Dan Kimber had a guest speaker that gave his students first the giggles, then some perspective.
A few years ago, I had a guest speaker in my class. The man I asked into my classroom came to teach a lesson on World War II not found in our text. After introducing himself, he held up a pink triangle, and the class became silent. “These were worn by homosexuals during the Nazi occupation of Europe,” he explained. “Homosexuals were one of the first groups targeted for extermination as part of the Fuhrer’s grand scheme to purify the human race. My students had learned about the Jewish Holocaust, about gypsies and criminals and the mentally impaired, and that they, along with political prisoners and “anti-social” individuals, each had a symbol to identify their nonconformity with the Third Reich. The pink triangle, however, was something new for them.
When the word “homosexual” was spoken, there followed a predictable reaction from a group of 17-year-olds. Some were uncomfortable, some were apathetic, and a few young men flashed contemptuous smiles at each other to signal their manly disapproval. It was to this latter group that my guest directed his next comments.
“I want to tell you, before we go any further, that I am gay. My reason for telling you this will become apparent, but let me first put you all at ease. I happen to have a monogamous relationship and a decided preference in a mate that does not include 17-year-old young men. Neither am I here to recruit any of you to homosexuality. I did not “choose” to be homosexual any more than I chose to be right-handed or blue-eyed. I have chosen to be unashamed and unafraid to face the world and, more important, myself, with who I am. And now on to the lesson.”
He had their attention.
“Knowing about history and learning from it are two very different things. That human beings were exterminated for their sexual orientation prior to and during World War II is something we know about. It is well documented [though not very well commemorated]. The question I am here to ask is, what have we learned from all of this?”
At this point, he held up a recent news article about a rash of gay-bashing incidents, citing 18- to 23-year-old males as the main perpetrators. “What have we learned if persecution of homosexuals continues today at the hands of homophobic young men prowling the streets looking to beat senseless other men who happen to be [or appear to be] gay? How far have we come when we still live in a society that tolerates, and sometimes even encourages, these blatant acts of persecution?
“These are not random acts of violence. The victims here are the specific targets of latter-day Nazis whose mindless rage and constricted view of humanity summon up ugly images of a master race– and of genocide.”
“I am here to remind you all that prejudice and persecution are not just words to describe sorry episodes in history. The Holocaust is not some historical abstract, but rather a searing reminder of the ultimate consequences of intolerance and hatred. It has been written that we are condemned to repeat history if we do not take full heed of its lessons, and so I ask you, ,especially those of you who feel somehow threatened by me, to see clearly the lesson
that is before us.
“Prejudice and discrimination in any form is always wrong. History holds no example of good prejudice or benevolent discrimination. The choice is one that each of us must make. We can either accept one another for our differences, or we can continue tormenting each other because of them.”
With that, my guest speaker surveyed the faces of 35 very attentive teenagers, smiled, and sat down.
The next day, I had to answer questions from a few angry parents who wanted to know why their children were “subjected to homosexual views in my classroom.” One parent wanted to know if I was gay and what my “agenda” was.
“No, I’m not, and I’m trying to promote tolerance,” I answered.
But she continued.
“Did it occur to you that there are homosexuals trying to recruit the young into their lifestyle?”
“No, it didn’t,” I replied, trying to understand how someone would come to believe this. She used words like “pervert” and “abomination” to describe a man she had never met.
For the rest of my students, my guest speaker (who happens to be a respected professor at a local college) presented a different picture. By putting a human face and a personality on what was, for some, a category of human being, the prejudices faded, if even for a moment. His homosexuality became a facet of his personhood rather than an all-consuming definition of it. But in that moment, all could see that before them was an exceedingly nice man with a marvelous sense of humor and a towering intellect.
When the class stood and applauded at the end of his talk, there was a sense of triumph — one minor battle won in the war against intolerance. Even the few young homophobes unfolded their arms to clap for a man who clearly did not fit their definition of “how they all are.”
I think I’ll invite him back next year.