This has been a painful week for many people in the Upper Eastern Shore community, including me. The pain began when the Chestertown Spy published two gratuitously cruel opinion pieces by David Montgomery attacking transgender teenagers as psychologically sick — even potential school shooters — “brainwashed” by “the LGBTQ agenda,” which he characterized as “evil.” In response, I posted some strongly-worded statements on social media this week. Those posts, in turn, have drawn a range of responses in the community, both for and against them, from people of good faith. I’ve taken down thoseposts and don’t plan to make further public comments.
Rather, I want the following to stand as the record of my views:
I know the Spy’s publisher, Dave Wheelan, and indeed have always liked and respected him. I know how hard he works, for no personal gain. He is a good man doing a very tough job. I have supported the Spy in a variety of ways, including financially via the center that I direct at Washington College. The Eastern Shore needs more outlets for journalism and community discussion and we cannot afford to lose this one. The only happiness I have felt through this whole sorry saga was when he took down the original piece and wrote an eloquent and indeed rather courageous statement. I felt proud of Dave. I thought I could return to supporting Dave and the Spy in every possible way.
And then, sadly, the Spy published a statement by the original writer, David Montgomery, that was just as cruel and gratuitous as the original column.
People who have read any of my previous comments should know that I am coming at this most deeply as someone who remembers being a closeted gay teenager in the 1980s. I remember reading in the mainstream press that homosexuals caused AIDS and should be tattooed and put in internment camps. (Yes, that was in the New York Times in 1986.) I remember reading that we were mentally ill, prone to molesting children, and unfit to be teachers. I remember reading articles equating our life partnerships with pedophilia and bestiality. I remember reading that my own country’s leaders in the Reagan Administration were endorsing that bigotry.
Now, in 2019, I thought those dark and painful days were over, at least in the mainstream press. Then, this week — reading a publication edited by someone I like and respect, in the town where I have worked and taught young people for 17 years — I found out I was wrong.
I remember how horrible I felt reading those things at age 14 or 15 … how dark and hopeless they made my future seem. And I was lucky: I came from a loving, secular, liberal family and went to a progressive urban private school that embraced diversity. I was gay, white, male, comfortably off, rather than transgender, or black, or female, or rural, or poor. I was a well-read kid and I had access to more favorable depictions. I can only imagine how much worse the pain and isolation are for kids from those latter categories, in the more conservative (much, much more conservative) areas of a place like the Eastern Shore, in environments where they are at daily risk of psychological and physical abuse, where even their homes are no shelter from bigotry.
Even in the homophobic depths of the 1980s, I don’t recall ever reading that we queer kids were at risk of becoming mass murderers if allowed to fully embrace our sexuality.
That’s where I’m coming from: imagining the very real pain and trauma being inflicted by David Montgomery – and yes, by the Spy — on the most vulnerable members of our community.
Actually, not just imagining: also hearing it directly from a brave and eloquent young transgender person from Kent County, who wrote: “You have to understand the power of words. It’s a privilege to curate the information shared with a community… and the privilege has been abused… and so have I. So many people that I speak to have never even met a trans person before so to generalize me and my community as ‘confused’ and ‘brainwashed’ is so harmful to so many. It’s deadly. I often speak of my intense fear for other people’s ideas of me. I’m remembering why this fear exists.”
I am in favor of listening respectfully to many voices, including conservative ones, pro-Trump ones, and ones that oppose LGBTQ rights. But when you allow a well-off, well-educated, privileged person to use a public platform to punch down and attack transgender teenagers — who are among the most vulnerable human beings in our community — that is beyond the pale. It can result in those kids being harmed physically and psychologically by others, or even harming themselves.
And the imputation that such kids’ sexual “confusion” can turn them into school shooters is reckless, even dangerous, in our current social and political context.
Speech is a right, but publication is a privilege, and publishers are not compelled to disseminate any opinion submitted to them. I worked as an op-ed editor at the New York Times, and I can tell you that if one of its columnists tried to publish a piece like David Montgomery’s, he or she would quite rightly be fired from the paper. Nor would we ever have considered publishing such views in the guise of a “letter to the editor.”
I don’t want the Spy to die. I don’t want to hurt its thoughtful, smart, and dedicated publisher, who has given a lot to our community. I do want those brave and vulnerable queer kids among us to be safe. They are as important to our community as any publisher, columnist, or advertiser. Yes, even as important as David Montgomery with his Harvard Ph.D. and his fancy CV.
Free speech is an American tradition. But during this week of Chestertown Tea Party commemoration, it’s also worth recalling that the Kent County patriots of 1774 declared that anyone supporting British tyrannywould be “marked out” as “inimical to the liberties of America, an unworthy member of the community, and a person not deserving our notice or regard.” We are under no obligation to listen respectfully to those who spread hatred and sow hurt.
Words matter. Words hurt — especially when they are published words. The Spy needs to use them more wisely