Jol Devitro

Remarks for Brooke Ashjian

Jol DevitroDuring last week’s school board meeting, time was reduced and I was unable to share my full remarks to Brooke Ashjian. I hope these may find their way to him and to those who share his beliefs. ~Jol

 

American hero Helen Keller said,“The highest result of education is tolerance.” Her quote, though universal in nature, seems particularly appropriate in light of recent public comments made by Board president Ashjian.

With 3 toxic sentences, this man has demonstrated without a doubt his unfitness to sit on this board, let alone preside over it.

  1. First, referring to sex ed he said: “My biggest fear in teaching this …you have kids who are extremely moldable at this stage, and if you start telling them that LGBT is OK and that it’s a way of life, well maybe you just swayed the kid to go that “
  2. He also uttered this line: “It’s so important for parents to teach these Judeo-Christian ”
  3. And finally, his distaste for comprehensive sex education that includes learning about abortion was summarized thusly: “There’s certainly a lot of psychological effects that come from abortion that people need to be aware of. Your life is a lot easier by not doing it. Look at these poor girls who get raped and have to have an abortion. If that’s the way they’ve got to go, God bless them. But think of all the repercussions that come later in life, mental and psychological.”

On Monday Interim superintendent Bob Nelson released a statement on behalf of FUSD that appeared to repudiate his colleague’s statements. “Fresno Unified firmly believes that students and staff perform best in an environment where tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness are practiced and valued,” Mr. Nelson said.

This statement is in perfect alignment with the California education code , which cites the following aims of the California Healthy Youth Act:

 

“To provide pupils with the knowledge and skills they need to develop healthy attitudes concerning adolescent growth and development, body image, gender, sexual orientation, relationships, marriage, and family.

To   promote   understanding    of     sexuality as                   a normal part of human development.

To ensure pupils receive integrated, comprehensive, accurate, and unbiased sexual health and HIV prevention instruction and provide educators with clear tools and guidance to accomplish that end, and To provide pupils with the knowledge and skills necessary to have healthy, positive, and safe relationships and behaviors.”

Indeed, we have learned from the disastrous results of suppressing such information and keeping our young people in the dark that knowledge is power and healthy acceptance of the self is a human necessity.

Knowledge allows us human beings to assess risk in an informed way and to make judicious decisions that keep us from harm’s way.

Likewise, healthy attitudes allow us to develop the self-esteem that allows us to thrive in the world, to believe in ourselves, and to respect and care for ourselves, which is a prerequisite of respecting and caring for others.

When, as a society, we fail to arm our kids with the scientific knowledge that they need in order to navigate the perils of this world, we set them up for failure in life. Ignorance leads to bad life choices. Education, which is meant to dispel ignorance, allows us to make the best possible choices.

 

When we, as a society, fail to instill a positive self image in our children, we set them up for a lifetime of low self-esteem, which leads to every type of antisocial behavior.

In the words of another beloved American icon and survivor of societal discrimination, Ru Paul, “If you don’t love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?”

If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share a bit of my personal experience. I grew up in Fresno and have recently returned here after 25 years away.

For years my attitude regarding Fresno was that it was a cultural wasteland that seemed to take delight in smashing anybody who was in any way different from quote-unquote “normal”. I’d hoped things might have changed, that Fresno might have come into step with the rest of the country in its acceptance of the LGBT community, but Mr. Ashjian’s comments the other day came as a disillusioning slap in the face and a reminder that the climate of hate is still burning our city’s most vulnerable people.

In order to become who I am today–a proud member of the LGBTQ etc. community–I had to leave this town, finish my education elsewhere, and live in the world, where I could bear witness to the lives of all sorts of

people and walk in their proverbial shoes. I would hope that no kid growing up here in this day and age should ever have to feel that way, or be made to feel inferior because of their sexuality or gender or any other distinguishing trait that sets them apart from the “norm.” But Mr. Ashjian’s hurtful comments show me we still have a long way to go.

Let me tell you how I know Mr. Ashjian is wrong in his assumption that keeping kids ignorant adds value to an individual’s life or to our society.

Despite 13 years of private Catholic schooling, during which I absorbed more judeo-Christian philosophies than a nun could shake a ruler at; and

 

despite attending church on a weekly basis with my family from infancy to adulthood; despite receiving all of the church’s sacraments and my own family’s teachings on right and wrong; despite growing up without the Internet or the hundreds of channels of cable television kids today have; despite coming of age during the first horrific appearance of AIDS on the world stage; despite the images of gay men wasting and dying hideous and horrible deaths, and despite the myriad ‘80s televangelists, and teachers, and priests explaining this new plague as God’s judgment on the “gay lifestyle”, despite the Reagan administration’s official silence about the epidemic and unofficial laughter over it; despite my being a high-ranking Boy Scout and even an altar boy, despite having no friends or acquaintances who were gay or trans or queer in any way, my very nature, all by itself, was swaying me to “go that way” that Mr. Ashjian is so afraid of.

 

He’s so afraid of that way, in fact, that he’s reportedly opted his own children out of the district’s sex education classes.

Now I can understand that fear. There’s a name for it: Homophobia, and I felt it myself for many years. Believe me, I grew up with homophobia instilled in every fiber of my being. And Mr. Ashjian–Brooke, if i may–is only a few years older than I am, and no doubt saw the same images of dying homosexuals and heard the same hateful and presumptuous rhetoric attributing this horrifying plague to God’s judgment on gays. He grew up in the same climate of intolerance and also likely had the loathing of gay people instilled in him. I imagine that going through life with the name Brooke, generally a girl’s name in my book, might have made him the object of occasional ridicule by insensitive, badly educated kids and even adults.

What did I do with all this “education” that I received growing up? I sent myself into hiding, of course. I resolved deep in my hyper-religious heart to never, ever become this object of social scorn and official condemnation. I did what I was supposed to do, what I was taught to do. I dated women, all the way through college. And you might think i was lying to them, but i

 

promise you i wasn’t. i was doing something much worse; i was lying to myself. i was keeping myself from knowing myself, rejecting a part of me that i didn’t want to know, because I’d been taught, erroneously, that it was bad, that it was wrong to “go that way.”

 

So despite getting a lot of good knowledge from my primary education, I emerged from the experience lacking the knowledge and skills to develop               healthy attitudes concerning my own growth and development; I wasn’t ever made to understand or feel that my sexual development was normal; i didn’t receive a lick of

unbiased or accurate information concerning my budding identity; nor was i given clear tools and guidance to safely navigate through the world of sexuality; neither was I equipped with the knowledge and skills to have healthy, safe relationships or cultivate healthy, safe habits.

The result was that I spent my early years in Fresno dying on the vine, suffering from not only the intolerance of my peers and authority figures but also from my own self-loathing.

That’s how I know that the California Healthy Youth Act is a gift to the children of California. It’s a gift I never received from my education, and frankly, I think I should have received that gift. I think every child should be so gifted by the adults in charge of their education, and I applaud the state’s legislators for finally taking a stand and making sex education the law of the land in California.

I’ve experienced firsthand how the imposition of “judeo-christian philosophies” and the suppression of information doesn’t do a damn thing from stopping a person from “going that way” that Mr. Ashjian’s so fearful to contemplate.

 

I’m here today to express my fervent opposition to Mr. Ashjian’s positions, especially with respect to the first two toxic sentences, the one expressing his bigotry toward LGBT people and the second, his desire to impose “judeo-christian values” on all of the children of Fresno, regardless of what they’re particular family’s belief system might be. This strikes me as religious extremism.

What if Mr. Ashjian was Muslim and wanted to impose Muslim philosophies on all the children of Fresno? I presume many local families would have an issue with that. Similarly, had he threatened to inculcate all the children of Fresno into his own religion of Mormonism, I’m sure a lot of us would cry foul.

As for the third statement, regarding abortion, I also vehemently oppose that one and am deeply upset for all the women he’s disturbed and insulted with his insensitivity and ignorance of the social dynamics of being a woman. But I will leave it up to women to debunk the myths and misconceptions that Mr. Ashjian’s jumbled together in his statement about them, just as I would leave it up to women to make decisions pertaining to their own bodies, something no man can rightly claim to fully

comprehend–unless, of course he’s a trans man.

With his comments, Mr. Ashjian has not only laid bare for all of us the unmitigated ignorance and intolerant attitudes that underlie and form the basis of his own decision-making processes; he’s also besmirched this school district, the reputation of Fresno, and the intelligence of all the people he was elected to represent.

In addition, by publicly airing his private mind on the subject of sex education, he has not only insulted every single member of the LGBT community and disparaged a huge number of women, he’s also contributed to the annals of hate speech and contributed

 

to a climate that endangers the lives of LGBT children and adults, as well as society’s most vulnerable women.

If the Fresno Unified School District is sincere in wanting to create an atmosphere of tolerance, diversity and inclusiveness” for the well-being of our children, how can it continue to allow Mr. Ashjian to sit

on this board, where he abuses his position of power to impose his own negative, unhealthy, and narrow-minded attitudes and beliefs on the children, families, and citizens of Fresno?

It’s my opinion, as someone who’s suffered from and struggled to overcome the pernicious effects of bigotry, who bears the scars of intolerance on his psyche and feels the weight of this injustice every day of his life, that Mr.

Ashjian is demonstrably, by his own admission, unfit for this position of authority on this board, which has stated intentions quite opposite to Mr. Ashjian’s personal projections.

I’ve yet to hear Mr. Ashjian apologize for his offensive remarks, and I don’t believe an apology is enough. Mr. Ashjian has revealed his hand, and it’s a losing hand. So it should be “game over” for Mr. Ashjian’s time on the board. It’s time to resign, Mr. Ashjian, and in your likely failure to recognize that fact, I implore the other members of the board to take the necessary steps of removing your president from this office.

IIn conclusion, I’d like to invoke Helen Keller one more time. She was a beloved, revered, and transformational figure, largely because of the obstacles and societal attitudes she overcame to thrive in a hitherto hostile world.

Despite her blindness and deafness from a young age, she went on to be one of our country’s greatest and most celebrated communicators, ultimately thriving in the world of those who could see and hear.

 

In her lifetime, she was celebrated as a gifted writer, activist, and lecturer, and her example dispelled the conventional thinking that had before her barred the blind and the deaf from the world of the sighted and hearing.

She changed the way we see people who are differently abled from ourselves, and through her example and the wisdom she shared she empowered everyone who was different to question society’s presumptions and fight against ignorance and intolerance in order to not only survive but to reach their fullest potential.

It’s important to note that helen didn’t do all this all by herself; in fact, she likely couldn’t have achieved what she did or become who she became without the unswerving belief and support of a brilliant and gifted and open-minded teacher.

 

The California Healthy Youth Act wasn’t around when Brooke and I were children. It’s a wonderful gift to our state’s children, and we’d be fools to deny it to them or to betray the good intentions behind it.

 

As Lao Tzu said,

 

“To know that you do not know is the best.

 

To think you know when you do not is a disease. Recognizing this disease as a disease is to be free of it.”

I had to leave Fresno 25 years ago to avoid dying on the vine in the glare of intolerance and ignorance. I went away, finished college in the UC system, and living in some of America’s big cities subsequently found the support and information that enabled me to become who the Great Nature intended me to be. Kids shouldn’t have to leave Fresno to become who they are meant to be. And Brooke Ashjian is simply not qualified to tell any of us or our children how they are supposed to be.

 

In learning about Brooke in the days following his outrageous comments, I discovered that this man who presides over our board of education does not hold a degree beyond his high school diploma and that his preparation for this important position consisted of farming and paving roads and parking lots. Now I’m not implying that dirty fingernails or a lack of higher education necessarily condemns a man to ignorance, but you can usually tell right off when it has.

My advice to Mr. Ashjian, besides that he tender his resignation ASAP, is that he take some time out of public life to reconsider what he thinks he knows, to go out into the world beyond Fresno, where his family’s been established for generations, and that he get some perspective on life and the human condition, that he step out of his narrow and provincial reality and walk in the shoes of other people, metaphorically speaking of course, although a pair of very elevated heels might be just what the doctor ordered.

 

And to all those who endorsed Mr. Ashjian’s election to this board, including the Fresno Bee, might I suggest more diligence in vetting the candidates for this board in the upcoming elections of 2018 a little more carefully than you did in 2014? There should be a litmus test for this board, and that litmus test should ask whether or not this person has attained that highest goal of education, TOLERANCE.

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