Attempts to promote tolerance toward gay and lesbian students have spawned a well-financed counterattack from conservatives attempting to use scape-goating and hysteria to build their popularity as the 1996 elections approach.
“The right-wing is looking for goblins,” says Jesse Greenman of the P.E.R.S.O.N. Project, a national network of people involved in education issues affecting gays and lesbians. “It’s like the McCarthy era, except that instead of Communism, now the goblins are gay people.”
The most prominent counterattack occurred this fall when the right-wing group Concerned Women of America (CWA) launched an advertising and direct mail campaign against the National Education Association (NEA) because it passed a non-binding resolution at its convention dealing with issues of concern to gay and lesbian students — and which included support for using a Lesbian and Gay History Month “as a means of acknowledging the contributions of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals throughout history.”
The CWA, often called the most powerful women’s organization in the conservative movement, placed ads in several major newspapers attacking the NEA resolution, and also sent out a 600,000 direct-mail piece to ask for financial support in its campaign against the NEA. The mailing also included pre-printed postcards to be sent to U.S. Senators and NEA President Keith Geiger arguing that “pro-homosexual programs” are being “forced on children.”
The Concerned Women of America was founded in 1979 as part of the “New Right” that helped elect former President Ronald Reagan. A major force in the right-wing movement active on social issues, it was a key player in the defeat of the Equal Rights Amendment and has been particularly hostile toward groups such as Planned Parenthood.
The resolution said the NEA “recognizes the importance of raising the awareness and increasing the sensitivity of staff, students, parents and the community to sexual orientation in our society.” It then called upon the NEA to support “the development of positive plans that lead to effective ongoing training programs for education employees for the purpose of identifying and eliminating sexual orientation stereotyping in the educational setting.” It noted that such programs “should attend to” issues such as the “accurate portrayal of the roles of and contributions of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people throughout history,” the “acceptance of diverse sexual orientation and the awareness of sexual stereotyping,” the “elimination of sexual orientation name-calling and jokes in the classroom,” and “support for the celebration of a Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual History Month as a means of acknowledging the contributions of lesbians, gays, and bisexuals throughout history.”
The resolution was one of scores passed at the NEA convention, and the union was not prepared for the CWA counterattack, which focused on support for the history month. “We were stunned at the reaction,” said Grainger Ledbetter, president of the Arkansas Education Association. “No one expected a response like this.”
Ledbetter said that in Arkansas, pressure was such that some union members were afraid of losing their jobs or their standing in the community unless they quit the union. In a letter to Arkansas members, Ledbetter condemned the CWA’s tactics and explained what the resolution was really about. “Concerned Women of America, an extremist antipublic education group, is attempting to raise money from its members by alleging that NEA is somehow promoting homosexuality in the public schools,” he wrote. “Nothing could be further from the truth!”
Ledbetter said his problem was not with those whose religious views led them to conflicted attitudes toward gays and lesbians. The problem, he said, is with those who are using the NEA resolution as part of a right-wing political agenda. For such conservatives, he said, tolerance toward gay and lesbians “is an opportunity for a vicious, nasty, meanspirited political campaign.”
The NEA, meanwhile, was compelled by the CWA attack to issue an explanatory statement. Charging that the resolution and its intent had been deliberately distorted, it said: “Resolutions are statements of belief and call for no further action … The resolution does not direct schools — or even our own members — to observe October as Gay and Lesbian History Month, nor will NEA be distributing materials for school use during this or any other month on this issue. The resolution is a simple statement in support of respect, tolerance, and understanding for gay and lesbian persons.”