What lesson will the kids get?
The fight between Florida politicians and Disney is one with real consequences for our children.
Has Goofy been hiding his real self? Image from a 1950s postcard in the Wellcome Collection.
Goofy is gay. Or he might be. It is impolite to out somebody who doesn’t want to be open about their sexual orientation, you know, but Goofy’s no more real than the Easter bunny — who might also be gay, I think — and wouldn’t it be sweet justice if the homophobes of Florida found out that Mickey Mouse’s sidekick, like a lot of men of his generation, has all along been faking his just-one-of-the-guys act?
This notion is only in my imagination, and it arises, of course, because Florida’s governor, Ron DeSantis, and the state’s Republican-controlled state legislature have decided that conversations about sexual orientation and gender identity are too upsetting for youngsters of single-digit age to even bear mentioning in schools, and that just using the wrong words in addressing the topic with any age of student can get a teacher or a school district sued. You can only conclude that the politicians think sex and gender are more appalling than other topics that they haven’t outlawed from classrooms — maybe like homicide, rape and cynical political opportunism.
Okay, I just threw in that last one there to be clever, because no teacher is going to try to teach schoolchildren why politicians are turning democracy into a sideshow, though that’s clearly an upsetting reality that kids ought to learn to cope with by the time they become adults. Otherwise, they might grow up to emulate DeSantis, a brilliant guy — a top student at Yale and at Harvard Law — who is demonstrating that ambition unmoored from ethical standards can lead even smart people to stoop to destructive behavior.
This week Florida’s campaign against gay Americans — and it is precisely that, no matter how much DeSantis and his ilk try to mask their intent — turned into a battle between the state and Disney, who gave us Goofy and Mickey and a lot of other characters of uncertain status. The fight emerged after the corporation, which employs 80,000 Floridians, many of them avowedly gay, had issued statements opposing the so-called “don’t say gay” law. Naturally, the state retaliated against Disney’s exercise of free speech: It moved to take away a tax structure that has given Disney extraordinary control over its theme parks and other properties. That slap by the state quickly shaved more than a billion dollars off Disney’s stock value, which is a hefty fine for ticking off an American politician. Kind of puts you in mind of Vladimir Putin, doesn’t it?
Mind you, there’s fair argument over whether that special tax district — set up in 1967 so Disney could control its own fire protection, utilities and the like — was a good idea in the first place. But getting rid of it now, independent experts say, would shift a billion dollars in bond debt from Disney to local taxpayers, and it seems likely to sap $105 million a year in Disney tax payments from local communities.1
But that’s just dollars, which is what politicians and corporate lobbyists wrestle over all the time. That will get figured out, I’d bet, before the scheduled dissolution of the tax district in June of next year, after necessary theatrics. Disney and Florida are too important to each other to let a dispute over a couple billion dollars foul their future.
Anyway, that’s not what should really concern us here. It’s this: While what’s at issue here for Disney is mainly money, and for DeSantis it is his bid to win control of the Republican party from Donald Trump, the stakes are much bigger for the children of Florida, and for so many more Americans: This fight is about whether we are truly willing to meet our neighbors on each other’s turf, and honor who they are.
Yes, it’s also about whether humans are able to adapt as they learn more — in this case, by weighing science over ancient prejudices. People have always been afraid of other folks who seem unlike them, although the DNA of all humans alive is 99.9 percent identical. Religions and power-eager leaders over the millennia have encouraged division along some of those miniscule differences, and others, to elevate one group over another — differences like race and nationality, gender and sexuality. Some American politicians still want to do that.
Take gender, for example, like the recent declaration of U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, an Upstate New York Republican who is third in House Republican leadership, that “you’re either born a biological man or a biological woman.” Science reveals that to be flatly untrue. Four genetic variants lead to people being born in neither specific gender, and there are other biologic and hormonal variations that delineate a person from being clearly one gender or another.2 What value is served by Stefanik, a Harvard graduate, ignoring that science? Why would we want to cause pain to gender-fluid or non-binary people by implying that even discussing their reality is threatening to the well-being of children?
The same goes for homosexuality. Genetics play a role in whether a person is drawn to same-sex partners, research confirms, as do a lot of other factors, leading the scientist who headed the most recent and far-reaching studies of the topic to conclude that same-sex attraction is “a natural part of our diversity as a species.”3 How is society offended by something so natural? Who benefits by considering a classroom discussion about gayness to be so troubling that, as the Florida law provides, a teacher who uses the wrong words with students of any age is subject to being sued by parents? The law doesn’t define what language is or is not “age appropriate,” which means teachers will be safer from legal risk if they simply shush any talk about sexual orientation.
Which talk, by the way, could be about moms and dads. Perhaps nine million Americans have a gay or lesbian parent.4 Florida’s law will surely lead some of those children to question whether they should be ashamed of their folks — because explaining why some kids in the class have two mommys or two daddys could violate the law. What a family friendly lot those Florida Republicans are!
Yet it’s true that I’m a lot like Ron DeSantis, in that we are both very lucky guys: cisgender white males, born in 20th-century America to middle-class white parents. Because I’m a bit older, I recall watching episodes of the old black-and-white Mickey Mouse Club on TV, which always ended with the wholesome young Mouseketeers spelling out, with sweet sincerity, the name of the show’s star: “M-I-C,” they would sing, at which point Jimmie Dodd, the adult “Head Mouseketeer,” would say, directly addressing the children at home, “See you real soon.” And then the kids on the screen would continue, “K-E-Y,” to which Jimmie would add, talking to us, “Why? Because we like you!”
The show beamed out to all children, not just to kids like Ron DeSantis and me, because the Mouseketeers didn’t suggest that they liked only straight, white boys. To be sure, there was a lot homophobia and what we now consider anti-gay talk in those days, but we’ve grown up to understand that people don’t deserve to be ridiculed, or hated, or viewed with suspicion because of who they are and how they’re born.
Or most of us have, anyway. Certainly the folks at Disney have grown, which is why the company took a stand against the nasty Florida law. It’s hard to imagine that children in recent years have been damaged by a string of characters in Disney movies that seem to be gay, from Lefou in “Beauty and the Beast,” to Elsa in “Frozen,” a Disney princess who never sought a handsome prince. “Let it go, let it go — can’t hold it back anymore,” Elsa sings heroically at the show’s climax, in what is often invoked as a lesbian anthem. “Here I stand, and here I stay — let the storm rage on,” she insists.5
And so it shall, so that, finally, the lesson we give all children in 2022 will be one of determination and pride, rather than of yielding to some politicians’ eagerness to fuel their ambitions on the fears of others.
NEWSCLIPS FROM THE UPSTATES
Dispatches from our common ground *
Wherein each week we look around what we call the nation’s Upstates — those places just a bit removed from the center of things — to find illuminating news and intriguing viewpoints, which you might not otherwise see.
This week, we share reporting published here:
Helena, Mont. (Independent Record, helenair.com)
Madison, Wis. (Winona Daily News, winonadailynews.com)
Salisbury, Md. (Salisbury Daily Times, delmarvanow.com)
Wilmington, N.C. (Wilmington Star News, starnewsonline.com)
NOTE: The complete “Newsclips from the Upstates” section is available only to paid subscribers. Thanks for your support!
Bills targeting vaccination mandates rise across the country
Since the first of this year, more than 520 vaccine-related bills have been introduced into state legislatures, including 66 bills that would ease vaccine requirements for children in 25 states. That’s according to reporting by A. J. Etherington for Kaiser Health News, as published in the Independent Record, the newspaper of Helena, Mont. Experts say the anti-vax movement has gained support during the pandemic, and they’re not sure how to fight back. “Politicians are poking holes in our social safety net,” a public health advocate said.
Field trip for deserving students hits a snag: no money
Two years ago, a Madison East High School teacher promised the 16 students in his college prep program aimed at helping low-income students that if they all got into college, he would take them on a field trip to Washington, D.C. Now, reports Elizabeth Beyer in the Winona Daily News, the students have succeeded — but teacher Cesar Martinez is finding it almost impossible to fulfill the promise: It will cost $20,000 to take the students to the nation’s capital, and Martinez is $19,500 short. Martinez has started a GoFundMe page, and the students are doing small-scale fundraising — like bake sales — but the deadline to make plane reservations so they can celebrate Juneteenth on the National Mall is nearing.
Call it “wishcycling” — the plastic that people wrongly imagine gets recycled
Along Maryland’s Eastern Shore, a lot of people are worried about the impact of plastics in the oceans. Indeed, according to reporting by Kristiane Jaime in the Salisbury Daily Times, enough plastic to fill a garbage truck is dumped into the world’s oceans every minute. But the local recycling coordinator tells the newspaper that people don’t realize that much of the plastic they put into recycling bins isn’t actually recyclable, so it winds up dumped in with trash and, eventually, finds its way into our water. “It’s poisoning every aspect of our lives,” she said.
Local newspaper finds schools racially segregated, opportunities unequal
Over months, a team of reporters at the Wilmington Star News has undertaken an investigation of the local public school system, with results that are both unsurprising and tragic: The focus on “neighborhood schools” has left classrooms dramatically segregated by race, with the result that a child’s race overwhelmingly determines how good an education he or she is offered. Writes reporter Matthew Prensky, the “school system (is) driven by community segregation.”
Local news still imperiled
The challenge confronting local news providers is stark: As the financial underpinning of newspapers has collapsed in the digital revolution, nothing has arisen to provide the kind of local coverage that is essential if citizens are to understand what’s going on in their communities. Some 2,200 print newspapers have died since 2005, and the number of newspaper journalists has fallen by half.
We’ve known this for a while, but now comes new research with yet more depressing news: Even consumers who claim to care about local news don’t think they should have to pay for it. That’s according to a new study from the Medill School at Northwestern University. In the words of one respondent, which seems to typify the feelings of many readers: “Stop hiding articles behind paywalls.”
As a longtime newspaper editor, I’m distressed that our industry hasn’t managed to sell the value proposition of its low-cost digital subscriptions to an engaged public. Paywalls support locally important journalism. As the creator of The UPSTATE AMERICAN, I should note, I draw on the reporting of local newspapers — but often find I can’t pass along the best local stories to you because I can’t get behind the paywall. (Smart “dynamic” paywalls, which aren’t always implemented by publishers, allow “sampling” or have geographic boundaries, so that those of us who only occasionally browse a site or live beyond the local community can get access to the news there for a few articles.)
We know from other research that local communities suffer as watchdog and accountability reporting disappear — that corruption rises, taxes climb and community connections fray as news organizations fall away. But we haven’t yet found a way to make those outcomes fearsome enough to consumers to convince enough people to subscribe, so that the vital cog that local newspapers represent in our democracy can thrive.
My request, then: Buy a digital subscription to a local newspaper. You’ll be doing something good for your community, and for yourself.
Thanks for joining me here at The UPSTATE AMERICAN, and for standing alongside me on *our common ground, this America.