Friday, February 15, 2013

Letter to Lauderdale County Superintendent and Board of Education

I mailed the following on 6 or 7 February and wanted to give it time to arrive before I shared it. Some, but very little has changed since I sent mailed it. This was written in response to this news story. When I posted that on Facebook I said that I would post it to my blog. Here it is....

6 February 2013

The Superintendent and Board of Education
Lauderdale County Schools
PO Box 278
Florence, AL 35631

Dear Ms. Gray,

I meant to write over the weekend, but did not find the time. I was happy to see that Coach Grisham has been suspended for ten days but disappointed he will be returning to the classroom (though not teaching psychology). I was not happy to see his suspension from a place of revenge or retribution but that the board took some action in response to his recent remarks concerning First Lady Obama and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT), remarks that hurt LGBT teens, Americans especially if they are yet out.

Although in high school (Central High School, Phenix City, ’05) I never had the misfortune of hearing a teacher speak like this, my teachers tolerated classmates referring disparagingly, including the use of slurs such as “queers” and “faggots”, about LGBT people. These statements from peers, let alone teachers, are what lead LGBT high schoolers to take their own lives.

While I was in college at Troy (BA History, ‘09), then-Governor Riley said that it was important for Alabama’s top students and achievers to stay in Alabama and work to improve the state. Having attended HOBY, Alabama Governor’s School, and won on the state level in the Future Problem Solving Program and National History Day in Alabama, as well as being on a tuition, room, and board scholarship at Troy, I likely fell into this category.

I thought that perhaps I could return to Alabama and serve as a priest after my master’s work in New York, but any return I now make to Alabama will be to visit my family in Abbeville or explore the rich Civil Rights history with my future children. Although he couldn’t go in, Moses looked from the mountaintop and saw the Promised Land. Joshua led the Hebrew people to a place where they could live as God had called them to live.

I lived in New York City for three years and will marry my fiancĂ© (another man) there in May. I live now in little fear that I will be physically assaulted or verbally harassed for my sexuality and expressing it publically the same way my heterosexual peers do (something as small as holding hands). While the legal landscape in California is not perfect, my safety is not at stake. I have been able to build a diverse community of people who, whether they are gay or not, are willing to be in relationship with me and work for a better world with me. We don’t have to be just like one another to get along. This is difficult in a culture where vilifying difference is accepted, though.

Your welcome to the school system’s website says, “Our schools are committed to excellence as we educate Alabama's future leaders and workers.” An environment where statements like Coach Grisham’s don’t go unpunished, but can be still said at all, sends the message to LGBT students that they are not welcome. Coach Grisham’s saying that they are an abomination in class says that they are less than people. Hoping for them to stay in Alabama as future leaders is like asking Moses and the Hebrews to stay in bondage to Pharaoh.

Everyone is welcome to his or her own religious beliefs, though not everyone has been trained in sharing those publicly. Teachers are trained and hired to teach from approved textbooks, not the sacred texts of any religious tradition, in areas of which they have been trained. A classroom and lectern are not a church building and pulpit from which teachers can share their religious convictions. When this happens, there is usually only one side presented and no invitation for a different voice, even if that voice has no professional training in religion. This sharing is inappropriate not just for sexual minorities to hear, but also religious minorities whether they are less common Christian denominations (such as Episcopalian and Roman Catholic) or non-Christians at all (Jews, Jains, etc.).

Saying that someone is wrong simply because you say they are is not educated or educating. For a psychology teacher to say this in a classroom when the American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual forty years ago — even if removed from that class after the fact — does not show a commitment to excellence.

Not everyone must have the same convictions for work to be done and relationships to be maintained; my mother and I do not have the same understanding of the morality of my relationship, but she will be at my wedding and has come to visit my fiancé and I in California. We vote and write our congresspeople in very different ways but listen to and ask questions of one another rather than insisting that the other is wrong.

Coach Grisham said that he was speaking in a debate context, but his prefacing his statements about LGBT people by saying he didn’t care if people told the superintendent suggests this was not a debate context based around critical thinking and educated argumentation. Furthermore, the privileged position of the teacher, both in a classroom setting and a cultural setting of deferring to those in authority, may inhibit students’ comfort dissenting even if they do. I know I would not have felt comfortable responding to Coach Grisham as a gay student.

I am thankful that the board has responded to Coach Grisham’s statements and that he will be required to attend what seems to be intensive sensitivity training. I hope that it is effective and helpful, but I worry for students of Coach Grisham or other teachers who make these kinds of remarks. Having been a closeted gay student in an Alabama high school, I know the difficulties that come without teachers reinforcing the negative thoughts I had about myself.

I had a safe place in my high school, and I continue to be thankful for that. The board’s action demonstrates to some extent that it is committed to providing a safe place for all its students. While some have suggested that this incident has been blown out of proportion, the high number of suicides of LGBT teens in the last three years suggests that this is not the case. Words matter, and teachers’ using their positions of authority to tear students down is especially damaging. Continuing to give them a space to do that suggests that students may not have top priority.

Your website welcome invites comments and suggestions to provide the highest quality education for the children in Lauderdale County, and I have one. Lauderdale County schools have made national news over Coach Grisham’s statements. Providing the highest quality education would include inviting someone to speak about being gay and Christian or gay and a person of any faith — a dissenting view from what has been heard and reheard around the country. Offering this in a volunteer setting, or coordinating with an out-of-house group (such as Equality Alabama) would prevent religious objections. It may not be popular, but it would offer a diversity of opinion with which Alabama’s future leaders and workers need a familiarity.

Coach Grisham said that the country is going in the wrong direction, and in many ways I agree with that like the students did. Rather than saying that one side or another has all the answers, though, I think listening to others’ stories should be encouraged. Having a gay Christian speaker offer his or her stories of hurt, healing, death, and resurrection may bring new light of experience — with no intention of changing anyone’s mind. Coach Grisham is right that change needs to happen, but it’s one of more listening with open hearts and ears and less talking from platforms of certainty, dealing with people and not vague ideas.

Along those lines, thank you for your time reading my letter. It got to be more than twice as long as I’d originally planned. I look forward to hearing from you, as well, hearing with an open heart and ears about how you think these situations can be prevented in Lauderdale County Schools and in all of Alabama and how you received what I’ve said.

In peace,

(The Rev.) Joseph P. Mathews
Priest, Episcopal Diocese of California

CC: Dr. Thomas R. Bice, State Superintendent of Education


  1. Well, my young colleague, this explains a lot of things. It took a pair of big brass ones to write that letter. I feel for you in this struggle, and I'm sure things are only going to get better for gay people as time goes on. There has been tremendous progress in just the past few years.

    Please know that you will always have my support. I'm proud of you.