Guest column

Living together without judgment

Every time I read the term "indoctrination" in the press, I shudder. It seems that we are opposed to other people's indoctrination, but not our own. My children and grandchildren will be prohibited from reading what I think is valuable and edifying because someone else chooses to withdraw even time-honored documents from the shelves. To paraphrase a statement from another time: I don't know how to define indoctrination, but I know it when I see it.

An issue that causes so much consternation and conflict in this era is that of gender identity. Please know that I write this column not to accentuate our political and religious differences, but rather to underscore our shared humanity.

In June, I took note that Pride Month 2023 seemed to garner negative attention across the Natural State. In a number of entertainment venues, controversy boiled over as citizens decided who should be excluded from what, but otherwise we paid little attention to a celebration that is intended to support the dignity of fellow human beings. I'm not entirely surprised by these developments given Arkansas' political and religious composition.

As a person of faith who admits to having been quite naïve about matters of the heart until marrying at 23, I do hold decided opinions about human sexuality and its various forms of identification.

I have read and heard what so many of us have: Love your neighbor. Judge not lest you be judged. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

My heart breaks over the prejudice and discrimination people of various gender identities suffer. Why should I care?

What brings this topic to mind now is news recently reported about the school administration in the public schools of Sherman, Texas. Leadership there initially removed a transgender individual from the role as lead in the high school's production of the American classic "Oklahoma" because students were required to assume roles only of their own gender.

In turning the notion of "ars gratia artis" on its head, the Sherman school superintendent ignored thousands of years of artistic history. Had he never read or seen plays from ancient Greece, or heard of William Shakespeare? During my career as a school teacher and administrator, I dressed as a woman for the purpose of effect in school productions. I never gave my behavior a thought.

Transgender athletes, multi-gender public restrooms. Competitive fairness and one's sense of privacy and comfort. The age-appropriateness of certain topics. Rather than belaboring these issues, perhaps we should begin by focusing on the principle of treating all others as fellow travelers on our journey. How challenging should it be to overcome our fear of the "other" and treat one another with dignity and kindness?

As a school leader for 33 years, I employed several gay faculty members. All were highly competent. Two were respected as the best in their fields in the nation. One of them earned an award identifying him as such. The questions I asked about their employment were not about sexual orientation, but rather about quality of performance, treatment of others, and strength of character.

Two years ago, my wife of 53 years and I attended a church in Utah. As I entered the building, I was greeted by an usher who introduced me to another first-time guest. My new acquaintance was about my height and weight: six feet three inches and 225 pounds. The individual had a very dark, thick what we used to call five o'clock shadow, wore a lovely floral dress, and what appeared to be a long red wig. My conversation partner spoke in a near-baritone voice. I concluded that I was speaking with a transgender person, or at least someone who was in process.

We shook hands and engaged in casual conversation for a few minutes. I paused to wonder why so many of us make harsh judgments about people such as this. Why are we so quick to dismiss and degrade those who are different?

My daughter and her husband, current and former corporate executives, are enormously generous people who regularly take in foster children. So far each young person entrusted to their care has been a teenager, a mighty challenge to assume.

One of their foster children lives with gender dysphoria, evidently living in a 13-year-old female body but identifying and behaving as male. This person is bright and witty, yet comes with problems associated with those whose families suffer from disorganization of varying kind.

This young person deserves my love and acceptance. She is God's child and should expect my care and kindness. At least, that's what I believe a loving deity requires.

I pray that all of us find ways to overcome our own prejudices and unleash our God-given compassion; that we not be judgmental, but rather embrace all God's creatures. Casting stones and denying others their dignity are bad habits.

Perhaps we might think along the following lines. Tolerance is better than intolerance, respect and understanding are better than tolerance, and love and advocacy for the marginalized is stronger than respect and understanding.

God created us all in his image, with the capacity to love. At least that's the way I read the Bible. Jesus enjoined us to love our neighbor without defining that our neighbor is Christian and heterosexual. The New Testament reminds us to judge not, lest we be judged. Thus it strikes me as hypocritical that so many of us sinners who attend worship services regularly disregard this important directive, never mind fail to keep a score card of how we fare according to the Ten Commandments each day.

While we may find it challenging to extend compassion and empathy to those who cause us discomfort, I am certain the likes of Jesus of Nazareth and Mother Teresa would find it easy and necessary to do so on the basis of charity for all alone.

Arnold Holtberg lives in Hot Springs Village and is an educator who has worked in public, independent, and international schools.

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