Mollie Wilson O'Reilly
Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.
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Up here in Westchester County, New York, some folks are in a snit because New Rochelle High School is switching to gender-neutral graduation gowns -- that is, all students will wear the same color, instead of boys wearing one color and girls another. This is, to my mind, clearly a good decision. It costs the graduates and their families no additional pain or difficulty. If anything, it saves some trouble. And yet there are people -- not students, from what I have seen, but community members and internet commenters -- who are attacking the decision because it was motivated by a desire to make non-gender-conforming students' lives a little less fraught.
In the Journal News, the paper that covers the Lower Hudson Valley, columnist Phil Reisman gave voice to the complaints of "ardent traditionalists" who "say this is a classic case of autocratic overreach and a poor attempt to placate the concerns of a few kids at the expense of all the rest."
Questions he does not pose include: In what way is this a "poor" attempt? And what "expense" does it impose? What value is there in dividing the graduating class by sex, and what exactly will be lost if that tradition is abandoned? (A later column looks at another school in the area that made a similar decision, and the various disingenous comments made online by parents who oppose it.)
Reisman focuses on the opposition campaign of one man, "a lifelong city resident" (who seems not to have children currently enrolled in the New Rochelle school system) who, he says, is "concerned that his cause would be misinterpreted as intolerance. 'These kids have a hard enough life as it is,' he said. 'This is America and they have right to the pursuit of happiness. So I’m very uneasy to target the kids. It’s not the kids that are the issue — they aren’t what I take exception to.'”
Except, of course, that they are. When you are fighting to maintain a pointless separation of the sexes after the school board has decided to do away with it, you are privileging that separation of the sexes over the comfort of the individual students, however few they may be, who will be forced into making a public statement with which they cannot be comfortable. It's the same reason that what this man proposes as a compromise solution -- allowing students to choose the color they wear -- is no solution at all. Besides being needlessly complicated for whatever poor teacher or administrator has to deal with ordering the gowns, it preserves the very binary that the district wants to do away with. And the only reason for preserving it is to resist the growing conviction that gender-identity issues exist among high school students and are best handled with compassion.
What this man wants to do is what many people want to do in the face of confusing sex-and-gender battles: erase the specific people who identify as LGBTQ from the debate and make it a simple question of liberal-vs.-conservative identity politics.
The rather sudden prominence of transgender rights also provoked an op-ed in the Journal News from a local Catholic pastor (not mine, thank God), which begins: "Suppose I were to come to believe one day that I feel more like a chicken than a human being, and I publicly announced to the world from now on I want to be considered a chicken?"
Stop me if you've heard this one.
When I wrote a post here on April 12 to mark the occasion of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, I had already filed the column that has just been published in our Spring Books issue ("Ramona the Real").
My oldest son fretted for months about the Old Dark Frog, who features in a ghost story from Days with Frog and Toad. He did not want to sleep in the same room as our copy of The Gruffalo, just to be safe. But I’ve never seen him react to a book the way he did when I read him Beverly Cleary’s Ramona the Pest. He buried his face in my side, covered his ears, moaned, and even shouted, “No! Don’t do it!” when he saw trouble approaching for the five-year-old heroine.
The author Beverly Cleary—whose fiction for children introduced the world to Ramona Quimby, Henry Huggins, Ralph S. Mouse, and many other well-loved characters—celebrates her hundredth birthday today. The milestone has been an excuse for me to reread a number of her forty-some books and share a few with my oldest son. I wrote about that for my next column (keep an eye out!), but I did not get a chance there to recommend Cleary’s terrific memoirs.
When I think of what makes something “spiritual” reading, rather than informational or intellectual, I think of the disciples at Emmaus recalling that their hearts were “burning within” them as they listened to Jesus interpret the Scriptures. That passage from Luke came to my mind when I first encountered the theologian James Alison and picked up a copy of his book Faith Beyond Resentment (Crossroad, 2001).
There is a bit of a stir online this week over comments made by Cardinal Robert Sarah, the prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of the Sacraments, last month (I know, but the Vatican news cycle is weird that way).
“Compassion” is a word that tends to come up when critics talk about the plays of Stephen Karam. Reviewing his newest play, The Humans, for the New York Times, Charles Isherwood wrote: “Mr.
Since Barack Obama first ran for president, conservatives have often complained of feeling unable to criticize him without being accused of racism. Obviously not all criticism of Obama is racially motivated. But a lot of it has been, plainly and shamelessly so, and that fact is important to recall as we enter a new presidential campaign marked by overt appeals to racial suspicion and resentment.
I woke up this morning to the very welcome news that Pope Francis has revised the Holy Thursday rite to include women as well as men in the ritual of the washing of the feet. Or, as the Vatican Radio headline so wonderfully puts it: "Pope changes Holy Thursday decree to include all people of God."
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