Make the World Better and Not Worse

Nashville skyline in 2009 (public domain)

When I was young, I attended private schools affiliated with small evangelical churches.

These were not the kinds of elite private schools most people think of. They were tiny institutions paying expenses with bits of wallet lint. I think the last of them had about 120 students across all grade levels, from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I was accustomed to learning in spaces that were clearly Sunday school classrooms and church sanctuaries on the weekend, except for the year I spent in a school that was basically a little trailer park. My teachers made maybe half of what public schools would have paid them. My principal was usually a pastor.

So earlier this week, when a former student targeted the Covenant School, a small Presbyterian elementary school in Nashville, and murdered three children and three adults there, the news meant even more than usual to me. It was far too easy, in an unusually specific way, to imagine being one of those nine-year-olds the shooter targeted—or one of the adult victims, for that matter.

But another thing hit home for me: the toxicity of the rhetoric that came immediately from people across America who weren’t directly affected.

Let me be frank about this. In the few hours before anybody knew much about the shooter, the first toxic rhetoric I saw came from, let’s say, “the left.”

First, I saw it in the social media bullying that followed an emotional Twitter thread from Britney L. Grayson, a pediatric surgeon working in Kenya. Grayson had visited the Covenant School that morning, leaving just minutes before the attack began. Her anguished thread included thoughts like this:

Later, Grayson posted several tweets explicitly promoting gun control. But because Grayson first spoke explicitly about the faith she shares with the Covenant School community (“Please join me in praying for healing for these children”), the replies filled initially with ugly anti-religious abuse, mocking her for believing in prayer and supposedly opposing gun control. Those were among the first remarks I saw or heard from anyone about the attack.

Of course, once it became clear that Grayson actually does favor tighter restrictions on gun ownership, the abuse started coming mostly came from the pro-religious right. Those responses were equally fatuous and sadistic.

(I won’t be quoting examples of any of this. You can imagine examples or find them yourself.)

Here’s my point: People play brutal games across our media landscape because they enjoy brutality. Then they self-righteously pretend they’re doing it to make the world a better place. Often they even demand that you participate.

That mocking the religious or political commitments of an actual pediatric surgeon, within hours of her narrowly missing being present at a school shooting, might not be the best way to build social solidarity and make the world safer for children, is a concept that gets lost very easily, it seems, in the joy of hating other people.

Speaking of brutality, though, these examples pale in comparison with the outpouring of hatred that I saw across media platforms from right-wing politicians and ordinary bullies once it came to light, a few hours later, that the shooter was (probably) a transgender man.

I’m definitely not going to be citing examples of this anti-trans hatred. You really don’t need me to do that in order to know what I’m talking about.

The whiplash from watching both of these forms of cruelty deploy within hours of each other made it even harder to know how to respond. But anti-trans rhetoric is far more pervasive as well as more dehumanizing, both intrinsically and in practice—and it’s likely to be far more harmful in everyday life, especially for young Americans.

When the news broke on Monday, as it happens, I was preparing to teach a guest history lesson the next day at a high school. That was one reason I tried, for a while, not to think about what had happened on Monday. I just couldn’t deal with it then. And then, for a few more days, I still just really didn’t know what to say.

Actually, I still don’t know what to say.

I did notice that all the flags on campus were at half-mast when I visited.

I can guess that some of the students at that school probably need—like all of us—to know they aren’t alone in 2023, and that there are people in the world—and that this describes most of us, most of the time—who oppose hatred comprehensively.

I’m not trans, and I don’t claim to have a great intuitive understanding of transgender and nonbinary identity. I try to be cautious about making pronouncements on topics I don’t think I understand well. But I do sometimes, at least, know the difference between being horrible to people and treating them with respect.

And I think it’s particularly important for people with backgrounds like mine, in this moment, to repudiate anti-transgender bigotry. Especially when it parades around pretending to be “protecting” us, or to be protecting today’s young versions of the people we were. It’s not doing any such thing. It’s making the world uglier and more dangerous for everyone.

Today’s evangelical kids, no less than anyone else, need to know that America will protect them from hatred—every time.

With that in mind, I’m going to end this post—which happens to be going up on Transgender Day of Visibility—with a specific call to join me in donating to The Trevor Project. This is my way of trying to end with a call for positive action, so that I’m not just engaging in yet another media denunciation game.

Because of social stigma, young LGBTQ Americans are significantly more likely to consider suicide than their peers are. The Trevor Project provides resources including a 24/7 crisis intervention lifeline. In 2021, people used the Trevor Project’s crisis line more than 200,000 times.

The Trevor Project has a 99% score from Charity Navigator and a platinum seal from GuideStar, so you can donate with confidence. And I’ll be grateful if you do.