Category Archives: EQUALITY
My first thought upon seeing the actual buildings of our new high school while still under construction in the spring of 2019 was, Oh, no! This was not the emphatic Oh, no! in anticipation of stopping an action. This was the mystified Oh, no! accompanied by incredulity and a sense of sorrow and grief. I had seen aerial architectural renditions of the building months ago during the community debate over changing the name of the school and thought only, Wow! What an impressive building! Admittedly, I was disappointed on August 16, 2018, when the local school board failed to act on the name change proposal. Why was I not impressed with the actual structure now?
What I saw now was an impressive building, but one somehow tainted. The architectural focal points of the structure are reminiscent of antebellum plantation homes constructed in the American South prior to the Civil War. The neoclassical, antebellum “look” is clearly apparent in the grand pillared front entrance as well as the columned porticos adorning the four wings of the main building. Why was my Oh, no! accompanied by such a wave of incredulity and sorrow? This grand, new building conjuring up images of southern plantation life will continue to carry the name Robert E. Lee High School. The Robert E. Lee name is questionable enough in our current times. The name coupled with the architectural style of the building simply compounds the question. Have the taxpayers of Tyler ISD spent $94,584,548, yes, approximately $95 million dollars, on what could arguably be a memorial to the antebellum South and General Robert E. Lee?
The greatest sorrow is not that our new Robert E. Lee High School invokes the most tragic portions of our national history – institutional slavery of African Americans and its many abuses. Not that we should forget that time in our history, indeed we need to remember, repent – “turn from (our racist) ways” – and seek reconciliation. The greatest sorrow regards our students. The current student demographic for Robert E. Lee High School is approximately 28% African American, 27% Hispanic, and 38% White. These students will be expected to attend, learn, and thrive as they walk through the doors and roam the corridors of an institution that seemingly memorializes the horrors, hostility, and hate of their ancestral histories.
Tyler, even as a small city in conservative East Texas, does not exist in isolation, and the national upheaval over systemic racism predicated by George Floyd’s senseless murder is felt here as well. With this has come revitalized calls to change the name of our Robert E. Lee High School, the largest high school in the nation to still carry that name. At this time in our nation’s history there is so much racial hurt and strife, so much need to listen, to support, and seek to understand (as much as possible for us white folks) our African American friends, neighbors, and family members, so much need for racial reconciliation.
Tyler is known for its “quiet racism.” However, Robert E. Lee High School has been the flash point of some not so quiet and contentious community and legal racial wrangling from its opening in 1958 as an all-white school, to its court ordered integration in 1970, to the fallout surrounding its “Rebel” mascot and Confederate symbols that was finally mitigated through court and Texas Education Agency intervention in 1972. The mascot and symbols were changed; however, in opposition to urgings from black parents and students the local board refused to change the name just as they did recently in 2018.
And, here we are again! I can think of no better action to exemplify our desire for racial reconciliation than to remove the Robert E. Lee name from our school. Hopefully, this time our community with open minds, eyes, ears, and hearts will be able to move forward along “the arc of the moral universe (as) it bends toward justice” and human compassion.
I was finishing Richard Wright’s 1945 groundbreaking memoir, Black Boy, when the news broke of George Floyd’s death. I was horrified, incredulous even as I watched the appalling video. How could and why would anyone keep an unarmed, handcuffed (behind his back) man pinned to the ground with a knee on his throat even as he pleaded that he could not breathe and was in pain? I don’t know that there is any acceptable answer. The events of the day and Richard Wright’s story of growing up black in the Jim Crow South set me to wondering Have we made any meaningful progress in the past 100 years?
In Wright’s story he states that “. . .a sense of the two races had been born in me with a sharp concreteness that would never die until I died.” As post World War I racial conflict flared in the South, he recognizes that “A dread of white people now came to live permanently in my feelings and imagination.” As a ten-year old Wright listened to stories of violence against blacks and reports “Nothing challenged the totality of my personality so much as this pressure of hate and threat that stemmed from the invisible whites.” Wright’s story offers some sense of what it was, perhaps still is, like growing up a “black boy” in America. Admittedly as a white woman, I could never fully understand or appreciate his feelings or life experiences.
On the surface we have made some positive strides toward racial equality and equity. We no longer see the signs at water fountains, restrooms, or business establishments designating which is accessible for “White” or “Colored.” Our schools are integrated and open to all races, if not in reality at least in theory and public policy. Yet there remains an undercurrent of racial segregation and inequality in the most vital of our societal structures – such as our neighborhoods, our places of worship, our educational and job opportunities. We see disproportionate amounts of poverty and violence among African Americans. Many hearts and minds have been opened and awakened to the racial disparities in our society and are compelled to speak out and work for change in these vital areas that impact the future and well-being of all our people, our society, and our nation.
Even so racial prejudice, both explicit and implicit, and violence targeting African Americans has always and tragically continues to be alive and well in our society. From the “terror lynchings” of the Civil War, post-Civil War, and Jim Crow eras to the murders of Emmett Till, James Byrd, and most recently Aubrey Ahmad private citizens have committed acts of violence against African Americans for no apparent reason other than racial hatred. Most recently, we have seen seemingly senseless deaths of African American men at the hands of our police – those who have pledged to “never betray my badge, my integrity, my character, or the public trust.” We all remember Michael Brown and Ferguson, Eric Garner in New York, Freddie Gray of Baltimore, and now George Floyd in Minneapolis.
It would seem that regardless of our positive strivings, racism – racial strife, hatred, and violence – continues among us. I am reminded of Wright’s words:
“… both of us, the white boys and the black boys, began to play our traditional racial roles as though we had been born to them, as though it was in our blood, as though we were being guided by instinct. All the frightful descriptions we had heard about each other, all the violent expressions of hate and hostility that had seeped into us from our surroundings, came now to the surface to guide our actions.”
Let’s listen more and better. Let’s hear the words of Richard Wright and our African American neighbors. Let’s strive to understand, appreciate, and affirm one another. Let’s take action and make more meaningful progress in breaking the bonds of our “traditional racial roles” and crumble the “sharp concrete” between races.
Perhaps this can best be done by expanding on and living out a couple of Wright’s insights. In spite of the “place” the white South had assigned him, he states emphatically that “It had never occurred to me that I was in any way an inferior being,” and that no word he had ever heard “made me really doubt the worth of my own humanity.” God help us to claim and boldly live out our belief that all men are created equal and by the mere fact of their humanity all men are worthy.
And, let’s follow Wright’s lead and keep hope alive in us “by imagining a place where everything was(is) possible.”
I sat in the Tyler ISD School Board meeting last night anticipating a vote and a decision that I would support–whatever the outcome–out of respect for the leadership and authority of the school board. I came away incredulous! The motion to change the name of Robert E. Lee High School and begin the new name selection process was followed by stony silence. The board president reminded the members that seconding a motion did not infer or require an affirmative vote. More silence from the dais and the crowd of approximately 100 citizens. The motion was allowed to die for lack of a second. What was going on? In the July board meeting, just two weeks previous, board members had expressed frustration with continued focus on the name change issue and rejected the ideas of more community input meetings or a subcommittee for further study. Instead, they urged an up or down vote on whether to change the name as a means to bring closure one way or another to the entire issue. I was not the only one bewildered after the board’s refusal to allow a vote in this special meeting called for that purpose. Though not the movie setting, “dazed and confused” would be an apt descriptor for many faces in the crowd.
Approximately a year ago after the incident surrounding the controversy of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia, a grassroots effort focused on changing the name of the south Tyler Robert E. Lee High School sprouted and grew. Equally as quickly a counter group took root, and Tyler, once again was a divided community. More accurately the racial tensions that have long remained lumps under Tyler’s beautiful public carpet of roses and azaleas were exposed. The carpet was ripped up and the dust flew!
In September 2017 board members initially signaled support for a name change with one member asking, “Is it fair to make African-American students attend a school named for the leading figure of the Confederacy?” Another stated in reference to the name change, “This is not changing history, this is making a positive impact today,” and urged the board to “do the right thing. . . It’s time for a change.” So what happened? What changed in eleven months?
Unfortunately as the year progressed, the public and, I can only assume, the private discourse was not always civil and respectful. Dueling Facebook groups logged on and petitions swirled. Honestly, when I saw some of the posts, my heart broke and I thought, Oh, no, no! Let’s not go there! Attendance at school board meetings skyrocketed. Items regarding the name change issue were on the official board agenda four times during the past year. Approximately 150 to 200 citizens made public comments at these and other board meetings with the numbers for and against the change fairly equal. Needless to say, it was at times ugly.
Yes, the nature and tenor of the discourse changed. It became louder, more fractured, less civil, and at times plummeted to accusation and name-calling. Regrettably, some folks on both sides allowed their emotions and passions to cloud and disrupt their reason and respect. Interestingly, as the board members spoke moments prior to the “vote, but no vote,” their primary focus, with a couple of exceptions, was on the community. They expressed, sometimes loudly, their disapproval and disappointment in the process and chastised folks for the divisiveness, the disrespect, the lack of courtesy and civility. They argued that the name change issue was a political and social issue and not germane to the function of the board—to focus on successful student outcomes. They took offense to this issue “being forced upon the board” and “the predicament that we have been placed in.” They argued that a name change would be a betrayal of the taxpayers who approved a bond to construct and renovate John Tyler High School and Robert E. Lee High School and changing the name was equated to a “bait and switch” scheme. (Note: The actual proposition on the May 6, 2017 Official Ballot-Bond Election did not include the names of the two high schools.)
What I found even more interesting and unsettling was that again, with only a few exceptions, the board members did not talk about what they believed would be the impact of a name change or no name change on current or future students. Although they espoused their focus as a board was to work toward positive, successful student outcomes, I did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a negative/positive impact on student achievement because. . .” I also did not hear, “I believe changing the name would have a positive/negative impact on our community because. . .” Logically, every issue before the board should be viewed through the lens of how will this impact student outcomes/achievement. How will it impact our community as a whole and thus our community of students? With few exceptions specific answers to these vital questions were not a large part of the board members’ discussion at this or any previous meeting to my knowledge.
Maybe, to the detriment of all, some in the community allowed their emotions to guide their discourse, and in the end, perhaps the majority of the board members did as well. As school board members and leaders of the community, they failed to lead. They failed to remain objectively focused on the issue—a school name change—and how that change would or would not impact student outcomes, now and in the future. Granted, it is a difficult, highly charged, emotional issue with prospects for a general consensus being very bleak even in the process of extended civil discourse. Surely, the board members knew this. Also, I would hope they knew when they ran for office that there would be times of difficult decisions, contentious personalities, unhappy people, and they could possibly, most probably, at some point be the target of someone’s ill-temper.
The community expected a vote. The board members had lead folks to believe that they wanted a vote, a decision. Why didn’t it happen? Why did our leaders fail to lead? I have my ideas, which are purely speculative and probably, for now, are best kept to myself. As I left the board meeting amidst the dazed and confused, I heard various descriptors–cowards, shameful, no moral courage, gutless. Well, I don’t know about all that. I do believe, in this instance they failed to rise above the fray, maintain their focus on the best possible student outcomes, measure the issue through that lens, and vote on a difficult issue. On this occasion, they failed to lead. One board member stated prior to the “vote, no vote” that no matter what the board had done up until this point this is how they’re going to be remembered. Unfortunately, I believe he is correct!
Dear School Board Members:
I was glad to see the news that a vote on the school name change is on the agenda for the school board meeting on Monday, August 6. I realize this has been a very difficult and divisive issue for our community and to some extent the school board. I agree, it is time for the board to vote on the issue and for our community to commit to respectfully abide by the board’s decision.
Unfortunately, this is one of those situations fraught with highly charged emotions and opinions with folks unlikely to come to any general consensus even in the process of an extended civil discourse and dialogue. It truly saddens me that our community’s discourse on this issue was not always civil or respectful. Thus, you seven, as members of the school board, are tasked with making a decision which will have a significant and lasting impact on our students, both current and future, and on our community as a whole. I respect your leadership and your courage as you do this, knowing that whatever decision you make, there will be those who will not be pleased.
As you consider your individual decisions, I sincerely hope that you come to the conclusion that a name change, particularly the Robert E. Lee name, is in the overall best interest of our students and community. I believe a name change would:
- assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement. This is our ultimate goal—student achievement.
- promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to the well being of all our students and excellence in their education.
- be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.
In all honesty with you, I think it is unfortunate that General Lee’s name has become such a lightning rod for issues of race in our country, but it has and that is the reality in which we must live and make our decisions. In light of this reality I think it would be unwise to carry the Lee name forward into our new school. Let’s take advantage of our new school situation and move forward with “a brand new thing.” (Isaiah 43:18-19)
I ask each of you to vote in favor of the name change. As leaders in our community, your making a unanimous vote would be a model of unity for our community and influential in promoting community healing and reconciliation. After a vote to change the name, it would be my hope that a diverse group of stakeholders—community members, school representatives, students, parents—would be tasked to come together and begin the process of new name selection and determining an appropriate means to remember and recognize the school’s history. . Perhaps this process can be the mechanism for community reconciliation—a coming together and discussing shared hopes and visions for our students, schools, and community. We have spent a year focusing on our disagreement, which never brings forth a solution. With your leadership, our community can turn its focus to the future and all the possibilities of this brand new thing.
Thank you for your service and dedication to excellence in education for all our Tyler students. I want you to know that I will respectfully abide by whatever decision the board makes on this issue and encourage others to do so. During my 38 years in education and counseling I always told my students that it was okay, and sometimes even understandable, if they did not like the rules or decisions made by their parents or teachers, and they were expected to respect the authority represented by their parents and teachers by abiding by the rules and decisions. I see this situation as somewhat similar. You, as the board, are the current elected leaders of our district and vested with the authority to make rules and decisions for the district. I hope and pray that once your decision is made Monday evening that all the good folks of Tyler ISD will respectfully accept your decision, come together, and continue to work toward providing our students with the excellent educational opportunities they deserve.
“We will honor creation and human life together, across religions, nations, and cultures, or we will perish together. Treat life as Sacred! This is God’s command—to all humanity. The response is up to all of us.”
From: The Sacredness of Human Life by David P. Gushee
Again, it is 3:04 am, and I have been awake for an hour with these thoughts banging around in my head. So I might as well get up and write it down. I am not one to bandy around scripture, and in this instance I feel a bit compelled. In doing so I claim Matthew 10:27
What I tell you in the dark, speak in the daylight; what is whispered in your ear, proclaim from the roof!
Day before yesterday seemingly out of the blue a portion of scripture popped into my head, “I am going to do a brand new thing.” I immediately associated that with our current local issue regarding changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School. I let a day rock on and the scripture kept coming up so I looked it up. Literally, I googled it as I have a hard time holding on to chapter and verse. Isaiah 43:18-19
Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past.
See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not
perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and
streams in the wasteland. (New International Version)
I found it interesting that when I went to my Bible(s) these verses were marked with dates and notes. Apparently, I had been here before—learning to let go of the old and letting God do a new thing.
At any rate, I see some application for the verses in our current REL issue as most of the arguments in favor of keeping the name center around our personal memories and traditions of the school. “It is our heritage!” claimed one proponent of saving the name. I agree! It is our heritage, and we will fondly remember some of our high school experiences and traditions. Also, it is time to turn from focusing on our history and heritage and begin looking forward to this “new thing.” The new school under construction “springs up” even now. It is time to turn from our heritage and focus on our future legacy. It is time to ask, “What will be our legacy, our bequest to future generations and our community?” In answering that question, let’s begin to truly “perceive” all the possibilities of this “new thing” this “brand new thing?” (The Living Bible)
We know the deeper context of Isaiah 43—man’s rebellion and God’s redemptive grace—has universal application. I find verses 5-7 somewhat, maybe particularly, relevant to our current circumstances. Apparently, the people have become divided and scattered, but God says he will bring them from the east and the west. He will command the north and the south to “Give them up! Do not hold them back.” Sons will come from afar and daughters from the ends of the earth. To me that sounds a bit like unification and reconciliation.
Have we become a divided and scattered people? Do we need unity and reconciliation? Could this turning from the old and moving forward with this “brand new thing” possibly be a step on our way through the desert, the wilderness? I don’t know! I only ask the questions. My personal answer is “Yes!” because I certainly don’t want to thwart or hinder the possibilities of this “brand new thing”—new school with a brand new name.
Perhaps, if we harden not our hearts and let the better angels of our nature be our guide we will come to experience all the possibilities of this “brand new thing.” Through and in it all let us remember Lincoln’s words, “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must not break our bond of affection,”
I was awake before 4 am this morning with these thoughts banging around in my head. I could not go back to sleep so I got up and wrote them down.
Tyler ISD: Remembering Recent History and Moving Forward
I want to review a bit of history, not the history of decades ago that has been the focus of much of this name change discussion, but more recent history. Beginning in 2004 Tyler ISD began a phased trajectory of building improvements. Bonds were passed in 2004, 2008, 2013, and the most recent in 2017. To date, through the leadership of our forward thinking school boards and our citizens’ commitment to quality education for all our students, we have built, replaced, or renovated 13 elementary schools, three middle schools, and one career and technology center. We are in the process of remodeling and making additions to our two high schools, which in the case of REL High School is tantamount to a new school. With the completion of the high school projects, our community will have invested $579 million in schools for our current and future students – Tyler’s future!
Tyler ISD student achievement is also on the rise. Twenty-three of 25 campuses met the state standard for accountability in 2017. The number of TISD campuses rated “improvement needed” has declined rapidly from a high of 14 in 2014 to only 2 campuses in 2017. The leadership of our board, the efforts of our administrators, faculties, and staffs, the hard work of our students, and the support of our community are moving Tyler ISD forward into a better future. Good things are happening in TISD!
It has not always been a smooth course. A bond attempt failed in 2010. The school board took considerable flack about the design and appearance of the new school buildings. I think some of us will remember the “Taj Mahal” conversations and the criticisms for spending tax dollars on such grand building facades. If I remember correctly, in defending and promoting the building designs the board argued that they were to:
- project a positive, appealing image for the school and community.
- assure a school that the students could be proud of and want to attend, and ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement.
- promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to all our students and excellence in their education.
- be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.
All were valid arguments then and are still valid arguments today.
Now as we ponder the name change for Robert E. Lee High School, let’s keep our recent history in mind, continue to be forward thinking, and focus on our goal — meeting the needs of our Tyler community by providing a quality education for our students, those of today and in the decades to come. I believe changing the name of REL would be a grand step in striving toward that goal. This is an opportune time to make the change. We have a new school so let’s find a new name that is a better reflection of the student body and the image we want for Tyler moving forward.
I know that an item to change the name to Lee High School has been placed on the board’s agenda for this Monday’s meeting. This is touted as a “compromise.” My questions at this point are “Do we really want to compromise where our students’ education and best interest are concerned? Do we want to compromise with regard to our best hopes for our community’s future? Did we compromise and scale down the grand designs as our building projects continued? I think a quick look at our new Career and Technology Center answers a resounding “No!” to these questions.
Will the change to Lee High School bring any recognition for Dorothy Lee, a Tyler community leader and a staunch advocate for education and equality? If not, my next question, “Then why compromise now?” Why have we moved from making courageous, difficult decisions for the best interest of our schools, students, and community–as we did with our building designs–to compromising in the hopes of what–appeasing the masses, quieting difficult public discourse, political expediency, avoiding a public stance (vote) on a controversial issue?
I have heard those opposing a name change speak of REL as their heritage. REL is part of my heritage as well. I began my 38-year career in education student teaching at REL under Kay Andrews. My sons graduated from REL. I remember great times at football games, band and chorale activities, booster meetings, and even working the concessions. I fondly and firmly hold on to my REL memories and traditions. Now, I hope we all can move on to our legacy – what we want to bequeath for the future to our students and community.
I hope that you, members of today’s TISD school board, remember the board’s courage and leadership in the recent past, and leave a legacy of a new school with a new name for a better Tyler. Changing the name of Robert E. Lee High School will:
- project a positive, appealing image for the school and community.
- assure a school that the students can be proud of and will want to attend, and will ultimately have a positive effect on student achievement.
- promote a positive, progressive image for our community, a community committed to all our students and excellence in their education.
- be an enticement for families and businesses considering moving into the Tyler area.
We are at a pivotal time and place in our school and community history. Robert E. Lee is a different school. Tyler is a different, growing, and diverse community. Let’s focus on what is best for our future–for the school and our community? It is my sincere hope in moving forward with a new name that we remain grounded in our respect for one another, guided by our “better angels,” and that our sense of loss will be softened by the promise of a new beginning, a new chapter with new possibilities for our beloved school and our community. Thank you, each of you, for your continued service and leadership.Tyler
I went into our Tyler Public Library this morning to take some photos of our East Texas PFLAG June PRIDE Month display. In between shots I stepped away to make some camera adjustments. As I did this I noticed a young girl—the library was swarming with children for story time—maybe three to four years old, enter the library and make a beeline to the display case. Apparently she was not new to the library or the display case that is always filled with information or projects related to local organizations. Good for you, Mama! I assumed the young woman right behind her was her mother.
The little girl placed her hands on the edge of the case and stood on her tiptoes as she looked at its contents. Mama was standing quietly behind her and looking as well. Inside the case, displayed over a red cloth and rainbow flag, was an assortment of booklets and pamphlets published by our National PFLAG (formerly known as Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) organization. Some of the titles included: Faith in Our Families, Safe Schools, Our Trans Loved Ones, Be Yourself, Our Daughters and Sons. There were also various buttons and decals with words and symbols promoting diversity and equality. Also included were a couple of family/children’s books, A Day in the Life of Marlon Bundo, And Tango Makes Three.
After a few moments on tiptoes, the little girl reached up and mama picked her up. “Oh, you can’t see.” They continued to look at the display. I remained at a distance and overhead this bit of conversation:
“What is that?” asked the little girl.
“What does that mean?”
“It means being fair to everyone,” answered Mama. My thought, Good answer, Mama! There was some indecipherable conversation, and Mama said, “But we can’t take the bunny book (Marlon Bundo) out of the case. Let’s go find another bunny book.” They walked away from the case, and I moved up and finished the photos. I was thrilled. I couldn’t wait to share what I had just witnessed.
A bit of the backstory might shed some light on why I was so elated with this small interaction between child and parent. This is the fourth year that the public library has had some type of LGBT display during June PRIDE Month. Three of these years—2015, 2016, and 2018— East Texas PFLAG has been responsible for the set up with the contents pretty much the same. The only additions this year were the two family/children’s books. In 2017 the library staff set up a display of library books on LGBT issues.
Tyler is a city of approximately 100,000 residents in conservative Smith County in east Texas. 2016 was the only year that the display was not the target of opposition from a small yet vocal number of library patrons. Other years when complaints were lodged, the city administrative personnel directed the library staff to move the display to a less trafficked area of the building. Actually, the first year, the display was summarily dismantled; however, after an outcry and a barrage of phone calls and emails to city hall, it was restored; yet still moved. Last year, 2017, there was only one complaint lodged claiming that many of the library’s displays are not informational but reflect social agendas that are not necessarily inline with community standards. After this complaint the library’s book display was moved upstairs. A consistent complaint each year is the location of the East Texas PFLAG display—purported to be “too close” to the children’s section.
My initial response in 2015 to the “too close” to the children’s section complaint was:
I would think that if a child were old enough to be inquisitive and ask a question, then this would be a wonderful opportunity for parenting. The parent(s) could answer the child’s questions and offer information and guidance as they, the parent(s), deemed appropriate.
That is still my opinion today, and I was thrilled to the point of joy as I watched this morning’s interaction play out before me and heard the mama’s truthful, age-appropriate response to her child’s question, “What is equality?”
“It means being fair to everyone.” Good answer, Mama! Great parenting!
Many thanks to our library staff for continuing to be a center for learning and informational resources as well as a beacon of inclusiveness and equality in our community.
Lou Anne and I were recently invited to participate in this “Who Is My Neighbor” lecture series. It was a wonderful experience, and we met lots of good, kind folks. Thanks to all those who showed up to warm the room and our hearts. It was a cold, wet Sunday morning outside. After our talk several folks approached me and asked if they could have a copy of my talk. Well here is my prepared script, which doesn’t mean this is exactly what I said, but hopefully, close enough. Namaste!
Who Is My Neighbor?
In thinking about the title for this series, it struck me that neighborliness – who is my neighbor and how do I relate to and treat my neighbor — has been an issue through the ages. After all we know from scripture that on numerous occasions Moses, Jesus, and Paul offered instruction and guidance on neighborliness. When we were first asked to speak today, I immediately thought of the November 8, 2005, Texas Constitutional Amendment Election in which Texans voted on Proposition 2 – the amendment to define marriage in Texas as only between one man and one woman. Prior to that election, I wrote a letter and Lou Anne and I distributed it to our neighbors. My opening statement in that letter 13 years ago answered today’s question: We are your neighbors!’ The “we “ of today’s discussion is the LGBTQ+ community.
Let me say first that our LGBTQ+ community as a subpopulation is just as diverse as our population as a whole. I think this is fairly evident in the “alphabet soup” identifiers. Let me assure you there are efforts afoot to remedy that somewhat cumbersome moniker. If we must label there are other options floating about — DSG-Diverse Sexualities and Genders; GSM-Gender and Sexual Minorities; and the favorite among our younger folks, Queer. For today I will simply use “our community.” Who is your neighbor? We are! Let me introduce you to a few of our folks. (Real folks, not so real names.)
Meet John and Richard—two gay men in a 20+year relationship and legally married for many of those years. Both professionals, one retired. Both Christians attending a welcoming and affirming congregation in the area. One serving on the church board of directors. A visit with them always includes conversations about church, and grandchildren.
Meet James and Sal—a young transgender man and his spouse. Both continuing their educational paths and pursuing their career aspirations while building their dream house. Both active as advocates for our community.
Meet Ron and Rebecca—a straight couple working, operating a business, and raising a family. Both fierce advocates for their gender non-conforming child.
Meet Gary—a middle-aged man with a promising career cut short decades ago by the cruelty of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. An advocate for our community, always a charming host, and a proclaimed Atheist.
Meet Betty and Julie—a lesbian couple in a 26-year relationship, married for 12 years. Both retired – a military nurse and university professor with a degree in Religious History. They stay engaged with friends, the publishing industry, and their “kids,” three small dogs, a cat, and a 38 year-old parrot. Christian backgrounds, but with no current religious affiliation, perhaps leanings toward Buddhism.
Meet Charles and Mike—Generation X gay men, medical and tech professionals. Baptist and Seven Day Adventists background. Want no part of organized religion.
Meet Blake and Slade who are queer youth navigating the uncertain and sometimes treacherous waters of school, legal hurdles, and public facilities.
And then you have Lou Anne and me. We have been together for 17 years, the last two legally married. With four children and seven grandchildren between us, we stay quiet busy. Both from the Baptist faith tradition, and only a couple of years ago choosing to leave the Baptist church.
So, our community is diverse and our spiritual/religious beliefs, experiences, and levels of participation are varied. As I share with you today, I can really only speak of my experience, yet from study and visiting with other members of our community, perhaps I can make some general comments about our faith journeys.
I believe for most in our community our spiritual beliefs have been both a solace and a source of seemingly unbearable struggle. From the Bible to the Quran most world religions-Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu-espouse beliefs that being LGBTQ is wrong-a sin-and unacceptable. Thus in matters of faith and religion, Gender and Sexual Minorities folks are naturally set –up for angst and turmoil.
I know my faith journey was filled with the gut wrenching agony and heart breaking struggle between who I am and what my religion said I should be. My solace came more from my faith and my personal study and interpretation of scripture than from the institutional church/religion. After years of praying, “Lord, please remove this ‘thorn in my flesh,’” trying to be straight and do the “right” things, I finally threw up my hands in surrender and clung to verses such as “For God so loved Brenda. . .,” my adaptation of John 3:16 since I am part of “the world.” I interpreted Mark 12:30-31 “. . . love your neighbor as yourself” as Christ’s command that I love and accept myself. I was both overwhelmed and encouraged as I began to contemplate and embrace the glorious rich mystery and my only hope of glory, Christ in me. (Colosians 1:27). I began to question the doctrines and dogma of “church” and ask just what exactly does God expect of me. I found my answer: To do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with my God. (Micah 6:8)
Bolstered by my confidence that God loves me, and that I am commanded to love God, myself, and my neighbor through just, kind and humble actions, I set out on my own personal spiritual journey– a journey that took me away from traditional doctrine and dogma. Honestly, doing that felt so foreign and really scary, and this is perhaps another common element in the faith journey of folks in our community. Moving away from the familiar, even the familiar that was excruciatingly painful is difficult, yet we do it through faith. A faith similar to that expressed by Paul Tillich when he said, “Faith is the courage to accept God’s total acceptance of each of us.” Or, perhaps the faith of Martin Luther, “Faith is an active, reckless confidence in God’s goodness.”
On my faith journey I have had a few experiences that I can only describe as mystical – an experience that cannot be explained outside the realm of Spirit. Perhaps this is a third common element in our faith journeys. There are those occasions when God speaks or intervenes in our lives in ways that we could not imagine. These incidents often bring shock and awe, guidance and gratitude. They are mystical experiences that change us and the direction of our lives. I am reminded of Karl Rahner’s words, “The Christian of the future will have to become a mystic—someone who has experienced something or Someone—or he or she will be nothing at all.”
My faith journey took me away from the traditional anti-LGBTQ teachings of my Baptist faith, and I stayed away from church for several years as I was welcomed, affirmed and supported by an inclusive ecumenical community during my initial coming out process. However, I returned to the church when I met Lou Anne. It was not a difficult return for now I was grounded in my faith and spirituality and not religious doctrine and church dogma. I enjoyed returning to the customs of Bible study and congregational praise and worship. As long as the focus was on Christ and serving the Kingdom, I was content. Even though I was removed from teaching and leadership positions after coming out in the “We are your neighbor” letter in 2005, Lou Anne and I stayed in the church. When the pastor began to preach openly from the pulpit against same-sex relationships in the spring of 2015, I felt I had to leave to maintain my sense of authenticity and personal integrity. Today, I have no institutional church affiliation. I am a follower of Christ and a christian (with a small “c”) and a member of the universal catholic church (all small “c”). I am a pilgrim and a seeker on this faith journey.
All of our faith journeys are unique and personal. Some in our community through the pain of condemnation and sorrow of rejection have totally abandoned the church, yet not their faith. Some reject all things “God.” Some proclaim to be Atheists. It is interesting to note that in a Pew Research Center report, America’s Changing Religious Landscape, issued in May of 2015, that more LGB Americans consider themselves Christian than ever before. (NOTE: Transgender individuals were not accounted for in this particular survey.) A reported 48 percent of LGB respondents identify as Christian, and this is up from 42 percent in 2013. This rise is in contrast to the overall decline in the percent of Americans identifying as Christian that was 78.4 percent in 2013 and fell to 70.6 in 2015. The Pew report also indicated an additional 11 percent of LGB respondents identified with Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, and Hindu faith traditions.
Thus 59 percent of LGB respondents identified as people of faith. This high number was somewhat surprising for me and perhaps for you as well given the gay vs. religion paradigm so prevalent in our media and “culture wars.” It would appear that many in our community have stayed in, or they are returning and reclaiming their faith traditions.
So we ask, “Who is our neighbor?” We are all one another’s neighbors. We could argue that with the rapid communication and global connections—economic, geopolitical, and social–supported by our increasing modern technology we are quickly becoming global neighbors. Since we are all one another’s neighbors, let’s be neighborly to one another. Let’s love one another as we seek justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. Welcome to the neighborhood! Or, as we say in our community, the gayborhood.
You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.
— Jay Weatherill
I am going to jump into the fray of the REL name change dialogue for a bit. Why? Because I have questions. I don’t necessarily have the answers, but the questions, I believe, are worthy of consideration. By the way, I have a habit of asking “Why?” and other questions. You’ll see! I don’t know that it is a desirable habit, but I do know that it sometimes keeps me awake at night.
Admittedly, my first inclination with the REL name change issue was “Oh, geez! Do we want to go there? Do we need to go there? It’s history! Let it lie!” You know, “Sleeping dogs don’t bite!” Yet, as I struggle with my own questions and my heart for loving and honoring all persons with the respect and dignity they deserve as sacred human lives, I continue to ask “Why?” And, specifically, “Why did our city fathers, all white men, name the school after the Confederate General Lee, who, to my knowledge had not particular, specific, or sentimental ties to the City of Tyler?” Let’s think about it!
In 1958, in the rising tide of the Civil Rights Movement, in the wake of the 1954 Brown vs, Topeka School Board of Education ruling making school segregation the law of the land, and in the midst of increased racial tension and violence, our city fathers name a modern, new school after a “historical” Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, who for all his good attributes had some unsettling character problems. Were there any good reasons to do this? Or, were our city fathers, like much of white America at the time and especially the South, recoiling and resisting the changing times, “the writing on the wall” with regard to segregation and the emerging voices and political power of our African American citizens? Our city fathers had grown up in the Jim Crow south of East Texas, and their world of separatism and “white supremacy” was being turned upside down. Were they fearful? Were they angry? Was the Robert E. Lee name a subtle, or not so subtle, means of defiance? Were they “thumbing their noses” at the new wave of authority. Excuse me, but in East Texas vernacular, “We’ll do what we damn well please, just watch us!” I don’t know the answers to these questions. I do not dare claim to know the hearts, thoughts, or motives of our city fathers in 1958. The questions simply come from my habit of asking “why.” I do believe they are worthy questions that we all should consider. I repeat, I DO NOT know the answers! If anyone has more insight and/or personal experience with the Robert E. Lee naming process, I would welcome your thoughts.
I do know that Robert E. Lee High School has been and continues to be an exceptional school with achievement in all areas–academic, music, art, theater, and athletics–worthy of community praise. I commend the past and current faculty, staff, administration and students. I began my career in education as a student teacher at Robert E. Lee. My two sons attended and graduated from Robert E. Lee. I was the ever-present, proud band mom in the stands and out supporting our students and cheering for the football team. Our schools in so many ways are the epicenter of our community and family activities. We need and must rally in supporting them.
I do know that Robert E. Lee High School has been impacted by the racial implications of the name, the Rebel mascot, and the Confederate flag. We know the history, a court mandated mascot change and the banning of the use of the Confederate flag. This occurred in 1972 after four African American football players refused to run onto the field under the huge Confederate flag. Think about it! Can we blame them? Here’s my habit again, “Why was the name not changed then?” Was Judge Justice seeking a compromise action that would in some ways appease all sides of the community in the context of that point in time when Lee was a majority white school? Again, I do not know? I simply ask the questions and encourage consideration.
Again, I ask “Why?” Why would we not consider a name change for Lee High School at this time? Given the tenor of the unseemly, ugly rise in white supremacy groups and racial tension in our nation, why not be proactive and consider the good that we can propagate with the name change. If, and again, I Do Not know, but if the Lee name selection was motivated in any way by the anger, fear, and defiance of a threatened Jim Crow South mentality, do we want even a hint of that legacy prominent in our community? With a thoughtful, considered name change could we not chalk up many positives for our community? We can acknowledge and be respectful of the history and feelings of the current student community at Lee. We know that Lee is now a minority majority campus with the majority of the student body being non-white. Being a teenage student these days is stressful enough, if the name change is beneficial to the students and the overall morale of the school community, then let’s change it. Let’s get some student input! What are they thinking? What do they want for their school? Don’t we want what is best for our students-all of our students? There I go, questions again! We, a community of the whole, can model reasonable dialogue along with considered and respectful actions in our community and for our children to witness and learn from and hopefully repeat in generations to come.
We do know that REL, thanks to the good folks of Tyler, is slated for an extensive remodel and renovation project. Again, I ask the question, “ With the opening of this “new” school, will there ever be a more opportune time to recognize the thousands of students that have passed through Lee’s corridors, applaud the gigantic efforts of its students and leaders, and celebrate the multitude of student accomplishments during its 60-year history while dedicating a “new” school with a new name. A new name does not erase the past, but offers an opportunity for an authentic narrative of the history, and can usher in a new era, a new chapter, championing and promoting all that is good in and for a beloved school and the community it serves. Another question! Can we do this as a united community? I don’t know? The answer is only within each of us individually.
Again, I DO NOT know the answers. I simply succumb to my habit and ask the questions. Questions, in my opinion, worthy of consideration. My final question, and I am still questioning, “Are there any good, rationale reasons not to move forward with a name change for Robert E. Lee High School, or at the very least initiate an exploratory process focused on a possible name change?”
Let’s just breathe, ask the hard questions, consider answers together, and explore the possibilities before us.
You don’t get unity by ignoring the questions that have to be faced.
— –Jeff Weatherhill