Bridging the Language Gap on Rights, Literally and Figuratively


My first summer as a camp counselor, I got what I considered
a bit of an unfortunate assignment. 
I was  an assistant for a
group of the camps very youngest kids—three year olds.  I had hoped to be with slightly older
kids if for no other reason than they are far easier to understand.  You see the language skills of the
children in my group ranged from the virtually silent to the talkative yet
incomprehensible.   Still, we communicated enough to form a
fairly functional group that happily swam, finger painted, and played with
blocks through the lazy days of summer.

 

There was one little boy though, who had a bit of a harder
time than the rest.  His name was
Atsushi and he had come to the U.S. from Japan exactly 18 hours before starting
camp.  He spoke not a single word
of English.  His mother, who also
spoke no English, informed me, through a note written by a friend,  that she felt the quickest way for him
to adjust and learn the language was for him to be totally immersed.  In theory, this seems like a reasonable
idea.  In practice… well let’s just
say it was significantly harder.

By just the second day of the session I knew I had to do
something for poor Atsushi, who sat unmoving, unspeaking, and unblinking like a
shell-shocked soldier as he dealt with the multi-pronged traumas of being left
by his parents for the first time, being in a totally foreign environment, and
being three.  While wanting to
respect his parents’ wishes and help him immerse, I also felt a fundamental
human need to throw this kid a life line. 
I mean, I couldn’t even ask him if he had to go to the bathroom. So I
bought a book of conversational Japanese.

The next day, I tried out my new skills.  I won’t butcher the Japanese language by
trying to recall the translation, but Atsushi understood perfectly, vigorously
shook his head, and took my hand as we rushed to the bathroom.  And then the most remarkable thing
happened.  Atsushi started to
talk.  And talk.  And talk.  It turns out that he was the most verbal kid in the entire
group.  Don’t get me wrong, even
with my new book I couldn’t truly translate what he was saying most of the
time, but once I made that initial effort to bridge the gap we managed to
communicate in much the same way I communicated with the other three year
olds.   

Now I know that this example is long and a little heavy
handed, but it remains one of the most memorable relationships of my life, even
though it only lasted six weeks.  And,
I really do try to use the lessons I learned that summer in my work.

We, in the sexual and reproductive rights field, work in a small
community where we are comfortable with the language and are surrounded by
people who agree with us in almost every way.  The small differences in the missions of our respective
groups are nothing compared to the overwhelming similarities.  But, because we are so used to
interacting with people who speak our language of rights, access, funding, and
underserved populations, we can forget that there is an entire world of
Atsushis out there.

Because I am convinced, as I hope that many of you are too
that we are absolutely on the right side of these issues, with science,
compassion, and justice on our side, I have to believe that our problem is
fundamentally one of communication.  
Many of the people out there who don’t support us may not necessarily be
against us; they just have no idea what we’re talking about. 

I think we have seen this clearly as the Stupak amendment
brought our issues front and center in the health care debate.  There is a new audience now, one who
may be confused by the vast amount of information, misinformation, and opinions
that are swirling about surrounding health care reform as a whole.  The burden is on us to take the first
steps to speak to these people, because we are the people who want to draw
others to our side – to have outsiders understand the world through our
insiders’ point of view.  Believe
me.  We are never going to be able
to do this if we are locked in our one way of thinking and communicating. 

I would ask that as we think about issues like health care,
abortion, funding for HIV prevention, same-sex rights, and comprehensive sex
education, we start to develop some messaging frameworks that speak to people
with other points of view.  By focusing
our energies on empathy toward people who are not in our camp have, I believe
we can find new, strong allies.  We
just have to take the first step to open lines of communication and meet on
some common ground.

And, after all, it’s always a good idea to start any meeting
by asking if anyone has to use the bathroom.  

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  • elisa

    What a great way of framing this whole idea! 

  • jeornom

    One day there will be an in-utero diagnostic test that will give a probability that a fetus will have a certain sexual orientation.

     

    When that day comes, same-sex rights advocates will go from being passively pro-choice ("we’re all progressives!") to aggressively pro-life ("it’s legal to kill based on sexual orientation?!")

     

  • prochoiceferret

    One day there will be an in-utero diagnostic test that will give a probability that a fetus will have a certain sexual orientation.

    You seem awful certain of that. Most experts in the field aren’t even sure how much of it is nature, and how much is nurture. DNA is not destiny, after all.

    When that day comes, same-sex rights advocates will go from being passively pro-choice ("we’re all progressives!") to aggressively pro-life ("it’s legal to kill based on sexual orientation?!")

    No, they won’t. If and when that day comes, they’ll handle it as feminists address sex-selective abortion today: not by restricting abortions performed for that purpose, but by addressing the stigma/culture that causes people to want to abort fetuses of a certain type in the first place.

     

    It’s more work, to be sure, but the end result is a whole lot better than using one injustice as an excuse to commit another.

  • jeornom

    Most experts in the field aren’t even sure how much of it is nature, and how much is nurture. DNA is not destiny, after all.

     

    The gay people I know say that they could not change their orientation if they tried. They were born that way. I consider them "experts in the field".

     

    If orientation is innate in the DNA or the chemistry, there will eventually be a test for it. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to predict that. You can find out a hundred different things about your baby before it is born. Why wouldn’t you be able to find that out?

     

    No, they won’t. If and when that day comes, they’ll handle it as feminists address sex-selective abortion today

     

    I disagree for several reasons. First, females are not selectively aborted in the west. If society suddenly aborted 50% (or more) of the females in expense of the males, you would not politely "address the stigma/culture."

     

    Second, people who are prejudiced against gays tend to de-humanize them. "They don’t deserve the same rights as us because they are just deviants, etc". De-humanization is the same tactic used by pro-choicers – that human life is just a fetus, just an embryo, etc. My opinion is that gay people will not tolerate that additional de-humanization if their numbers start getting killed off en masse.

     

    And I can’t believe they would buy into that de-humanization now.

     

  • crowepps

    The gay people I know say that they could not change their orientation if they tried. They were born that way. I consider them “experts in the field”.

    I agree.

    If orientation is innate in the DNA or the chemistry, there will eventually be a test for it. I don’t think I’m going too far out on a limb to predict that. You can find out a hundred different things about your baby before it is born. Why wouldn’t you be able to find that out?

    It’s my understanding the current state of the research indicates there may be several different mechanisms which result in same-sex orientation, from the mother’s exposure to testosterone in previous pregnancies to genetic tendency being triggered by something unknown (as evidenced by identical twins of whom only one is gay although their DNA is identical) to the effects of stress on the mother and/or fetus during the pregnancy. Hopefully, by the time the tests are available, the results of the research which would be needed to make the tests possible will also enable most people to get over the idea that being gay is a dysfunctional choice and therefore a behavior problem.

     

    I realize that there are still some nut-jobs out here insisting that mental illness is caused by evil spirits, etc., but they are a very small percentage. If a similar percentage of anti-gay nutjobs who weren’t willing to accept the scientific facts aborted fetuses because they suspected them of being gay, IMO those fetuses would be a lot better off than if they were born and had no escape from a childhood where they were told constantly how ‘evil’ they were by nutjob parents.

  • prochoiceferret

    The gay people I know say that they could not change their orientation if they tried. They were born that way. I consider them "experts in the field".

    "Could not change their orientation if they tried" does not necessarily equal "innate in the DNA or the chemistry." Are you aware of how one’s environment can affect gene expression? There’s a lot more complexity to genetics than just what’s in the DNA.

    You can find out a hundred different things about your baby before it is born. Why wouldn’t you be able to find that out?

    There is no test to determine if a fetus will become a firefighter, or a criminal, or the next Einstein, and a lot of reason to believe that there will never be one. We can’t yet say for sure whether determining homosexuality is anywhere near as complex a proposition as that. So far, the best we know is that it appears to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors.

    I disagree for several reasons. First, females are not selectively aborted in the west. If society suddenly aborted 50% (or more) of the females in expense of the males, you would not politely "address the stigma/culture."

    If a change like that were to suddenly happen in the West, all bets are off—there’s no telling what would happen, or what would accompany that change. But in non-Western societies, sex-selective abortion is common, and feminist/LGBT/reproductive advocates are not calling for restrictions/prohibitions on abortion to stop this.

    Second, people who are prejudiced against gays tend to de-humanize them. "They don’t deserve the same rights as us because they are just deviants, etc".

    That’s what needs to be addressed to resolve the (potential) problem of orientation-selective abortions.

    De-humanization is the same tactic used by pro-choicers – that human life is just a fetus, just an embryo, etc.

    This is incorrect. Pro-choicers hold that the pregnant woman has dominion of her body, and that while the fetus within her is human, it does not have a right to use her body against her will (just as no one else does).

    My opinion is that gay people will not tolerate that additional de-humanization if their numbers start getting killed off en masse.

    Surely there are some anti-choice gay people out there who would restrict a woman’s right to abortion to prevent supposedly homosexual fetuses from being selectively aborted. I think that most, however, will continue to see that the problem is bigger than that—and that it can be solved without infringing the rights of women.