From the age of thirteen I considered myself to be bisexual, and, although I spent my senior year of high school pissed off at all the boys and thought I was therefore a lesbian, “bisexual” (“pansexual” wasn’t a thing then) was really the best fit. But then when I converted to Catholicism at the age of twenty-four, I had to come up with a new narrative, and the story I made myself believe was that I had “chosen” to “indulge” feelings that I should have instead worked to contain. The pseudo-progressive Christian line was that the feelings weren’t sinful, just ever-ever-ever acting on them. OK, fine, so that was my story for the first several years of my Catholic phase.
One day, in maybe 2002 or 2003, I was wandering the stacks of my university library, and this book caught my eye:
Standing in the stacks, it took me a while to decide to check out the book and read it. To be a good Catholic, I had put boxes around so many ideas in my mind. The ideas were in the boxes, and the edges didn’t touch, and I didn’t allow other thoughts to get in there and argue with the boxed-up ideas. I knew that if I read this book, it was going to mess up the boxes. Standing there, I recognized that the cost of continued obedience involved closing my mind to ideas that would challenge the Catholic dogma I had adopted. The twenty-four years of freethinking I had enjoyed before putting my mind into those boxes reared up, and I knew I would be ashamed to become a person afraid of other ideas. I checked out the book. I chose freedom of thought. I left the Catholic Church in 2004.
I see this struggle in my students. The students whose relationships became more complicated because of the ideas they encountered in the women’s studies course I taught about work-life balance. The advisee who was worried about taking a history course named “Witchcraft and Witch Hunts,” because she wondered if what she might learn in that class would conflict with what her religion teaches her. The students whose course evaluations criticized my courses on Shakespeare and Edmund Spenser for mentioning sexual and scatological themes demonstrably present in their work.
Even more so than the classroom, though, art is the home of dangerous ideas . . . and what is even more threatening is how art frames those ideas in ways that foster empathy and imaginative identification.
But people have to make the choice to receive the ideas. Yesterday, I drove to Detroit with my daughter to see Fun Home, the musical based on the graphic memoir by Alison Bechdel. I couldn’t get tickets when I was in New York City in June 2015, and I will be teaching the book in the Spring 2017 semester, so I had to make a special pilgrimage to see it.
Who knows when this award-winning play, the first Broadway play to feature a lesbian protagonist, will make it to Fort Wayne, Indiana? There is a market here for touring companies of Broadway shows, but the shows that might challenge the area’s conservative morals either don’t come or arrive years and years later. Both Fun Home and Hedwig and the Angry Inch began national tours this fall, and neither will stop in Fort Wayne. One could argue that the city just isn’t big enough to be included in the first year of touring, and that is undoubtedly true, but still . . . the slightly edgy Avenue Q came to Fort Wayne seven years after it opened on Broadway and three years after it began touring. The Book of Mormon began touring in 2012 and still hasn’t made it to Fort Wayne. It’s smart business in Fort Wayne, I’m sure, not to bring troubling ideas to town about sexuality, gender, and religion.
But I will stand behind the insight I had that day in the library many years ago: ideologies that can be sustained only by adherents’ studiously avoiding competing ideas are brittle, weak, doomed. The artists and teachers of the world keep threatening the status quo—here and in other states where the majority want to either stop time or else turn back the clock to the 1950s—with their dangerous, dangerous ideas.