing out cultural heritage in our country if we don't know what Thanksgiving is really about."

"In elementary school we learned that the Pilgrims came to the Indians and they all had a feast," said Emmanuel Cobington, 13, a seventh-grader at Annapolis Middle School. Emmanuel said his teachers never mentioned that the holiday was religious, but he added that he learns about different denominations in some of his classes.

Whitehead advocates for more classes like Emmanuel's and says it is harmful to students when administrators censor curriculums for fear of offending someone. "Education is inevitably going to offend someone," said Whitehead. "We need to get beyond being politically correct, or everything will be glossed over."

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Gays have never had it so good. Thirty-five per cent of the American public support civil unions for gay couples, including the president himself. It was gay marriage that the states rejected, not the legality of gay sex - and the marriage question wouldn't even have been up for debate a few years ago. At the same time that Bush was elected, Dallas County, Texas voted in a lesbian sheriff, hardly a sign of growing southern intolerance. And one of those worrying about a new backlash was 'Jonathan Katz, professor of gay history at Yale University', a title that speaks volumes about the status of gay issues.

There is no evidence that homophobic violence is on the rise. Yes, there has been a 20 per cent increase in incidents in London this year, but as a spokesperson for the gay community safety charity Galop told me, this 'is misleading': 'incidents fell last year, so this was only a return to the level the year before last.' The tally of 1344 incidents isn't huge for a city of seven million people, especially given the nature of many of the incidents. The Metropolitan Police takes a broad-brush definition of homophobia, as: 'any incident, which is perceived to be homophobic by the victim or any other person (that is directed to impact upon those known or perceived to be lesbians, gay men, bisexual or transgender people).'

An analysis of homophobic incidents recorded by the Met in 2001 showed that the largest proportion - some 35 per cent for men, and 50 per cent for women - involved threats rather than violence; another fifth involved criminal damage or theft. As a Galop spokesperson told me, a threat could include 'somebody shouting "dyke" in the street', or graffiti insults on a wall: 'the police are interested in hearing about all of it. Graffiti should be taken very seriously.' And there were some odd anomalies in the Metropolitan Police stats: four per cent of the perpetrators were a partner or ex-partner, and some of the attacks involved sex.

This might be explained by the fact that it seems that almost anything bad that happens to a gay person can be defined as 'homophobic'. Galop told me that it is handing on reports to the police of cases such as 'a man being robbed on a cruising ground', because this is about 'exploiting a weakness, a perception of gay men'. Another example is a man being picked up at a bar and assaulted - apparently this can be seen as homophobic because 'sex is about power'. But surely rape and theft are crimes in their own right; just because the victim is gay doesn't make it a hate crime.

While the police once raided gay clubs to arrest people, today they cruise them to encourage the reporting of homophobia....

What isn't so good is the way in which gays and lesbians have become shock troops in the campaigns of the new elite. The promotion of the issue of homophobia by everybody from the Metropolitan Police to the Tory Party, and the supposed remedy of re-education, marks the changing of the political guard. At a time when traditional institutions and values are suffering from something of an identity crisis, the gay issue is a shorthand way in which institutions can distance themselves from the past and show that they're 'with it'. Hence Tory Steven Norris' support for a gay museum in London, or the party's gay and lesbian summit for young people in March 2003. It's not so much that gays are naturally taking their place in the mainstream, as that they are being pushed on the stage by an insecure elite.....

The new elite doesn't believe in much, but 'tolerance' is one of the few things it can hold to. According to its brand of illiberal liberalism, anything goes except for pariah views about sexuality or race. The campaign against homophobia is an attempt to discipline the public (particularly the white working-class male section of the public) and re-educate them out of their ignorant ways....

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