Thursday, May 01, 2008

Celebrating Diversity

Lately I feel like I’ve been getting strong messages from Heavenly Father that celebrating differences and individuality is very important. It really has been reinforced many times these past few weeks. I've seen four movies, Ratatouille, The Martian Child, Ma Vie en Rose, and Stagedoor, that really hit home this point. Also something I saw on Oprah as well as some experiences I’ve had substitute teaching have reinforced this as well. I’d like to share these experiences.

The Martian Child didn’t get very good reviews when it came out in theaters, but I saw it on DVD and I was really moved by it. John Cusack plays a widower author who adopts a troubled boy who thinks he’s from Mars. The movie was mainly about their relationship. The kid that played the child was really good. Of course, the kid doesn’t fit in and does rather odd things, but rather than discourage him, John Cusack’s character encourages the fantasies (or the boy’s reality as he sees it) in order to gain the boy’s trust. Rather than making the boy feel ashamed or making him try to conform to society’s version of what normal is, he allows the boy to be himself, and by doing so, the boy is able to adjust to life better and, more importantly, to love better. I guess what touched me was that this boy was quite odd, but this father was compassionate and patient enough (most of the time; the relationship was not without its challenges) to let this boy be himself, and while other people may have been put off by the boy’s behavior, John Cusack’s character tried not to show that he was put off even if he may have been. I thought that was a very Christ-like thing to do, and it got me to thinking: why are we so afraid of people who are different? What is it that we fear so much? And I freely admit I have my own prejudices and fears because of people who may be different culturally, socially, intellectually, or mentally. But I often wonder what it is we’re so afraid of.

I’ve never been a conformist. In fact, I often feel rebellious when I am expected to conform, especially if I am being asked to conform to something that is not who I feel I am. And while I do understand the need for unity and the idea of “one heart, one mind,” I also believe that God created us as unique individuals and that we should celebrate our differences and celebrate diversity. I think it is difference that makes us so interesting as human beings.

Last week I was substituting for a choir class at a local high school, and there was a particular song that had a lot of dissonance in it. The other day I substituted for a jazz choir at another high school and of course jazz pieces often have dissonant chords. I am a big, big fan of dissonance. Some of my favorite musical chords are dissonant ones. It’s the clash of various notes and how they work together in harmony that makes them interesting and beautiful to me. I find them especially interesting because it’s fascinating to me that putting notes together that one might not expect to go together can make really beautiful sounds if put together in a particular way. I think that’s how life and human beings are. Without difference and individuality life would be bland, boring, and even dangerous, I think.

That’s also why as Jonah and I have searched for a house I have been really uninterested in those communities where all the houses look the same or why I am reluctant to live in a community with an association fee where I have to abide by others’ rules. Stepford is not where I want to live. I celebrate things that are different, and I’m not a big fan of total conformity. And especially if you have someone leading you who is misguided, conformity is dangerous. If there wasn’t dissent think of how treacherous that could be. Hitler might have had total power over the world or the Bush administration's misguided policies would go unchallenged.

Another movie I saw was Ma Vie en Rose, which was a charming Belgian film about a young boy who is convinced he is really a girl. Of course this creates a lot of turmoil among his family and in his neighborhood. And again, it’s that whole idea of what are people so afraid of? The boy tries to conform to what his parents want in order to please them, but he loses the joy in his life as a result, and it is only when his parents accept him for who he is rather than try to force him to be someone he doesn’t feel he is that happiness is again restored.

In watching Ratatouille, the main premise of the story is that there is a rat who wants to be a gourmet cook. Of course, in normal society a rat is considered dirty and vile. So in this cartoon’s reality the rat is expected to be just an ordinary rat and his dreams of being a gourmet cook are considered silly or foolish. But the rat dares to be different and goes after his dreams and ends up the head chef at a fancy French restaurant. Yeah, it’s just a cartoon, but I liked its message (I also observed that same message (breaking away from what one is expected to do to reach for higher dreams) to a much lesser extent in the animated picture, Bee Movie, as well).

Another film was Stagedoor, which profiled five students at a theatre summer camp. I certainly related to much of it and was drawn by the idea that so many of these kids who don’t belong or are made fun of in the “normal” world find a place of acceptance in the theatre world (or world of the arts). I know that’s how it was (and is) for me. I think it’s so important to feel like one belongs, and it’s great to find a group of people who accept you as you are, idiosyncrasies, faults, quirks, and all. I know I certainly feel that way.

I was picked on a lot as a kid because I was weird. I felt completely at home and well-loved in the theatre world. I know for gay people, the arts often provide a place of solace and normalcy. I know that I have found much acceptance by my theatre friends. I’m sure that’s why people join the church (and I would imagine the inability to belong is why many leave the church as well). I think whatever kingdom I end up in the afterlife will be the one where I feel I belong the most and where I will be the happiest.

A most unusual thing I saw on the Oprah Winfrey Show, which I rarely watch, was a pregnant man. What was really fascinating to me about this case was that the man used to be a woman (a very pretty one, in fact), but had received testosterone treatments to be a man. However, she had kept her reproductive organs, so she was still able to bear children. On Oprah she (now identifying herself as “he) looked fully like a man. I wouldn’t have known he used to be a woman. Anyway, he had married a woman who couldn’t have kids, but he still had the capability of bearing children, and because they wanted a child, they inseminated the husband (who, as I said, still had female reproductive organs). He is now pregnant, has been off testosterone for a year, I think, and the baby and pregnancy, thus far, appear to be normal.

Of course, some people are a bit shocked or perplexed by this turn of events, but Oprah interviewed their neighbors who, while surprised, appeared to be supportive.

As I watched this very unusual story I felt compassion for this couple. I thought, “Why not? As long as they aren’t hurting anyone or the baby, what’s the problem?” That baby will probably grow up to have two loving parents, and isn’t that what any child deserves? Even according to society’s standard, since the couple appears to be a man and a woman, how will that child be any different than one raised in a “traditional” family?

This woman felt different and wanted to be a man, but still was capable of having a baby. Was it ethical for her to do so? As I say, as long as she isn’t injuring anyone else, I don’t see the problem. Of course, it remains to be seen what challenges or problems will result from this pregnancy, but I didn’t necessarily see a problem in these two parents having a child together.

I found it ironic that as my sister's visiting teachers were giving a visiting teaching lesson on marriage to my mom and sister that one of the women brought up this same episode of Oprah and said that there were some things you know were “just plain wrong,” and this was one of them. I quietly disagreed. It’s not for me to judge, and as I think I've said repeatedly in my blog, I just don’t believe in black and white. Perhaps I am wrong, and I’ll have to face up to that some day if I am, but that’s what I believe, and I feel I am happier for it. I was just glad this woman (who I actually like quite a bit) didn’t bring up homosexuality. Of course, she wouldn’t have known it, but that might have made my sister or/and mom, and certainly me, uncomfortable.

You know, another thing I’ve really noticed lately, especially as I substitute teach for the elementary schools, is how uninhibited and innocent these kids can be, and how sad it is that the world and society take that away, often because they try to force them to conform to what is considered normal. Certainly some inhibitions need to be mastered or life would be chaos, and certainly the loss of innocence is just a natural course of life, I suppose, but I find it sad that the end result can sometimes cause a loss of creativity, low self-esteem, cynicism, lack of kindness, anger, or a loss of faith and hope.

The other day I was teaching third grade, and the kids had to do a dance. Nobody cared how silly they looked or whether they were perfect at doing the steps. They were just having fun. I thought how sad it is that someone will make fun of one of those boys one day and say what he is doing is effeminate or that he is a sissy. Or that someone will be so interested in perfection that they criticize a child to the point where he or she is more worried about doing it exactly right rather than in the exhilaration of the pure joy of doing it. Or that a child’s creativity will be stifled because he or she is made to conform to another’s way of doing it.

Anyway, those are just some observations I’ve had lately. I mean, I know I, myself, am often too afraid of what others think or that I am overly critical of myself. Ah, to be a child again and not care so much.


Clark said...

What an awesome post! I love how many references you drew on to elaborate this important point. I remember while I was still attending church frequently I was often confused by the church's stance on diversity. I specifically remember someone in the MTC telling us that the church needs diversity in order to thrive, and then I remember a few years later at a BYU devotional someone else saying, the Lord does not want us to be diverse, He wants us all to be of one heart-- which in my subversive mind was a way of this man whoever it was saying, God wants everyone to be like me.. now go work on that and feel guilty if you are different. I think it creates such beauty to love and accept those that are different. I think there is a real power in this choice. Where judgement and conformity create a powerful rigidity and fear, acceptance and diversity create a love and openness that is so moving. Yes diversity makes things more confusing and sometimes more chaotic from an organizational standpoint, and yes diversity can be a bit of a mess for something like the church which strives to present a really unified message and appearance of what a mormon does and looks like (1 ear piercing, missionary haircuts throughout life, white shirt on sunday etc), but at the end of the day, there should be a place at the table for all. I believe that there IS a place at the table for you, me, the pregnant man, the little boy on ma vie en rose, the martian child, the gourmet rat and the rest! If certain religions or groups don't want diversity its their loss as far as I am concerned! Thanks for the post.

Gay LDS Actor said...

Thanks for the comments, Clark. I've enjoyed your video blogs and posts on your own blog.

I agree whole-heartedly about diversity and how it relates to love. I think it's absolutely necessary.

I think there is a place at the table for everyone, too.

Oh, and I don't think I've ever worn a white shirt to church in the 14 years since I've been back from my mission. That tells you what kind of Mormon I am. ;-)