Searching for hope in a cruel political season
Protesters chant “shame, shame, shame” after a Kentucky legislative committee advanced anti-trans legislation, March 2, 2023, in the Kentucky Capitol Annex. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Sarah Ladd)
FRANKFORT — I was sitting at my desk a stone’s throw from the Kentucky Capitol googling Galileo.
Was the father of modern science really shown the instruments of torture to make him renounce his belief that the Earth circles the sun?
The authorities had divined that it was the other way around, that God had put them at the center of the universe. Galileo unsettled their comfy world view.
Why, you may wonder, was I reading up on someone who died in 1642?
Kentucky’s General Assembly had me desperate for evidence that rule by fear has an expiration date, that it works for only so long, that eventually humanity and the power of knowledge win out.
That may sound naive after what we just witnessed. More than a few times, I marveled: How can these basically decent, if incurious and conservative, lawmakers be so cruel?
Our Republicans weren’t marching just in lockstep with each other. They were part of some grander plan, out of an old playbook:
- Stir up fear of the “other,” in this case a small group of transgender kids.
- Spread distrust of education and knowledge itself.
A wave of 435 bills aimed at curbing the rights of LGBTQ+ people is moving through state legislatures, according to tracking by the American Civil Liberties Union. No popular groundswell produced this wave; neither did coincidence.
Will it work? It might.
Republicans benefitted at the polls in 2004 by putting same-sex marriage on the ballot in multiple states, including Kentucky. At least one U.S. Supreme Court justice has hinted at reversing the right of adults to marry whom they choose and even their right to obtain contraception.
But Americans have moved on. Yes, there are exceptions, but no one is much bothered anymore by a loving family that does not conform to an old stereotype (that never matched reality in the first place).
Questions of gender identity understandably rattle the empathy-challenged and those who see things as black-white, boy-girl, us-them. Who insist the universe revolves around their beliefs.
As the late-night legislative debates raised emotions, obvious bigotry against LGBTQ+ people occasionally flared.
But for the most part Republicans stuck to their script that concern, even love, for children fueled their determination to act against medical advice by banning some health care for some kids. They were protecting them, they insisted, from parents who might make bad decisions, leaving those parents with one decision, whether to leave Kentucky to find care for their children.
The same Republican lawmakers also insisted they had to safeguard parents’ rights by enacting restrictions on what can be read, seen or talked about in public schools.
The new complaint process seems tailored to turn school board meetings into trial courts for books. The new law even has an emergency clause, launching the Inquisition in plenty of time for this fall’s governor’s race.
“Gender Queer,” a graphic memoir about a nonbinary adolescent, has roused the most outrage here and elsewhere. I should read it.
But even having not seen it, I’d bet that nothing in any school library comes close to matching the obscenity that Sen. Jason Howell, R-Murray, says invaded his Twitter account without his knowledge and stayed there for almost two years.
Howell sponsored the rid-our-schools-of-obscenity bill and has every right to view pornography. He says hacking put the porn in his “likes.” In response to our story, several people suggested to me that his Twitter could have been attacked by bots sent to drive up followers for the porn accounts.
My point: If sexually explicit material can just appear in the cell phone of a lawyer and legislator, imagine what a curious adolescent can find on the internet.
Access to facts about the human body does not corrupt kids. Neither do novels, poems or sculpture. Age-appropriate education about sex, its mechanics, the feelings and questions it sparks, does not harm kids. It arms kids for what our sex-saturated culture and their own hormones throw at them.
It protects children from sexual abuse by giving them the words and, we hope, the trust, to talk to a protective adult.
It’s worth noting that this legislature entertained characterizations of educators as “groomers” and indoctrinators, but killed (in the Senate) a bill that would have kept real groomers, teachers found responsible for sexual misconduct with students, from moving on and getting a job at another school.
Hostility toward education is a thread in Kentucky’s history. But so is protesting injustice — granted, a thinner, more fragile thread.
I’m old enough to remember when queer people closeted themselves, hid who they were to avoid unsettling or inciting the established order.
Those days are gone, thank God.
Though the threat of violence looms still, LGBTQ+ Kentuckians and their friends, especially young people, came out and cried out against injustice and bigotry.
My generation is leaving behind a god-awful mess — an economy that works for too few, a planet suffering rapid climate change, a politics that feeds on division.
But the hundreds of Kentuckians who rallied at their Capitol, unafraid to show who they are and who they love, represent real progress in my lifetime.
Galileo was threatened with torture, convicted of heresy but sentenced to house arrest. During those last nine years of his life he wrote a book admired by Albert Einstein who dubbed the old star-gazer the father of modern science.
The supermajority’s culture warriors may rule from the center of Kentucky’s political universe. But like the rest of us, they’re riding a spinning orb, circling a star, in a moral universe that another visionary once said has an admittedly long arc “that bends toward justice.”
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