Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Parental Rights or Parental Ownership?


Literal conversation I have had:


Person A: “I believe in states’ rights. Federalism would fix most of our partisan conflicts.”

Me: “States’ rights to do WHAT?”



My hometown school board - we are in a conservative part of California - is one of several who are considering fighting in the culture wars against LGBTQ people, which means inventing problems, then imposing “solutions” which are really about punishing people they hate. 


In this particular case, they are debating whether to force teachers to “out” transgender and non-binary students to their parents, without the student’s consent. And, of course, this is cloaked in the language of “parental rights.” 


“The right to do WHAT?”


You see the same thing unfolding on a larger scale in states like Florida, where telling the truth about the existence and reality of LGBTQ people is being suppressed in schools, again under the guise of “parental rights.”


“The right to do WHAT?”


When I was a kid, the argument was of sex education. Can’t have the kiddos learning about how their bodies work, and how to prevent pregnancy, because….you guessed it: “Parental rights.”


“The right to do WHAT?”


There have been a series of school board meetings about this, including a couple that one or more of my children have attended. The last two, one of my kids spoke out against the policy from the podium, and got interviewed by the media about it. I think he did a fantastic job, and I am so proud that my children are willing to stand up for what they believe and participate in our political process. 


In understanding what is going on here, I think it helps to ask the question about what people mean by “parental rights.”


“The right to do WHAT?”




The original states’ rights argument is no mystery. What was it?




Yep. So let’s ask that question. When the Southern states argued in favor of states’ rights, what were they advocating for?


“The right to do WHAT?”


The right for one group of humans to enslave another. 


And let’s be clear about that. They were arguing that states had the right to maintain (using government force) the enslavement of some humans by other humans. The rest is all red herrings. 


Rights do not exist in the abstract. They are the right to do something or to refrain from doing something.


For example: the right to free speech means the right to say things without government retaliation. Most importantly, it is the right to criticize the government without the government punishing you for it. 


Misunderstanding this is why people (particularly right-wing bigots) get all butt-hurt when other private citizens object to their bigotry and impose social consequences. That’s not free speech - that’s freedom from consequences - aka impunity. There is no right to say evil things and force other people to like you despite what you said. 


Another example: freedom of religion means you cannot be coerced into participating in religious observances you do not agree with. It does not mean that if you use religion to justify hurting other people, you will be free from criticism as a bigot. (Another misunderstanding by the right-wing.) 


So, when someone talks about rights - any rights - the question should always be:


“The right to do WHAT?”




So let’s ask the question in this context: when people scream and yell about “parental rights,” what do they want the right to do?


“The right to do WHAT?”


Here’s the scenario. A child - usually a teen - recently having gone through puberty and all that entails, has discovered that they are not cishet. They find that they experience themselves as transgender or non-binary. 


It takes a bit of time to process this, of course, but eventually, they begin to be more sure about who they are and how they feel. 


What do they do next?


I imagine for most kids, they try their “new” identity on a bit, first with their friends. But then they have a choice. What adults do they tell first? 


Parents are a tough one. You live with your parents, and they have a tremendous amount of control over your life. If this goes wrong, it could be a disaster for you. 


But what about a teacher or counselor? If you say something to one of them, maybe you have a bad rest of the semester, and that is the end of it. A bit safer. And also, maybe you already know they are affirming, and therefore safe. 


Then, later, having taken that real scary step, the child may choose, if they feel that they have a good relationship with their parents, come out to them. 


This is normal. 


So why would a parent get all freaked out about this?


What do they think they would do?


And here we come back to the question:


“The right to do WHAT?”


If you are an affirming parent (my wife and I are), the response when a child comes out to you is:


“Oh, okay. We love you and affirm you. Is there anything you need from us?” 


And guess what? It doesn’t matter if you are the first to know, the third to know, or whatever. The response is the same, and nothing terrible happens if you don’t know right away. 


By the way, this is how it went when our kid came out to us. He told a teacher first. This teacher, being a good person, asked him if he had support, if he was safe, and if he needed any assistance. 


And then later, he came out to us, and we hugged, and it was fine.


But what do the “parental rights” crowd think they would do if their child was outed to them?


Do they plan to punish that child?


Do they plan to put that child in the psychological and physical torture that is “conversion therapy?”


Are they under the delusion that they can somehow “fix” their child? (Spoiler: you can’t “fix” LGBTQ people. And they do not need fixing anyway, because they aren’t broken. They are just different.) 


So the answer to the question of “The right to do WHAT?” is important here, isn’t it? 




This leads to what I alluded to in the title. 


I believe that what is really at stake here is ownership. 


Many parents - particularly right-wing parents - believe they own their children. 


I will probably blog more about this in the future, but parents like mine were literally indoctrinated with the idea that their children exist, not as human beings in their own right, but as tools - weapons to be wielded in the Culture Wars™. 


This is why the various false prophets of the Dominionist movement lost their shit over the Convention on the Rights of the Child. The idea that children had rights - rights to make their own decisions about religion and their own lives - was ludicrous to them. Children were the property of their parents, not independent human beings. Who dare suggest otherwise? 


And I should also note that this carries forward even after kids become adults. There is the expectation that if you just followed the formula correctly, your kids will obey you FOREVER!


But here is the thing:


Children are fully human, and will grow into adulthood whether you want them to or not.


There is no guaranteed way - despite all the spiritual snake oil sold by childrearing “experts” - to make children cultural, political, and religious clones of their parents. 


The most you can do is psychologically damage your children by attempts at coercion. 


(You would think that parents would realize this - they didn’t do things exactly the way their parents did either.) 


So, all of these attempts at asserting “parental rights” really start looking like an assertion of ownership. 

Attempts to suppress scientifically accurate sex education, because your children should not be able to make decisions regarding their own bodies and sexuality without mommy and daddy approving. 


Attempts to prevent kids from knowing the truth of the existence (and persecution) of LGBTQ people, because if kids don’t know being LGBTQ is a normal way of being a human being, they won’t end up gay or transgender, but will be only what mommy and daddy approve of them being.


Attempts to prevent kids from expressing their gender identity in a way mommy and daddy wouldn’t approve of, because children aren’t allowed to express a deep part of their identity without parental approval. 


And I’ll add this one as well, because Florida: Attempts to prevent children from learning the truth about our history, particularly systemic racism, because if they do so, they might realize that mommy and daddy are racist as fuck. 


It’s all about ownership - the right to control other people. 


I think too, it is based on delusional thinking. Right wingers in general live in what Doug Muder has called the Conservative Fantasy World. They choose to believe pretty lies rather than acknowledge the ugly truth. It allows them to avoid seeing the ugliness of their beliefs. It allows them to hide their own cruelty…even from themselves. 


The existence of LGBTQ people is a problem for the right wing, particularly the Religious Right. They are a challenge to gender hierarchy, and they make a convenient outlet - a target - for their darkest fears and hatreds. But admitting that their distaste for LGBTQ people is a combination of visceral discomfort and pure bigotry is…uncomfortable. It would require admitting that they are bigots, and nobody - not even the Klan - wants to admit that. 


So, they cling to a series of pretty lies instead. 


They believe that being gay or transgender is a choice, an addiction, but definitely not how one is born. 


They believe that, even if you are born that way, you can be cured


And even if you can’t be cured, you can at least be vaccinated (so to speak) against gayness by proper parenting and religious indoctrination. 


Once you believe that, you also will believe that LGBTQ people were “recruited” into that “lifestyle” by nefarious agents. They would not have become gay or transgender if not for being “groomed” by other LGBTQ people. 


Thus, carefully protecting their bigotry with pretty lies leads to even worse bigotry, that of demonizing LGBTQ people and calling for their persecution. 


This is how you get to school board meetings where parents are freaked out and sure that if they could just eliminate all knowledge of the existence of LGBTQ people, and get their kids their proper anti-gay propaganda before it is too late, they are guaranteed to have cis-het kids. 


That’s utter rubbish, of course, but it makes for a convenient, comforting lie. 


Until your kid comes out. And you have to choose whether you will have a future relationship with them or not… 


This isn’t going to end well for these parents.


I really do not know what these parents think is going to happen. So, their kid is LGBTQ. If they get their way, what will happen is either that the kid is outed to their parents without their permission, or they stay in the closet at school until they graduate. 


Either way, there is likely going to be resentment. Either at being outed, or for having to suppress their identity at school. 


Some will commit suicide. 


(This is thoroughly supported by the data. And also, an LGBTQ kid with at least one adult that accepts them are significantly less likely to commit suicide. I hope we can at least agree that dead kids are a bad thing.) 


There is no scenario here where this leads to a better parent-child relationship. 


And that is just with an outing. 


Now imagine instead that the reason the kid didn’t come out to their parents wasn’t merely that they weren’t ready, but that they knew their parents were anti-LGBTQ bigots, and would not accept them. What happens to those kids now?


They will be punished. They will be subjected to attempts to “reprogram” them, whether through “conversion therapy” or through constant disapproval, which is emotionally and psychologically corrosive. 


Someday, if they survive, they are likely going to be glad to be out of the family. 


It is estimated that 1 in 4 children will be estranged from one or more parents during their lifetime. Some of these reconcile, but by no means all. 


This number is probably growing. And it will grow a lot more in the next generation, for a number of reasons - Trumpist/Fascist politics by the parents, the Culture Wars, the continued fallout of the Dominionist branch of the homeschooling movement, better access to mental health care, to name a few. 


These parents are setting themselves up for future estrangement. 


You cannot continue to insist on your rights - your ownership and control of your children - and expect that they will accept that as adults. 


Those teen years are vitally important to the process of transitioning from being a parent of small children, to being the parent of adults - who will be your equals, not your subordinates. What you do at that time will determine the course of your future relationship. 


This is why the teen years should be spent getting to know the people that your children are, not doubling down on control as you realize they are slipping away from you. 


I mean, I get it. As my older kids have entered college, their lives intersect with mine less often. They have friends and jobs and homework - and definitely their own opinions and frames of reference, cultural or otherwise. There is a certain feeling of loss when you are an involved parent who genuinely enjoys your kids’ company. 


But this is also a normal part of life. They go from infants that won’t let you sleep to toddlers who meltdown occasionally to school kids to teens to……adults with their own lives. And so the circle turns. 


Accepting the change in the relationship, and letting your children go isn’t the easiest thing, but it is absolutely necessary. If you refuse to let go, they will do it for you. 


This is something that is very personal for me. My teen years were more difficult than they had to be because my parents joined Gothard’s cult. Their response to that first slippage of control, as I got old and smart enough to start questioning things, was to double down on the authoritarian fundamentalism. 


As I noted, this makes the transition to adulthood difficult or impossible. For a number of years - into my 30s - I naively expected that at some point, they would start to see me (and my wife) as an adult, and stop trying to assert control. That didn’t happen (especially when it came to my wife), and it sowed the seeds of our eventual estrangement. (The estrangement was their choice - don’t let them tell you otherwise – but we had a difficult relationship for many years before that.) 


I know so many ex-cult kids who are estranged or have difficult (and thus minimal) relationships with their parents. It is the norm, not the exception. 


The same thing is going to happen for these parents who are demanding “parental rights” over a very personal and intimate part of their children’s identity. 


“The right to do WHAT?”


The right to control. The right to own. The right to punish, bully, and abuse their children for failing to be like them. 


And sure, they will have the satisfaction of rejecting and punishing their LGBTQ children. But in the end, they will lose those children, whether through estrangement or suicide. 




My own view:


Children are human. They deserve the respect that adult humans deserve, even if that is expressed a bit differently at different ages. 


Anyone who knows me and my kids knows that I am not exactly a stereotypical “permissive parent.” We have always had high expectations for our kids. They do chores, because everyone has to contribute to a household, or to a society, or to a world. They do their homework, because learning and working within systems that may not always be pleasant is part of life in the world they were born into. And yes, they have to do some form of music as well as algebra, because we believe that is part of a well-rounded education. They learn, because knowledge is better than ignorance, wisdom than stupidity, and critical thinking than sloganeering. 


But my wife and I also made the conscious decision that we would not act like we owned our children, and treat their humanity with respect. This means that we do not dictate to them about their identity or their future lives. 


They have the choice as to what they will study in college, what career choices they make, who they marry if they choose to do so, and how they decide to raise any kids they create. 


They are also free to express who they are, including their gender identity and sexuality. 


Just like I do not expect that a child be as committed to music as I am (and they haven’t been - they have other interests, and that’s fine), I do not own their bodies, their inner identity, and how they live as humans. 


It is my sincere hope that they all choose to be decent humans, to act with compassion, intelligence, and open-mindedness. 


I also believe that as part of being a human, children are entitled to have things they do not share with their parents. An inner life is a human right, which is why authoritarian and totalitarian systems work so hard to destroy that right. There are things about me that I have never told my parents, and never will. There are things about me that I will never tell anyone, even my wife. (A quick scan of the interwebs reveals, for example, that a lot of people really should have kept their sexual fantasies to themselves - some things exist for an inner life, but you wouldn’t want to actually DO them.) To some degree or another, all humans have dueling needs: to be intimate with others, and to have a part of their psyche that is theirs alone. We introverts probably have more of the latter. 


One of the things that I hated most about Gothardism was the demand that children confess their sins to their parents. (Their owner authority.) I think my parents kind of gave up on that one pretty early, although whether out of a realization that it was inappropriate or just exhaustion from all of the micromanaging Gothardism called for, I have no idea. 


But this expectation that one is supposed to yield one’s future and one’s inner self to others still bothers me a lot. While I don’t hate law, and have found a good balance of home and work life, I am still pissed that I was not given the chance to get a normal college education or choose my career myself. (I had to take the one option the cult offered.) I do not want that for my own kids - I want them to have ownership of their own lives. 


The question again remains, when it comes to my parents. And to me as a parent:


“The right to do WHAT?”


Did my parents have the “right” to control me? To deny me a meaningful opportunity to choose my higher education and career? To reject and antagonize my wife for refusing to obey them and do things their way? 


Did they have the right to expect that I would be their cultural, religious, and political clone? 


I would say no. And I do not have those “rights” over my children either. They are fully human, and have the right - the real right - to live as themselves, whether that involves their gender identity and sexuality as they experience it, their higher education and career, their future partners and children, or their religious and philosophical beliefs. Those are between them and god/the universe - I have no “rights” at stake here. I do not own my children. They belong to themselves. 


And I have to say again that I am damn proud of my kid for standing up to anti-transgender hate, in public, and in the face of jeering bigots. As a parent, this is what I hope my kids will be as adults. The world is a better place with him in it. 


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