You’ve got to be taught To hate and fear, You’ve got to be taught From year to year, It’s got to be drummed In your dear little ear You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid Of people whose eyes are oddly made, And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade, You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate, You’ve got to be carefully taught!
This song, “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught,” from the Broadway musical South Pacific by Richard Rogers & Oscar Hammerstein (1949) is heralded in the play by the line that prejudice is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born.” I immediately thought of this song when I watched a YouTube video of a young boy, whom I would estimate to be somewhere around the age of three, standing in front of the congregation at the Greensburg Apostolic Truth Tabernacle Church in Indiana, microphone in hand, preaching to the assembled:
“The Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong. The Bible’s right, somebody’s wrong. Romans one, twenty six and twenty seven; Ain’t no homos gonna make it to Heaven.”
The congregation jumps to its feet, loud cheers ringing out from primarily white men decked out in their Sunday best. A man is heard bellowing, “That’s my boy!” The beaming youth repeats his hymn twice over, applaud and shouting reaching a heightened crescendo, high fiving soaring overhead, joyous rapture throughout the hall. Amen! Coming back toward Earth, I believe that one of the litmus tests by which a society can be judged is the ways it treats its young people. This incident and so many others show that we as a nation have a long way to go to live up to our stated goals of ensuring freedom and justice for all. Child abuse is rampant in our society, and this is an example of child abuse in the guise of religion. Young people through their socialization learn the values and attitudes of people and later the larger society around them. Within this process, they also learn prejudices and how to discriminate through observing others and through reinforcement and adult modeling. They begin developing attitudes about various groups in society as early as ages three or four. Initially their attitudes are rather flexible. However, as they grow older, such attitudes become more ingrained and difficult to change. The developmental and educational psychologist, Albert Bandura (1965), proposed that children learn primarily through observation, and that one’s culture transmits social mores and what Bandura called “complex competencies” through social modeling. As he noted, the root meaning of the word “teach” is “to show.” Parents play an important role in prejudice acquisition. Not only do parents teach prejudice directly through reinforcement, but children often learn their parents’ prejudiced attitudes by simply observing their parents talking about and interacting with people from other groups. Society at large, adults, and peers present an array of modeling, a continuum from very productive and affirming to very biased, aggressive, and destructive. Bandura found that modeling included much more than simple observation of concrete actions followed by imitation (“response mimicry”), but also included what he called “abstract modeling” of such abstract concepts as following rules, taking on certain values and beliefs, and making moral and ethical judgments. Bandura found that the young people who observed an aggressive adult model were much more likely to exhibit both imitatively physical and verbal aggressive behaviors. I thought to myself as I watched this young boy on the video about the damage, the long-term damage, his elders had wrought upon him. Their own misdirected anger and hatred has already compromised the boy’s intrinsic sense of humanity and integrity by teaching him to treat others as objects, as scapegoats, as detestable and sinful “others.” I know full well the long-term damage as someone who was on the other side of the hatred directed against me when I too was very young. Long before I learned what were considered the “proper” rules of gender conduct, I expressed my gender in ways that were integral to me, but ways I was quick to discover were feared and even despised by others. Adults attempted to “correct” my performance, and young people called me names with an incredible vehemence and malice that I did not comprehend. This bullying and policing of my gender started the very first day I entered kindergarten. It was 1952 and I was attending public school in Bronxville, New York. As my mother dropped me off and kissed me good-bye on the cheek, I felt completely alone and began to cry. My new teacher walked up to me and said, in a somewhat detached tone of voice, “Don’t cry. Only sissies and little girls cry.” Some of the other boys overheard her, and quickly began mocking me. “The little girl wants her mommy,” one said. “What a sissy,” said another. Without a word, the teacher simply walked away. I went into the coatroom and cried, huddling in a corner by myself, until she discovered me. Early in my life, I developed what would become a lifelong appreciation of music and art. In the fifth grade, I auditioned for the school chorus and was accepted along with only a handful of boys and about 50 girls. The scarcity of boys in the cast was not due to any gendered imbalance in the quality of boys’ singing voices. The determining factor was one of social pressure. I and the other four boys in the chorus were generally disliked by our peers. In fact, most of the other boys in our class despised and picked on us, and viciously labeled us “the chorus girls,” “the fags,” “the sissies,” and “the fairies.” The girls, on the other hand, who “made it” into the chorus were well respected and even envied by the other girls in the school. Following my elementary school years, the attacks, harassment, and violence directed against me got much worse in junior high school. Those haunting days remain with me deep within the recesses of my soul to this very day. Diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and Social Anxiety Disorder, I find that those days now so long ago continue to limit my functioning on a daily basis.
And I believe that THE prime factor keeping oppression toward lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people locked firmly in place and enacted throughout our society – on the personal/interpersonal, institutional, and societal levels – are the negative doctrines and judgments emanating from primarily orthodox and fundamentalist religious communities.
According to the United States Department of Justice, 2001: “Bullying encompasses a variety of negative acts carried out repeatedly over time. It involves a real or perceived imbalance of power, with the more powerful child or group attacking those who are [perceived as] less powerful.” So I assert that the institutional bullying radiating from some religious denominations must stop! When religious leaders preach their negative interpretations of their sacred texts on issues of same-sex relationships or identities and gender non-conformity within and outside their respective houses of worship, they must be held accountable and responsible for aiding and abetting those who target and harass, bully, physically assault, and murder people perceived as lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender. In addition, they must be held accountable as accomplices in the suicides of those who are the targets of these aggressive actions. When the theocratic right declares that lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people are sinners and psychologically ill, and that they must not be allowed to promote their so-called “gay agenda,” indeed, as the line between religion and government is increasingly blurred, and when we are taught to hate ourselves, each one of us is demeaned, which denies us all our freedoms, and we have a right, or rather an obligation, to speak up, to fight back with all the energy, with all the unity, and with all the love and passion with which we are capable. From our vantage point at the margins, we have a special opportunity, indeed a responsibility, to serve as social commentators, as critics, exposing and highlighting the wide-scale inequities of all kinds that saturate and engulf our environment, and to challenge the culture to move forever forward and to grow. Though certain religious denominations may continue in their attempts to define us, they will not succeed. We will accept no longer their detestable mantra that “We hate the sin, but love the sinner.” We will accept no longer their telling us why and how we have come to our same-sex attractions and our gender non-conformity, and that it is a “choice” that we can change. We will continue to fight against their efforts to legislate us into second-class citizenship and codify their so-called “values” into law. We will fight their attempts to restrict us from entering the social institutions of our choice. Furthermore, we will not accept their framing of themselves as the victims of “religious bigotry” when we challenge their outmoded, hurtful, and yes, oppressive interpretations of our lives, interpretations that act to perpetuate their domination, their control, and their abuse upon young and old alike. Their time for bullying has come to an end. We are no longer intimidated. We are standing up, joining together as allies, as upstanders, to put an end to their intolerance, their hatred, their violence, to once and for all end the deaths that have taken so many beautiful and gentle spirits. I refuse to debate my existence on religious grounds ever again with anyone, since there is no “debate,” for to quote Rene Descartes, “I think therefore I exist,” period, the end. In the final analysis, our challenge is in no way “religious intolerance” or “religious bigotry,” but rather amounts to our standing up to correct a devastating social injustice. It is not “religious prejudice” to challenge their offensive, demeaning, degrading, marginalizing, persecution resulting, violence provoking, suicide inducing characterizations. We challenge their oppressive words and actions, which they often justify by invoking the name of God, as they understand God. The insanity, the bigotry, the hatred must end for the sake of our youth, and for the sake of our nation!
Former Associate Professor at the School of Education at Iowa State University and currently in the College of Education, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of “The What, The So What, and The Now What of Social Justice Education”, and “Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice”, co-editor of “Readings for Diversity and Social Justice”, editor of “Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price”, co-editor of “Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States”, and co-author of “Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life”.