I had another blog written for today (I’m a planner if you haven’t gathered yet) until a friend, Amy, made me aware of something happening right now in my home state (something I try not to claim for reasons just like this). High school student, Michael Barth, performed a poem about gender stereotypes and won Class C1 poetry division at the NSAA (Nebraska School Activities Association) state championship, last week. Winners go on to televise their performances, but the Executive Director of the NSAA, Rhonda Blanford-Green told Barth that he needed to change his poem, afraid that it was inappropriate.
This made me angry until Amy told me something else. She had contacted the Blanford-Green, who had made the decision, sure that there must be some other factors involved. Surely, this could not be such a blatant act of ignorance from someone high up on the educational food chain. Blanford-Green said that she “does not want NSAA to do anything that could be seen as promoting a homosexual agenda.” Amy was livid, while I was still digesting, but not far behind her.
Amy and I are a lot alike, both from Nebraska, both opinionated advocates, who are educated and our finest feature… we are both gingers. Though Amy is a much better person than I am when it comes to things like this, in my opinion (she is a lawyer believe it or not, she kicks bad guy butt for a living – color me jealous). Yet she was shaking from this and within a few minutes so was I. My husband tried to calm me down, he hates when I get all worked up (the eternal worrier about what my body can handle, but I told him “my body is fine”). I contacted the Huffington Post while Amy contacted Jezebel. We don’t play.
I proceeded to contact any media outlet I could think of and posted the director’s contact information everywhere I could (and while I am at it, her phone number at the NSAA is 402-489-0386 and her email is email@example.com). I have absolutely zero tolerance for intolerance, but what she said to Amy and the inconsistencies in her logic made this border on bigotry. It is such an ugly word, because it is such a vile thing, but that was exactly what was happening. How was this woman able to climb her way up the ladder with such backward and ignorant ways of thinking (not to mention a lack of sense). She tangled with a group of speech and debate students and coaches – people who are all about free speech and the power of communication. She claimed this was to avoid controversy, when in fact she didn’t just invite one, but created the controversy herself. I made my own phone calls to the NSAA and was only able to leave a message. For some reason that is beyond me, Blanford-Green was busy on the other line and had been for quite some time, until they finally stopped taking calls. Can you imagine that?
I was upset because I didn’t want Barth to miss his chance to record something he had worked so hard on, for so long, which had an incredibly positive and moving message behind it (not to mention the courage it likely took to perform the piece), from recording it on television. It was the fear that this young man would miss out on something he deserved because of someone else that fueled me the most. (Again, witnessing injustice just really gets me going.)
Within a few hours, the Nebraska chapter of the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) and other organizations spoke out. Every major local station was trying to track down Barth for an interview and other news mediums published their articles after speaking with Blanford-Green. Coaches involved with the NSAA began talking about asking their students to refuse to tape their performances, mass phone calls and emails were made to the NSAA and many editorials on this matter started cropping up. A group to support Barth was created on Facebook and within a few hours had over 1,100 members.
Then Barth made a post to the group with the following statement:
“I want to thank everyone for the amazing support! I wanted to comment on the news report on Lincoln journal star. Contrary to what Rhonda says in the article I did NOT agree to changing my program. She actually just hung up on me when she felt she had an answer.”
What I felt next was a wave of relief and new anger. I was relieved that Barth was standing strong and refused to change his performance. I was happy he would go on to record it (at least he better be allowed to!) and then I was even more frustrated with Blanford-Green. Why? Because I recognized what she had done and I wondered if anyone else recognized it.
I could chalk up Blanford-Green’s decision to ignorance, cowardice and a lack of common sense. She lacked sense when she failed to realize she would create a controversy while trying to avoid one that did not even exist in the first place, but had been created by her own cowardice and ignorance. I could even try to explain away her comment to Amy (not really, but it was not my focus) about the “homosexual agenda” as her saying the wrong thing unintentionally, caused by frazzled nerves brought on by the firestorm she created. But what Barth’s statement meant, could not be explained away. Blanford-Green bullied a student, using her position of power and authority and told mainstream outlets he had agreed when he hadn’t.
Normally, I would be all about this being a learning experience for her, but when she apparently tells media sources that Barth agreed to change his program when he did not, and she in fact hung up on him, I see that as nothing more than a manipulative tactic of a bully and this I find much less forgivable. (I come from a family of crazies and bullies, their tactics are easily identifiable to me.) The NSAA announced that they would review the decision, but now I feel (though I am not pushing) that they need to review Blanford-Green’s contract instead.
The television station (NET) spoke out late this afternoon, saying that regardless of the NSAA’s decision, Barth could perform whatever piece he wanted to (including his original poetry performance that Blanford-Green tried to censor). Once this happened, the NSAA quickly folded and issued a statement, not apologizing for their decision, but simply tried to shift focus as if it had never happened while reversing their decision. Blanford-Green backpedaled because of the response and social media (yes, I am very proud of myself – and everyone else who joined in, in making some noise) and the controversy that erupted. Even in her retraction statement, she seemed confused and only did so because of the public’s response and NET’s refusal to be a part of the firestorm, not because it was the right thing to do or for any other valid reason.
The NSAA should not be faulted for the actions of one person; they do wonderful things for schools all over the state. While I do not blame the organization, I do believe that Blanford-Green should be evaluated in terms of her current position. The issue for me is not the request she made, but how she went about it (manipulative and bullying) and just as alarming is how she responded over the phone. Remember, Blanford-Green stated that she “does not want NSAA to do anything that could be seen as promoting a homosexual agenda.” It is difficult to take that out of context. When phrases like “Nebraska isn’t ready for this” and terms such as “homosexual agenda” are used, we are seeing homophobia at its worst. Anyone who is representing a youth organization (particularly one at the state-level) has absolutely no business using that kind of rhetoric.
People are allowed to make mistakes, but there is something about an adult bullying a child or young adult that gets to me much more than child bullying child (in general at least). Bullying is wrong period, but perhaps it is that I want to cling to ‘adults should know better’, even though I know in my own experience this isn’t exactly true (at all). At the very least, I feel she should apologize to Barth (and I’m sure Amy wouldn’t mind an apology regarding her ‘homosexual agenda’ remark either, I know I wouldn’t) for trying to intimidate him into not performing his original work, as well as how she treated him (it is not very classy for an adult to hang up on a teenager because she does not get her way). Very few things are unforgivable, however the person or entity who needs to be forgiven should ask, otherwise there is a great possibility, they truly haven’t grasped how and why they were wrong in the first place.
On the bright side, this shows something I have always believed in and that I have always pushed: the power of people. It always starts with just one person, but there needs to be one person who will get things started. People are powerful. If you don’t like something then speak out. Start a group, make some noise, organize and protest, and be creative about doing so. Marches and picket signs are not as effective as social media, and other media outlets sometimes (depending on the issue, much of the time). Corporations, government and any other larger entity works for the people it is meant to govern, service, or sell to. Anyone can make a difference, so long as he or she is willing to do just that. And it stars with the refusal to stay silent.
• http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/04/02/nebraska-lgbt_n_5078409.html (courtesy of moi – article includes Barth’s performance script/poems)
• https://nsaahome.org/media/release4214.pdf (The NSAA’s official statement reversing their decision)