When a General Assembly police officer asked me April 25 whether I understood I would be arrested if I did not stand up and exit the building, hundreds of young faces flashed through my mind. Their voices, stories and struggles began to interweave with my own past as I replied, simply, “Yes.”
Although I am a cis-gendered gay man, my choice to participate in civil disobedience was not for my benefit but to use my privilege to stand up for and protect children from the harm of House Bill 2. This is why I shouted, “For the children of North Carolina,” as the plastic zip-tie cuffs were placed on my wrists that night. While sitting in the Wake County Detention Center, I had several hours to think and to feel my body as it filled with excitement and energy. It was an electric evening of flashbacks and of reflecting on life’s purpose.
My first challenge to societal views of gender identity came during a classroom dialogue at Miami University (Ohio) in 2005. We were asked to consider how schools influence society. Sure, most of the pre-service teachers in the room that day spoke of the benefits I chose to speak about a negative effect: gendering students.
I asked my fellow classmates to consider what society might look like if we allowed students to simply use restrooms without gender associations. I faced immediate backlash and scrutiny from both my peers and my professor. I didn’t stand down even though I was alone in my opinion. I saw harm in how schools, especially those that serve the youngest humans, force gender upon impressionable people’s minds.
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My professor pushed the issue further. In a private meeting, she told me that I should consider another career because, in her ill-informed opinion, someone with my stance would not teach children. In less-coded wording: Gay men shouldn’t teach children. Much to this professor’s chagrin, I continued to pursue a career as an elementary school educator – a career that forces me to constantly question the effects that schools have on students’ gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
On March 23, the night HB2 was rushed into law, I cried myself to sleep. I knew immediately that people like me could be further marginalized in their places of employment.
My greatest fear, however, was the dangers possible now that Jim Crow had once again found his way back into legislation and would soon be disenfranchising all marginalized people, including persons of color and especially those persons of color who identify as gender-queer, a-gendered, gender-fluid, gender nonconforming and transgender human family members. When I thought I was done crying, I couldn’t keep my mind from my students and the obstacles in their immediate futures.
My students often seek me out to ask life’s difficult questions. The morning of April 26 was no different.
“Mr. Wright, can I ask you a possibly inappropriate question?”
I nervously answered, “Of course!”
“I’m wondering if it’s true that you got arrested last night.”
As I attempted to deflect a potentially confusing conversation, my student said, “I just want you to know that I fully support your decision. I think you are brave. We must fight back against our evil legislature. I’m going to tell everyone that you’re a hero!”
He then gave me a high-five and ran down the hallway and began to tell his friends the news. This student is a mere 10 years old. He represents our future and, in essence, is a shining affirmation of my decision to consider an act of civil disobedience in his honor.
As the high-fives continued from students that day, I realized that our children are listening and watching to see how the adults in their lives respond to their exploitation by our legislators in marketing this law. In reality, this hate-filled legislation is harming the very children our government has sworn to protect.
I encourage my fellow teachers to honor Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy by sitting in and joining the movement. We must be willing to participate in civil disobedience. We must be willing to teach the truth: Hate Bill 2 does not protect our children. I know so, because they told me.
Clinton Wright is an elementary school teacher in Durham.