Banning Anti-Homophobic T-Shirt Backfires at Ohio High School
COMMENTARY | Jesus was not a homophobe. Still reading? I thought so. If anything, a statement like the one above attracts interest. I doubt it's capable of substantially distracting an entire high school of today's teens. When beating cell phones for teens' attention is that simple, teaching will be a much easier job.
So, I'm not buying the story from Waynesville High School Superintendent Pat Dubbs reported on GoPride.com that "our main concern is maintaining an environment conducive to education." Dubbs was commenting on a lawsuit filed with help from Lambda Legal on behalf of Waynesville High School student Maverick Couch.
Last year, Mr. Couch's school principal demanded that he turn inside-out a T-shirt that read, "Jesus was not a homophobe." The shirt also featured a rainbow-filled Christian fish symbol. Couch wore the T-shirt on the National Day of Silence, a yearly event intended to draw awareness to GLBT issues. He hopes to win a policy reversal or court victory in time for this year's event on April 20.
I find the whole spectacle sad and unfortunate.
I'm sad for the young man at the center of this case. Despite his apparent confidence and sophistication, Couch had to choose between battling to express himself freely and maintaining his personal privacy. We can agree or disagree with the content of his message, but it appears its one Mr. Couch genuinely holds. That many others, Christians included, share the view should concern us all if such a message is so easily forbidden in a public school. For Mr. Couch, I'm sad that his effort to express his view will in so many ways bring an end to his childhood.
I'm sad that events such as these are forcing the judicial system into developing a doctrine that would be best left to the exercise of common sense. Where exactly should an administrator draw the line on the content of speech acts in school? I'm not sure I want a one-size-fits-all rule. I'm not sure any general rule is workable. Instead, the system works best when school officials exercise patience and restraint and focus on truly obscene or disruptive expressions.
I'm also sad that this incident reflects how far out of step many public schools remain regarding sensitivity to diversity. I can certainly appreciate that schools' interest in managing student expressions with sexual content. But a view that equates the word "homophobe" or even "homosexual" with "sex" is tragically anachronistic. Sexual orientation encapsulates a range of cultural norms much broader than mere physical sexuality. Thwarting attempts to silence recognition of that fact is one aim of the National Day of Silence.
I find the school's approach short-sighted, too. How willing is the school to now categorize analogous expressions as "sexual"? Would the school stop a student from wearing a T-shirt that reads "Stop Date Rape" or "Wait Until Marriage" or that refers to the Immaculate Conception? Will the school ban promise rings? All these expressions are "sexual" if "Jesus was not a homophobe" is sexual.
And that's why I find the conflict between Mr. Couch and Waynesville High School so unfortunate. From my view, no one wins and everybody loses.
In an apparent attempt to reduce distraction and prevent the transmission of an expression it characterized as sexual, the school sabotaged itself. Now facing a lawsuit against the backdrop of a shifting legal landscape, the school will be bandied about the national media. I am confident that this issue has become a distraction to learning - at least to those in charge of it. And of course, the taxpayers get to foot the legal bills.
I doubt that there would have been any distraction had the school taken initiative to reach out to GLBT students and help create a safe environment through awareness training. Instead, I'm left with the sense that school officials were just making excuses for a decision made more from prejudice than reason.
If so, I'm happy Mr. Couch decided not to remain silent.