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Saturday, Oct. 20, 2007 | In Mick Rabin’s helter-skelter classroom, anything goes — except hate.
A dozen years after he first started teaching at Oak Park Elementary School, Rabin still gets his third graders’ attention with “weird things”: A Tabasco-sauce holster, slung on his hip. A remote control dangling from the ceiling. His endless assortment of wacky ties. His guitar-shaped tie swings as he reaches past the dry-erase board to tug at a stuffed Captain Underpants pulley, which flips the light switch at the opposite end of the room.
“If you’re strange, it doesn’t hurt,” he said.
Rabin embraces difference. Straight and married, he lobbies for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids through the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, as co-chairman and treasurer of its San Diego chapter. He recently won San Diego Pride’s “Friend of the Year” award for his work. A former Eagle Scout, he turned in his badge and protested the Boy Scouts’ bottom-dollar lease of Balboa Park, citing the group’s exclusion of LGBT and atheist boys.
And the kids in his Oak Park classroom look a lot like his former classmates at nearby Jackson Elementary — a multicultural, mixed-income crowd that taught the self-described “privileged kid” just how lucky he was, and propelled him into teaching.
As somebody who isn’t personally part of the LGBT community, how did you get invested in these issues?
The real seminal event was when my close friend from high school came out to me in 11th grade or so. … He just said, “Mick, I’m gay.” And I said, okay. OK, cool. It didn’t seem all that momentous at the time. … What wound up happening was — and this is kind of a curse — I feel I owe it to him, and to other LGBT people in my life, not to look the other way. … I need to be able to sleep at night. I have a 3 and a 5 year old, so I don’t sleep very much anyways.
How do you see those issues playing out in the classroom? Do you see them on a daily basis?
They come up often, even in third grade. It takes innocent forms … Like, ‘How can you be using a pink crayon?’ Something stupid like that. I always use that opportunity to tell them my favorite color is pink. It’s not. It’s blue. But the eyebrows go up. … If you do like pink, what does that say about you? I bring up gay and lesbian. I’ll mention those words in the third grade.
Has it ever caused problems for you?
Not that I know of. I’m really honest with my kids. … Once, a couple of fundamentalist parents pulled me aside and said, ‘What kinds of things out of left field are you going to be teaching our child?’ … And I said, ‘Well, if you’re referring to conversations about the gay and lesbian community, I just talk about it in terms of treating everybody with respect.” … Even the fundamentalist parents sign on to that kind of stuff.
Tell me about resigning your Eagle Scout badge. How did you get to that point?
My mom cut an article for me out of the U-T … about James Dale’s fight against the Boy Scouts and their exclusionary policies. I just couldn’t believe it. (As a kid), there were certain things about the Scouts that had bothered me, but I was so heavily into Scouts and it was such a big part of my life as a kid that it was unimaginable that they would drag the organization down so low. … I was like, I can’t hang on to my badge anymore. …
My question always goes out to third graders: Where would you like to be in the history books, if you had some chance to change it all, to change slavery or the Japanese internment camps, or women’s right to vote? Third graders have a strong sense of justice. I’d better be able to show that in my own life. It was painful for me to remove that badge from my uniform — but I did it anyways. I couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t.
Was homophobia in the Scouts something you noticed yourself, growing up?
No, but there probably was … and it could very well have come out of my mouth. But I learned better. When friends come out to you, that changes you in a big way. At least, it profoundly changed me. Here’s the final irony of it all: I resigned my Eagle Scout badge because of my gay friend and my lesbian friends, and then I find out they discriminate against me, because I’m an atheist. … (As a teen) I literally had to write down what to say to the Eagle Scout review board when asked, ‘Do you believe in God?’
What did you say?
I wasn’t totally into atheism as a 17 year old. … At the time I said, I believe in a greater good. And that passed, at that time. It wouldn’t pass now.
Given the culture of the Scouting world, what is the most effective way you’ve found to communicate about these issues — or have you been able to communicate them?
I’m not sure. … I do the Scouting for All rally every year. … I don’t think it’s all that effective. Lots of people are under the impression that the Scouts are already out of the park. They’re not. They’re still in the park and they’re allowed to stay in the park until the appeals process ends. Who knows how long that’s going to be?
It’s painful to know that little kids may be kicked out of the park. … We’re asking little children to bear the brunt of that sacrifice, but the larger prize at the end of that is that we’ll force the scouts, at the end of the day, to pay out of their pocket (for use of the park). San Diego’s the litmus test. If every place in the country does the same thing, the Scouts would have to fix their policy. They’re never going to do it out of the kindness of their hearts. They’ll do it because they’re impacted by the bottom line.
What’s your sense of how welcoming San Diego schools are to LGBT students? Is there one answer to that, in such a huge district?
It is so big that it’s hard to make a statement about everyone, but in general, kids have a long way to go towards feeling absolutely safe and having an affirming environment in the hallways.
Are there any concrete steps the school district can take, or does it take more of a cultural shift?
Yes. Both. … And elementary schools are in a unique place to change things. There’s four ways to handle problems. One is to completely ignore it, to let the ‘fag this’ and ‘that’s so gay that’ slide. I don’t ignore it.
The second way is to say, ‘You’re not supposed to say those things’ — so a kid understands it’s a rule, but never explains it … The third way is to have a teaching moment. I get out this book ‘The Terrible Things.’ This is an ass-kicking book. When someone says, ‘That’s so gay,’ I get out this book. It’s an allegory for the Holocaust, for Martin Niemoller’s quote about ‘First they came for the Jews.’ … It’s done with bunny rabbits and it’s stunning, beautiful and terrifying at the same time. … A lot of kids will be horrified that the Nazis went after the Jews or the Catholics or the gypsies or people of color or people who are disabled — the kids say, ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah, we should never let that kind of thing happen,’ and then I say, they went after gays and lesbians. And sometimes, you hear an audible ‘Ew.’ … So that’s when we have the discussion about turning people into monsters so that it’s easier for us to discriminate against them. … But there’s no available curriculum. This is me, making this stuff up.
There’s so much anxiety about how to talk to kids about sex and sexuality. How do you walk that line so that it’s age-appropriate?
It’s a hard thing. A lot of teachers want to be supportive, but are not sure legally what they’re allowed to say. And to this day, I’m not really sure what I’m allowed to say. But I’m going to say it anyways. I’m a tenured teacher. What are they going to do?
It seems like you’ve undergone such a personal shift from having personal friends who are part of the LGBT community to really becoming an activist and a figure in it. How has that changed your perspective?
It’s kind of weird. I got that Stonewall award this summer, and it was strange because my friends in the LGBT community work just as hard as me, and they don’t get an award like that. There’s a lot more of them that are advocating than there are straight people who are advocating. And that’s a problem.
I want to ask you about something completely different. I Googled you, and your name comes up a lot for DC war comics.
That’s a funny thing. I’m a complete pacifist and I’m a huge comic fan since I was four or five … but in the 1950s and 1960s Joe Kubert was like the most awesome artist of all time. I live and breathe his artwork. It’s not so much the subject matter as the artistry … they’re just so frickin’ good … (Getting back to education) You can’t underestimate how willing kids are to expand their world. If we got it in their heads in the third grade, we wouldn’t be having these debates … The religious right and those who are politically motivated to keep them in their corner understand that.
You’re describing the religious right’s worst nightmare.
It’s absolutely that … But it behooves us to have conversations (with conservatives) because I honestly believe that LGBT people and the movement have a whole lot more in common with the religious right than either side actually may be willing to admit. Look at the history of the suffrage movement … the anti-slavery movement … the civil rights movement … If we just had some discussion about it, it would actually help a lot. But the religious right wants to turn LGBT people into the monster, into “abominations” — like a villain in the Hulk.