More Schools Take Up Gay-Bias Issues

In classrooms across US, subject of homosexuality is included in antidiscrimination lessons

Long before the US military adopted the idea, America's schools approached the subject of homosexuality with their own version of "don't ask, don't tell." But as growing numbers of teens identify themselves as homosexual, schools across the country are addressing the subject head on in the classroom.

The attempt to discuss homosexuality with children at school is controversial, but it is a growing national trend - found in New York, Los Angeles, and many parts in between:

* Hundreds of high schools now sponsor gay-straight alliances, in which students meet after school to talk about bias and urge tolerance.

* Thousands of public elementary, middle, and high schools have adopted anti-bias policies, which strictly forbid discrimination, foul language, or bullying because of sexual orientation.

* Three schools - in New York, Los Angeles, and Dallas - have been founded specifically for gay, lesbian, and "questioning" teens. Two are funded by local taxes, and one is private.

Gay advocates say such efforts are often necessary for gay students to receive an education and, in some cases, to merely survive.

Nearly 10 percent of American youths say they are chronically abused by their peers, according to several surveys. Bullying strikes gay teens the hardest, and they are four times as likely as other teenagers to commit suicide.

"We are here to help kids complete their normal education without the obstacle of harassment and abuse," says Verna Eggleston of the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which runs the public Harvey Milk School in New York City. The school, named after the slain San Francisco county supervisor, was created in the mid-1980s to meet the needs of gay teens, she says. In New York alone, thousands of gay teens drop out of school each year, and 35 percent of the city's 20,000 homeless youths describe themselves as gay or lesbian.

"If you can reflect on those military men escorting black children into schools in the South in the 1950s," Ms. Eggleston says, "and then bring that to the '90s, where gay teens are going to school without escort - that's where we are."

BUT the discussion of homosexuality in public schools has set off a clash of cultures. Some parents are concerned that children and teens will be taught values in conflict with those taught at home, or that school-age children are simply too young to understand issues surrounding homosexuality. Some families opt to pull their children from such classroom discussions.

"As a matter of principle, our position is that there should be no government sanction, promotion, or approval of homosexuality," says Arne Owens, spokesman of the 1.4-million member Christian Coalition in Chesapeake, Va. "To bring it into the public schools gives it a certain legitimacy, and it's a behavior that most of our supporters view as wrong."

Intolerance or violence against homosexuals is never justified, Mr. Owens says, but special programs tailored for gays may be causing more problems than they solve. "Individuals who are homosexual are already protected by the Constitution," he says.

Some educators say schools could remedy any bias problems the old-fashioned way: Punish the bullies. Others say schools need to be specific about what behavior is unacceptable.

"Kids need and want specifics, and you have to spell it out," says John Hoover, an education professor at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, who conducted a study of bullying in schools across the rural Midwest. "If principals say, 'We don't use put-downs in our school,' that might work if you give examples. As for homosexuality, you better believe it's going to come up," even in elementary school.

In New York, Ermis Valencia says she has no doubts about the value of safe schools for gay teens. She first learned of her son Damion's homosexuality after he was hospitalized for being beaten by 15 other students. He was 14 years old.

"He would have committed suicide, he was that withdrawn," says Mrs. Valencia. Even after the attack, she had her reservations about Damion's desire to enroll in the Harvey Milk School. But she says he was much happier there and is now studying film and photography at New York University.

Even in communities where homosexuality is increasingly accepted, bringing it up in public schools can be controversial, as the breezy seaside resort of Provincetown, Mass., recently learned.

In late August, as the summer tourist season drew to a close, the town's school committee voted to approve a "safe schools" policy that strictly prohibited discrimination based on race, religion, gender, disability, or sexual orientation. The program was an extension of the town's effort to combat gay-bashing, which officials credit with helping to reduce hate crimes dramatically from 21 cases in 1991 to two cases this year.

The new policy grabbed the attention of the Washington Times, which on Aug. 21 printed a story headlined, "Provincetown pre-schoolers to learn ABCs of being gay." Within days, the town was swarming with reporters, and many residents have stopped talking to the press for fear of being misquoted, again.

"We're not teaching anyone how to be gay," says town manager Keith Bergman, who has two daughters in local schools. "We're trying to equip our young people and ourselves so we can combat bias against race, creed, or sexual orientation."

With the media attention starting to wane, the town is now bracing for a protest from the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., an antigay group known for dancing on the graves of AIDS activists. On Sept. 5, the group announced its intent to picket in Provincetown in the next month or two.

But Mr. Bergman says citizens are ready for the Westboro protesters. "They picketed against Princess Diana for her work on behalf of AIDS charities," he says, "so we're in good company."

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