Monthly Archives: June 2019

Perfect as they are, LGBTQ youths need support and safety

“No, I want you to be happy,” I said. “When growing up, I had friends who couldn’t come out to their parents and I never want any of you to feel that way.”

My friend Tom Dukes, now in his early 60s, recently told me he was lucky he survived junior high in the deep South, where nobody spoke of homosexuality. In ninth grade, he could see freedom awaiting him in college and moved mountains to graduate in three years.

In 2010, gay activist Dan Savage and his husband, Terry Miller, started the It Gets Better Project ( https://itgetsbetter.org/ ). This nonprofit’s mission is to “uplift, empower and connect lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer youth around the globe,” letting them know that, for a number of reasons, after high school, life does get better.

Here in Akron where, like many urban areas, our LGBTQ citizens are widely accepted, if not embraced, it might seem no longer necessary to let LGBTQ youths know that things get easier.

Tragically, this is not true.

Only 5 to 7 percent of American youths are LGBTQ. But 40 percent of homeless youths are LGBTQ, 20 percent of incarcerated youths are LGBTQ (the number is higher for females) and, worst of all, 24 percent of 12- to 14-year-old Americans who die by suicide are LGBTQ.

That last fact hit me in the chest like the end of a 4-by-4 this past January when a dear friend lost his grandchild to suicide. The grandchild, who grew up in a rural community outside Dayton, was 14.

From the videos posted by her grieving friends, the teen had come out and was beginning to identify as transgender.

She shared with her family that she felt like a boy, but they did not know the extent of her inner turmoil nor the bullying she endured at school and in the community. That is, until she took her life.

In 2019, we can all do better.

Homosexuality, which some conservative religions condemn, is not unnatural. The already large list of species in which homosexuality has been observed continually grows, including all bird species that form parental relationships. Indeed, one of the many evolutionary benefits of homosexuality is having more adults available to parent offspring.

Furthermore, research has shown that the two hemispheres of the brain are the same size in homosexual men, just as they are in heterosexual women. Meanwhile, the brains of lesbians and heterosexual men have slightly larger right hemispheres.

It’s biology, baby, and yet rampant discrimination persists, even, and unthinkable to me, among some parents.

My friends Brian and David were 21 and 24 when they began dating. In the 16 years since, both have developed successful careers in the restaurant industry and accounting, respectively. They own their home and are wonderful neighbors and friends to many. They also give to the community, volunteering with nonprofits.

At Akron’s first New Year’s Eve Pride Ball last December, this wonderful couple was married by Judge Ron Cable. Set in the Akron Civic Theatre, with all its glorious Spanish-Italian Baroque architecture, the ceremony was perfect. With one exception: Though they love David and send him Christmas gifts each year, Brian’s parents refused to attend, tacitly rejecting the legitimacy of the couple’s bond. While he was not entirely surprised, his parents’ rejection of his committed, loving relationship cut Brian to the quick.

On Facebook, I have connected with many families who have children with Down syndrome, finding support, suggestions and camaraderie. But sharing one experience is no guarantee of other commonalities.

In 2016, California adopted an act that, in part, requires health education between grades seven and 12 to include a section on LGBTQ facts and issues. On a closed Facebook group, several mothers of children with DS expressed anger over the law, often writing, “This should only be taught at home by parents!”

These same mothers rally behind laws requiring accurate information be given to parents at the time of a Down syndrome diagnosis. And they would be thrilled if public schools were required to explain the biology of Down syndrome and how it affects a person. For that would foster acceptance of our children who are “Born This Way,” as the title of a successful reality TV show on DS puts it.

I pushed back, pointing out that many families will not choose to teach their children about LGBTQ issues, only to find that this was an acceptable outcome to the moms who opposed the California act. I reminded them that the best way to fight discrimination is to inform people.

After a few more times back and forth, one mother finally said it: “But homosexuality is a sin.”

Throughout history, including in some countries today, the birth of a child with Down syndrome has been viewed as evidence of parental sins. Not only ignorant, such beliefs have brought unfathomable harm to people with DS.

LGBTQ people are born the way they are born, too. The 25 percent of black swans and hundreds of other species that engage in homosexual activity are not sinning. They have no religion; thus, if life was created by God, clearly homosexuality was always part of the plan.

Perhaps I was excessive in checking with my older sons regarding their sexual orientation. It’s now a family joke. But better to err on the side of openness, to create a loving atmosphere in which anything can be discussed without fear of judgment, let alone rejection, than to let a child suffer in silence.

My friend said part of him died with his granddaughter. “I wish she’d talked to me. These kids need to know it’s OK to be whoever they are. [She] was perfect. She just didn’t know it.”

The upward spiral of integration of people with intellectual disabilities

Matt Dean, an employee at Bitty & Beau’s, interacts with author’s daughter, Lyra, this month in Wilmington, NC while Lyra’s brother Hugo looks on.

Babies with Down syndrome are the cutest, with their round little faces and eyes, tiny ears and noses, cuddly bodies. Even as they become toddlers, it’s not uncommon for strangers to comment on just how adorable kiddos with DS are.

But most parents of a child with DS harbor this fear: What happens when our children grow up and society no longer sees them as darlings? When their precociously friendly behavior is expressed as a teen or adult? What to do when it is no longer possible to scoop up a child who resists your every move?

Some of these concerns came to life for us when we vacationed this month in Carolina Beach, North Carolina.

Lyra loved ocean waves knocking her back as she sat on the shoreline and with all our big boys there, adults outnumbered children. Eyes were always on Leif as he learned to boogie board while someone else played with Lyra in the surf.

Four days in, several of us unsuccessfully ventured to a renowned serpentarium in nearby Wilmington. Like a Southern Gothic tale, the owner of over 100 reptiles was shot and killed by his wife two years ago. Six months later, the serpentarium’s cold-blooded residents were resettled in several zoos.

Our plans kiboshed, we instead walked along the Cape Fear River. Suddenly, Lyra stopped and said, “No! Go back!” I asked where she wanted to go and she pointed ahead, in the direction we were already walking, “This way!” Alrighty, then.

Moments later, Lyra dropped to the ground, refusing to move. Max carried her as she bitterly complained, “No! This way! Car!” While we had beautiful weather that week, it is the South and at 85 degrees and 1,000 percent humidity, wrangling Lyra was a surefire way to sweat up a thirst.

At the Platypus and the Gnome pub, Lyra continued to struggle until our secret weapon was set before her: a plate of french fries.

What is this behavior? Anxiety in response to new environments and changed routines is common in people with Down syndrome or autism spectrum disorder. What is familiar, both in time and space, provides predictability.

I imagine it’s like traveling in a country where English isn’t spoken. When I travel abroad, I’m more confident when I know what to expect and how much of the native tongue I’ll need to attempt, making guidebooks and Google Translate essential tools.

Many children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (ID) also have sensory integration disorder. Loud noises and crowd environments overwhelm them. At school fire drills, Lyra plasters her hands over her ears and trembles with fear while repeatedly screaming, “No!”

When we visited an aquarium, two school groups were also there. The noise and chaos caused Lyra to flee. Going forward, I will accept the sensory bags offered by museums and zoos. They include things like headphones to reduce noise and toys to distract anxious children.

One afternoon, I ended up alone on the beach with Leif and Lyra. Lyra approached a woman and her grown daughter and, as she often does, Lyra grabbed their hands and placed them together, creating a circle. The women kindly played ring-around-the-rosy with Lyra until one became dizzy. Lyra, however, refused to stop.

I called Leif out of the water so I could take Lyra inside, and when I turned to take her hand, she was 50 yards away, racing down the beach as if being chased by a land shark but with no fear.

The day we left NC, we visited Bitty and Beau’s, a cafe in Wilmington. Named after the owner’s two children with Down syndrome, Bitty and Beau’s cafes (there are three), employ people with ID.

At the counter, Matt Dean, who has DS, gave us a quick overview of the items on the menu.

“We have breakfast and lunch sandwiches and a new line of gluten-free cookies,” he told us, passing his hand over the cookie display. After we ordered, we waited at the pickup counter near the entrance for our food.

Lyra darted to the door, pushed it open with seemingly superhuman strength and ran outside, Hugo hot on her heels. Matt walked over and said, “I used to do that.”

“You used to run?” I asked.

“Oh, yeah, I was a runner!” he told me in his charming Southern accent. I asked Matt how old he is. “Most people don’t believe it, but I’ll turn 30 in October. By the way, what job do you think Lyra will want when she works here?”

“She’s very social like you. I think she’ll want to work the register.”

“Oh, like me!” said Matt, clearly delighted. “You know before I had this job, I was shy and reserved. Yes, I was. Shy and reserved.”

If we lived in Wilmington, I’d frequently visit Bitty & Beau’s, especially on the days Matt works.

Matt reminds me of Tim Harris, a successful restaurateur with Down syndrome. I learned that before he ran his restaurant, Harris was not nearly as verbal as he became. In 2015, I heard him give a superb keynote address to over 1,000 people.

This is the upward spiral of integration.

When people with Down syndrome were institutionalized or, post-institution, put into workshops together to perform menial tasks, often for less than minimum wage, their language and social skills remained limited. Not because they had Down syndrome, but because they were isolated from enriching relationships and experiences.

Celebrity chef Rachael Ray only uses coffee from Bitty & Beau’s. She wants to see their cafes compete with Starbucks. So do I. Eighty percent of people with ID are unemployed, a number that does not reflect the abilities of people with ID.

Bitty & Beau’s cafes accomplish several sorely needed things. They provide integrated employment with fair wages for people with ID, which, in turn, fosters the upward spiral of integration. And just as important, at Bitty & Beau’s cafes, the public interacts with people who have ID. Nothing dispels the falsehoods of what a person with ID is capable of than meeting someone with ID.

I encourage everyone to grab a hankie and check out Bitty & Beau’s Facebook page. Who knows? Maybe one day it will open a cafe here in Akron. If it does, it’ll become my new favorite hangout.

Social contracts of last century brought prosperity and need reimplemented

My eldest son, Claude, graduated from Michigan in 2016. This fall, his younger brother Jules will matriculate at OSU. Both boys chose their respective universities for the same reason: money.

After grants, scholarships and $5,500 a year in loans, Jules will pay $1,500 out of pocket each year, easily raised with summer employment. Graduating today with $22,000 of debt for a four-year degree is remarkably low. That should not be the case.

After World War II, Congress created the G.I. Bill so returning soldiers could affordably attend college. According the Veteran Affairs website, “Some questioned the concept of sending battle-hardened veterans to colleges and universities, a privilege then reserved for the rich.”

Within a decade, the G.I. Bill, along with other federal and state financial support for all low- to middle-income college students, produced the largest growth of the middle class in American history, becoming a model for other countries.

Two generations later, a study revealed that college graduates, over the course of a lifetime, earned, on average, $1 million more than those without a degree. The Reagan administration used this information to cut yet another “entitlement program.”

And so began the breakdown of the social contract to support higher education for all. It was not the only social contract our society abnegated.

In 1970, free-market economist Milton Friedman published an article in Time magazine asserting that employers had no obligation to their employees, the environment or anything but profit, pure and simple. Managers should not foster corporate social responsibility, but strictly work as agents of shareholders.

Recently, two Harvard Business School professors argued that Friedman’s theory is “rife with moral hazard.” They believe that the “costs of prioritizing shareholders’ interests are borne by the company, and by society as a whole, which is robbed of innovations, jobs, and tax revenue.”

The nearly complete destruction of these two social contracts has contributed mightily to the greatest disparity of income in the United States since the laissez-faire economy of the decades before and after 1900.

The Plain Dealer reported last month that the past presidents at the University of Akron collectively receive $932,517 annually. The most recent, Matthew Wilson, resigned July 31 and will leave UA to become president of a university in Missouri this fall. For the year in between his resignation and his departure, he was compensated $240,500 for which he taught one three-credit-hour class last fall and two this past spring. For comparison, the current dean of the law school earns $278,100 annually.

Sure, on paper he has a job, but it is a wide-open “secret” that Luis Proenza, who was president from 1999-2014, does little to justify his $334,750 annual compensation. Proenza was responsible for an overly ambitious building campaign — rubber-stamped by the board of trustees — that decimated the university’s finances.

After he stepped down, the same board of trustees that allowed Proenza to overextend the university replaced him with Scott Scarborough. Scarborough whacked away at popular and financially sustainable programs, making matters worse, not better. Donors stopped contributing, and enrollment disastrously declined.

Scarborough’s lack of business acumen, among myriad issues of his tenure, should have resulted in him being fired outright. Instead, he was given a golden parachute. Scarborough collects $298,267 annually to teach a few accounting courses, when clearly he cannot manage numbers out of a paper bag.

Meanwhile, as with many universities across the country, full-time faculty at UA have largely been replaced with adjunct faculty, like me. As an adjunct, I receive no benefits, save for retirement contributions into the Ohio State Teachers Retirement System.

I receive $2,000 for each three-credit-hour course I teach, which is 140 minutes of class time per week. That works out to roughly $37 an hour, assuming I only work in the classroom.

However, as any good teacher knows, that is never the case. I prepare lectures using PowerPoint presentations and seek topical readings to illustrate my lessons. I grade papers giving feedback on content and the rules of writing American English using the “MLA Handbook.”

Any student who wants me to line-edit their papers can meet with me. Other students, many of whom come from urban high schools, work next to me at a table in the library. (I tell students my office is wherever I am with my laptop.) I answer their questions and, hopefully, show them study skills they never obtained in high school.

By semester’s end, I make less than $3 an hour. I could do less, protecting my valuable time, but it is not the students’ fault that the system is rigged to load them with mountains of debt, little of which is spent on instruction. Also, there are few things that make my soul leap with joy like watching students improve.

According to a CNBC article, American CEOs today make 271 times more than the average worker. In 1978, when the breakdown in these social contracts was just beginning, the ratio was 30:1. The average worker has seen an 11.2% increase in income (adjusted for inflation) in the same time period, while CEOs have had a 937% increase.

I get it because I live it. Assuming I teach four classes in 2019 (I’d like far more), I’ll make 0.02% of what Proenza pockets. Teaching college is not something any warm body can do. I have three college degrees and 30 years of experience writing and teaching.

The fear of communism and the brutal realities of the Great Depression helped birth the mid-20th century social contracts of affordable college and corporate social responsibility. They were concurrent tides that lifted all boats, including those of the rich. And for a few decades after WWII, America upheld them.

What might reverse the current trajectory? Thus far, the Great Recession seems only to have spawned autocratic populism both here and abroad. The more these social contracts are diminished, so too are innovation, economic equality and the very health of the planet.

Go Bucks? Go Blue? What do sports rivalries matter when there’s so much more at stake?

john pavlovitz

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