Under the banner of “family values” pockets of angry people are decrying the recent directive of the Departments of Justice and Education ordering public schools to allow transgender students to use the bathrooms of the gender with which they identify.
It’s time for a little word study. The English word “value” descends to us from Latin through French. The Latin word valere means to be strong, to be well, to be worth something. The French word as it comes into English was largely about the price value of a thing, and then in 1918, through the art world, came to also be used as a commentary on social worth and then social issues.
To have a value whether we are talking about the price of a thing or a social issue is to talk about strength, to talk about heightened quality. No one is eager to find that something they own has decreased in value. No one likes to support a cause that is losing value.
So, when we claim anything under the aegis of family values, by the nature of value we should be talking about what makes us strong, what deepens and enhances meaning and quality of life. By its very nature, family values cannot be a negative. One cannot claim family values in order to oppose something–unless that something is causing harm and then, immediately, it ought to be able to be turned into a positive statement. For example, I can oppose child abuse under the claim of family values because what I value is the inherent worth and dignity of every child. Every child.
When people oppose access to bathrooms of their gender identity to transgender people, the harms they fear are imagined. Fear makes them feel immanent. Fear arises out of ignorance, the Buddha taught. The fear is experienced as real. Its remedy is not to fight the fear, but to enlighten the ignorance.
I truly believe that everyone claiming family values longs for things like love, safety, honor, respect, trust, compassion, hope, dignity, community and belonging. I also know that fear can wreak havoc on every item in that list. Family values do not prey upon the most vulnerable. Fear often has that exact effect. If the only way to raise value requires the oppression of others (however different they are from us), we have to consider deeply what we are calling “value.”
No same-sex married couple has ever threatened my marriage.
No alternative form of family has ever threatened my family.
No trans-man coming into the bathroom or locker room has ever threatened me as a man.
No person of another faith has ever threatened my faith.
No person of a different skin color has ever threatened my skin color.
Here’s the great irony. When people demean same-sex marriage, they sully the sense of all marriages. When people decry alternative family forms, they call into question all family forms. When trans people are made out to be evil people skulking in bathrooms, they make us distrusting of all people. When someone belittles my faith, they make attacking people of any faith more common. People who use skin color to harm others bring shame and dishonor to their own.
To paraphrase a teaching of Ramana Maharshi: the only way to treat others is as if there are no “others.”