Over the course of the past month it is clear that although more Americans have accepted that a person’s race or sexual orientation does not warrant denying them equal rights, there is still an alarming segment of the population unable to afford equality to a diverse population. Based on the outrage at the Supreme Court’s ruling that same-sex couples cannot be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation, Republicans celebrating the High Court giving former Confederate states the right to disenfranchise minority voters, and racists celebrating George Zimmerman’s acquittal, it is obvious intolerance still plagues America. There has been no small effort to teach tolerance to the youngest Americans in the public school system and to adults in the workplace, but all it has accomplished is preventing blatant bigotry in public. One successful means of teaching tolerance to young and old alike is broadcast television portrayals of bigotry victims overcoming prejudice and finding acceptance from their family and friends, but those programs garner the same level of hate as the real-life people their characters portray. Over the weekend the popular Fox Network program Glee suffered a tragic loss when one its stars died in Canada, and it prompted hate group Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) to launch a barrage of anti-gay hate and announce plans to picket the 31 year-old actor’s funeral.
One hesitates giving any notoriety to the vicious hate, cruelty, and inhumanity the abomination that dares call itself a Christian organization represents, but although they appear to be outliers in the Christian religion, they do represent a segment of the population that works tirelessly to deny every American their constitutionally-guaranteed equal rights; particularly the gay community. The actor and musician who lost his struggle with substance abuse, Cory Monteith, was not gay, but he portrayed a straight character who overcame prejudice and became a champion for tolerance and acceptance that influenced tens-of-millions of American youth and their parents who faithfully tuned in to watch the program every week. In real life, Monteith was a crusader for tolerance and gay rights, but it was his character that invoked the wrath of WBC anti-gay hatemongers.
The wildly popular program’s premise was that the characters’ love of music allowed them to set aside their pre-conceived notions about race, religion, sexuality, and disability long enough to comprehend that deep down all people are human beings worthy of acceptance and respect that is lacking in America today. The characters represented every possible demographic mirroring American society including the wealthy, poor, transgender, gay, Hispanic, straight, African American, Asian, disabled, and sports heroes who all found a common bond that transcended their love of music. The program’s appeal, besides introducing two generations to each other’s popular music, was to young people who could identify with characters struggling to find acceptance among their peers, as well as overcome their personal prejudices based on ignorance and preconceived notions of everything from race to sexual preference to financial status.
Even though the program was billed as a musical comedy, it was the social issues the characters dealt with that likely contributed to its popularity, as well as earn the wrath of several groups for its exposure of teen pregnancy, gay violence, gay acceptance, racial and transgender issues, and religion. For WBC, it was the show’s portrayal of gay and lesbian youth and their personal struggles to find acceptance from family and classmates alike the invoked their wrath and inspired them to launch vile social media assaults shortly after news the show’s star had died. It wasn’t enough for them to assail the deceased actor as they impugned the his girlfriend and co-star Lea Michele and called for her suicide to join and marry her deceased boyfriend in Hell informing the cruel inhumanity and vicious hate of the group claiming adherence to Christ’s love.
For millions of young fans the world over, the program gave them confidence that whatever their personal struggles, there was value in being true to who, and what, they were, and stories abound of young people dealing with their parent’s intolerance of their sexuality, as well as parent’s accepting their children for who they were after watching the program. More than anything, the show demonstrated to the next generation of voters that intolerance plaguing America today is not insurmountable and that may be the program’s greatest social value over the long haul. Every week over 11 million Americans tune in and the audience is not restricted to pre-teens and adolescent youth because they are often joined by their parents if for no other reason than the wide range of musical genres that broadened the show’s appeal.
The WBC will try, and fail, to sully the memory of a young actor and musician who brought joy and hope to tens-of-millions of young people struggling to find their place in a hostile society just because they are out of the norm. America as a society has not been kind to its citizens who are out of the norm, and although there has been progress, it has been a monumental struggle that shows no sign of letting up anytime soon, and it is down to intolerance based on race, gender, sexuality, and economic status. It is sad that all Americans are not afforded the same acceptance and opportunity to flourish as their counterparts who are whiter, richer, or straighter, and there is little hope for change regardless half the population is trying. WBC certainly does not represent the Christian faith, but it does exemplify the extreme of America that still opposes equal rights for gays, minorities, the disabled, and women.
It is obvious that tolerance training in schools and the workplace is not the be all, end all, solution to intolerance and bigotry, and it is likely there will always be a segment of the population unable to accept all Americans equally and that is tragic. One can hope, though, that programs teaching the next generation they can overcome racial, gender, and sexual intolerance will bear fruit in twenty or thirty years. It is possible that a program like Glee will have played a valuable role where tolerance training has failed. Love the show or hate it, its social value cannot be understated, and it is in no small part due to its stars who, besides teaching valuable life lessons to youth, brought joy to millions through music and for that simple act alone they are to be celebrated.