Monday, April 25, 2011

Dan Savage: "Minnesota Has a Real Problem"

Dan Savage writes, "Minnesota has a real problem . . . ."

And Steve and I are wondering why this is the case (since it seems to us Savage is correct here), following our recent experiences with his family in Minnesota, about which I blogged some days back

Savage is writing about a grim story--the suicide of two teenage girls, Haylee Fentress and Paige Moravetz--in Minnesota recently.  There is evidence that the girls were experiencing bullying, and that the bullying included slurs about sexual orientation.  Dan Savage points out that the Minnesota Family Policy Council has sought to block anti-bullying programs in the state's schools.

As I've noted in several postings in the past year, one Minnesota school district, Anoka-Hennepin, has seen a spate of suicides of youths, some of them clearly attributable to bullying premised on sexual orientation.  In my postings about this, I detailed the difficulties I encountered when I participated in a national campaign to call on administrators of that school district to deal with the bullying proactively and assure protection to students being bullied.

And so Dan Savage's conclusion, which strikes Steve and me as well-founded, given our recent (and ongoing) experiences with some members of his staunchly Catholic family who refuse to accept him and our relationship as a gay couple, and who do not scruple to let us know this at every turn: Minnesota has a real problem.  Steve and I spent a good bit of time yesterday on a long Easter ramble around a lake in a park with our friend whom we've visited for Easter, discussing why that problem happens to be there in his native state.

And here are some of the conclusions we've reached:

Minnesota is a state that's pretty decisively divided between the large urban population of the twin cities in the south, and the rest of the state.  The rest of the state which is largely rural, dotted with small towns interspersed throughout agricultural regions . . . .  "The cities," as people in Steve's northwest corner of the state say, have the reputation historically of being progressive, culturally vibrant, education-focused.  That's less the case with the rest of the state, much of which, in Steve's view as a native, pretty well justifies the acerbic picture of its small-town culture painted by another native son, Sinclair Lewis, in novels like Main Street: closed-in, suspicious of outsiders, repressive, defiantly certain that its small-town mores reflect (or should reflect) the principles by which right-thinking people anywhere in the world live.

As Steve points out, however, the dichotomy between progressive cities and the rest of the state is beginning to break down as more and more people from the rural areas of the state settle in the twin cities, bringing those small-town mores to the cities themselves.  Many members of Steve's own family have settled there, in his generation and the generation before him.  Someone's voting for Michelle Bachmann, Steve points out--a representative whose congressional district begins just on the outskirts of the suburbs ringing the northern perimeter of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

And Steve thinks he knows who some of those "someones" are: they're people from towns like his, including some of his relatives, who enjoy the suburban life of the cities while fearing those who live within the cities themselves, who are apt to be from all sorts of backgrounds and ethnic origins, who are often progressive in their politics, who don't necessarily buy into the small-town mores of much of the rest of the state.  

The dynamic that governs the thinking of many of the residents of the booming suburbs around the twin cities is not unlike that found in suburban areas of many growing cities in the U.S.: the urban centers provide jobs and many other opportunities for those living in the suburbs.  But the suburbanites are often fearful of and unwilling to support the urban centers from which they draw their incomes.  And so they vote their fears, resisting taxation that might, in their imagination, go to support unsavory others in the cities, others who may be ethnically, politically, culturally, and religiously different from oneself.

Steve thinks many people he knows who have moved from his part of the state to the twin cities would almost certainly be in Michelle Bachmann's camp, because she knows how to plug into those visceral fears of the other.  And she's Republican: she is a member of the party their priests and bishops have taught them, in one way or another, to vote for, because it's God's party.  And she's staunchly anti-abortion--standing on God's side with the two issues that those same priests and bishops have told these good Catholics are the sole issues to be considered as they form their political consciences.

It seems undeniable to Steve and me that the Catholic church plays a regressive role, in key respects, in Minnesota politics and culture right now--and that role is on full display in its resistance to same-sex marriage and in the church's refusal to address the issue of bullying of gay youths in schools.  As numerous postings on this blog indicate (click on the label "Minnesota," if you want to track these), we followed the Minnesota bishops' political meddling in the fall elections in 2010 with fascination and consternation.  

To us, it was very clear that the Catholic bishops of Minnesota intended to throw the gubernatorial election last fall to the Republican candidate Tom Emmer, if they could possibly do so, and this is why they produced an expensive video attacking gay marriage and sent it to every Catholic household in the state.  The battle against gay marriage has sharpened in Minnesota in recent years, due to Iowa's enactment of civil marriage for same-sex couples, and this ratchets up the determination of the Catholic leaders of Minnesota to resist gay marriage.  The decision of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to accept openly gay, partnered clergy adds further energy to the bishops, as they pursue their anti-gay agenda.

The Catholics bishops of the state are determined to use gay issues (and therefore gay people and gay lives) as a rallying point for their pastoral leadership in the state: to attack gay citizens of the state, in one way or another, in order to score points for the political party with whom they have cast their lot.  For devout Catholic families like Steve's, the result is dismal.

What the Catholic leaders of Minnesota have accomplished in many Catholic families around the state is to set family member against family member, brother against brother and sister.  The pastoral leadership of the Catholic bishops of Minnesota has enabled self-righteous cruelty within many Catholic families, in which family members who refuse to accept their gay brother, sister, aunt, uncle, son, daughter, etc., feel not merely entitled to exclude, but obliged to do so.  They imagine they are doing a holy thing when they attack their gay family members.

That is the ultimate signal given by the anti-gay marriage video the Minnesota bishops mailed to every Catholic household in their state last fall.  It is a signal several members of Steve's own solidly Catholic family have received, and on which they intend to act with ugly statements about how their children need to be sheltered from the gays--even from gay uncles and aunts--so that they can grow up as they should, righteous and devout, free from the taints of the evil secular world that is going to hell in a handbasket.

Minnesota has become, for Steve and me, a case study in the determination of Catholic leaders at this point in history to turn their church into a mean machine.  We're aware--and very grateful--that not all Catholics in Minnesota or elsewhere buy into the rhetoric of meanness.  We celebrate the support of some of Steve's Catholic family members.

At the same time, we cannot help seeing the ugly, the savage, cost of the political decisions that the Catholic bishops of Minnesota (and in the U.S. as a whole) have made, with their determination to attack gay marriage (and gay people and gay lives).  We see the cost in our own lives, as we deal with yet another condemnatory letter followed by yet another spate of vituperous emails and phone messages, reminding us of who owns God and Catholic truth, and who needs to remember that he's on the outside and not welcome as a full member of a good Catholic family.

And it seems to us crystal clear that these attitudes, which are actively fostered now by the Catholic bishops of Minnesota, are, indeed, part of the mix of cruelty that results in bullying of gay youths.  Youths who then end up killing themselves, while some Catholic parents inform their own gay and lesbian family members that everything they do as they exclude their gay loved ones is about protecting their own children from the taint of homosexuality . . . .

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