We closed the semester in my class on “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice” with two quite interesting class sessions.

After talking for much of the term about the struggles for equality of racial, ethnic and religious groups, we turned to the issue of LGBT rights in our penultimate session.  Our focus was on the seismic shift in American law and public opinion over the last 20 years on gay marriage.

My students, found, I think, the conversation somewhat unsettling. Most came into the class steeped in a conservative society’s view that same-sex relationships were “abnormal.”  Some were clearly uncomfortable even that the topic was raised in a classroom discussion.  Yet most were also struggling with their own opinions, believing that in some way that LGBT people were owed some form of rights and respect even if their behavior was morally questionable.  A handful said bravely that their opinions about gays had evolved, and they saw and understood LGBT rights as parallel to and intertwined with the rights of other marginalized and oppressed groups in U.S. life.  But the majority saw LGBT identity as a matter of “choice,” and thereby not entitled to the same level of protection by society that was owed to people who faced discrimination because of accidents of birth.

I tried to shift the conversation away from the moral issues to the larger question how a democratic society deals with differences at the level of basic values.  Within our classroom, I said, we were bound to have significant differences – just as every society has such differences.  The question that we had to wrestle with was this:  how does the United States, as a democratic society, use the law and other tools to promote equality and mutual respect even in the face of ideological and moral diversity?

I was aided in this part of the discussion by the presence of my brother, Michael Terris, who in his work as a political consultant has been involved with the emergence of gay political leaders in San Francisco and California more generally.  Michael was very direct in speaking of LGBT equality as a matter of simple justice, and he provided a capsule history of the evolution of public opinion in the U.S. on this subject over the past quarter-century.  The students were surprised at this shift, though we also took pains to let them know that acceptance of gay couples and families varied widely from region to region in the U.S., and often, of course, within individual communities as well.

We did not have time to explore the issue thoroughly (I’m counting on my colleague Sue Lanser to explore this topic in more depth in her course on “Gender and the American Experience” in fall 2017!), but I think that the discussion began to open some minds to thinking about diversity and equality in broader terms than they had previously considered.

For the last class session, we did some readings on working-class whites in the U.S., and issues of marginalization and outsiderness on the basis of class.  Selections from Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy, and Larissa MacFarquhar’s excellent reporting from rural West Virginia for the New Yorker (from October 2016) provided the backdrop for our discussion.  MacFarquhar’s article included an in-depth profile of a third-generation Arab American, now a dyed-in-the-wool Trump supporter who roundly rejected (and resented) the implication that support for Mr. Trump was fueled by racism or anti-Arab sentiment.

Among other things, we had a chance to talk about the paradoxes of American patriotism.  It was puzzling to some how the United States could generate such fervent devotion and such unfettered anger – from the same people at the same time.  Yet it resonated with them as well.  The most fervent Palestinian nationalists can also be unsparing their critique of their current leadership.

Today, students are finishing up their research papers on various American “leaders,” a kind of warm-up for the more ambitious research projects that most of them will take for their Master’s theses next year.  On Sunday, they will sit for their final exam for “Diversity, Justice, and Injustice.”    Then they’ll breathe a sigh of relief, and be able to turn a little more attention again to their full-time jobs and their families.

Too bad there are no more class sessions.  I’d be curious to hear what they have to say today about the sacking of Mr. Comey!  But I think that they are too busy working on their research papers to focus on that right now.