Politics & Prejudices: Profile in courage 

"This is about fairness, justice, and making sure all children have a chance to learn in a safe environment."

— John Austin, president, Michigan Board of Education

Most politicians have approximately the courage of a warehouse rat that suddenly sees the watchman's Jack Russell terrier bounding into view. This is one reason why Michigan is literally falling apart. For years we've had a legislature full of Republicans who refuse to properly fix the roads because they live in fear of being beaten in a primary by a tea party crazy.

They don't take risky stands on anything, especially during an election year. But John Austin, chair of the state Board of Education, is a welcome exception to the rule.

Austin led the board two weeks ago to approve new, voluntary guidelines for transgender students.

They include encouraging teachers and administrators to use the student's chosen name and the gender that they are most comfortable with — as well as allowing them to choose which restrooms and locker rooms they want to use.

He insisted on doing this, and doing this now, he told me, because it was the right thing to do. Every study has shown that transgender students are most likely to be bullied.

Bullied, tortured, and harassed students are the least likely to be able to learn. There's absolutely no evidence of students faking transgender status to lurk around girls' restrooms to molest them, despite all the lurid fears and rumors.

"This sends a really strong message that Michigan is a state that's going to welcome and support all our people," Austin said when the guidelines were passed.

All six Democrats on the board voted in favor; both Republicans voted no, as everyone knew they would.

They are now the party of the religious right, bound to oppose anything or anyone different. Richard Zeile, one of the two, betrayed his mentality with a particularly stupid and insensitive comment.

"When I was young, I identified as pirate," he said, adding "fortunately, I had students and parents that set me straight."

The nation has come a long way on gay and lesbian issues; half a century ago, when I was young, anyone queer was seen as criminal, mentally ill, or both. Most adults now support same-sex marriage, which is now a Constitutional right.

But many, possibly most people are uncomfortable with the transgendered. John Austin, by the way, has the most to lose over this issue. Alone among all his colleagues, he is up for re-election this year, and this makes him a target.

The simplest thing for him to do would have been to postpone a vote on this until after Nov. 8, and keep his head down. With straight-ticket voting reinstated, and Hillary Clinton likely to carry Michigan, the odds would have heavily favored his re-election. But he didn't do that.

He wouldn't do that, he told me, because some students would have suffered longer. Tom McMillin, the right-wing former legislator who is running against him, wasted no time trying to invoke the worst impulses he possibly could.

"What about the parents of all the other girls who will potentially be exposed to boys in their bathroom?" he said.

Nobody, sadly, had the wit to tell this sexual bigot that most little girls are kept and even made to sleep in a place where boys and girls and men and women use the same bathroom every day. Those places are called their homes.

What he wants, of course, is for parents to have an image of big, hulking predators who will be loitering menacingly in the girls' restrooms, just waiting to grab tiny innocent little blonde Sally and molest her. (Never mind that this never happens.)

There were people at the board session that did get how important this is. They included students like Corey Maison of New Baltimore, whose school already follows this enlightened policy, which was first suggested by President Barack Obama earlier this year. "I'm one of the lucky ones," she said.

"I hope it passes so that all students will have a safe place to learn," Maison added. Craig McCalla, principal of Cornerstone Elementary in Dexter, also gets it.

"These children need to know the state of Michigan cares," the courageous McCalla said. "Sometimes doing the right thing doesn't feel comfortable at first."

No, it doesn't. Sixty years ago, all these same arguments were being used against allowing members of another minority group to even be in the same schools as most people.

These folks were African-Americans, known as Negroes back then. The same kind of people fighting transgender equality now fought hard against racial equality then.

Blacks, everyone "knew," were intellectually inferior to whites. They were also socially primitive and sexually supercharged, and soon would be raping all the little white girls, or at the very least seeking to marry our sisters.

Fortunately, the Supreme Court of the United States did the right thing and ruled that black Americans had the same rights as other Americans. We've come a long way.

I have known, by the way, several transgendered people, including a couple current students now. They would be the last people to molest anyone, anywhere.

They do, however, have one very strong desire, which is not to get the crap beat out of them by bullies in the bathroom.

Bullying in general is illegal now, but is a policy that has been too seldom enforced, especially when it comes to bullying gays and lesbians. That needs to stop.

You have to wonder whether making this a hate crime would be a good place to start. Republicans are counting on people who split their tickets not finishing them.

They want you to forget to vote for the offices lower down on the ballot, like university trustees and state Board of Education seats. That's why they fought so hard to take away people's right to vote a straight ticket.

That's why Republicans like state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof successfully killed efforts to let anyone have an absentee ballot who wants one, and why they would never dream of having early voting days, as Indiana and Ohio do.

John Austin has put his career on the line in an effort to protect some of the most vulnerable kids in Michigan.

The very least anyone who cares about democracy can do is get their asses to the polls in November and vote for him.

Mencken on Trump

Donald Trump was only 9 years old when H.L. Mencken, the great puckish journalist of the early 20th century, died in Baltimore. Almost certainly, he never knew of the Trumpet's existence.

But he clearly anticipated his coming. As he wrote back in 1920: "When a candidate faces the voters he does not face men of sense; he faces a mob of men whose chief distinguishing mark is the fact that they are quite incapable of weighing ideas ... men whose whole thinking is done in terms of emotion, and whose dominant emotion is dread of what they cannot understand. As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people.

And he added: "On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart's desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron." 

Mencken was often thought to be a cynic, but that's not quite the case. "There's always something to be thankful for," he said. "As for me, I rejoice that I am not a Republican."

More by Jack Lessenberry

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