Gay Issues, Schools, and The Right-wing Backlash

By Eric Rofes

Students demonstrated in Salt Lake City a year ago against the school board’s elimination of extracurricular clubs. The board did so rather than allow a support group for gay and lesbian students.

In Colorado Springs, home to powerful right-wing organizations and the U.S. Air Force Academy, the Palmer High School student newspaper writes a front-page story on the problems confronting lesbian and gay youth. An editorial supports same-sex marriage

The far right Concerned Women of America (CWA) meanwhile launches a campaign against the National Education Association for promotion of homosexuality and “imposition of immoral values.” School boards throughout the country are asked to promote a CWA “Pro-family Resolution.”

Across the United States, and not just in urban areas such as New York or Los Angeles, the issue of sexual orientation and schools has become a major controversy. Sometimes, lesbian/gay/bisexual students are at the forefront of the issue. Sometimes, far-right organizations are setting the agenda.

Is anyone “winning” this cultural war? And why have the public schools emerged as such an important battlefield in the fight for the rights of gays and lesbians? Furthermore, how do such issues relate to the broader struggle over the future of public education in this country?

Easy answers to such questions are elusive. As a starting point, however, consider the astounding new documentary It’s Elementary: Talking About Gay Issues in Schools, by Debra Chasnoff and Helen Cohen.

In the documentary, first graders write stories about gay and lesbian families, third graders discuss same-sex marriage, and middle school students learn that gay people come from all racial and ethnic groups. Teachers, parents, and principals discuss the best way to include gay and lesbian issues in elementary school curricula and debate whether the aim is to “teach tolerance” or to “value diversity.” One school even initiates a schoolwide celebration of Lesbian and Gay Pride, complete with pink triangle buttons and presentations from openly gay teachers. Kaylin, a second grade student, reads a story she wrote about marching in her hometown’s gay pride parade.

Kaylin was in the march saying, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Homophobia’s got to go.” She then writes how homophobia “means being scared of gay or lesbian people.” In a picture to accompany the story, the crowd is also chanting, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. Homophobia’s got to go.”

The documentary serves as a 1990s testimony to the ways lesbian and gay issues are becoming integrated into everyday life in some public and private schools in the United States. By collecting film footage of young children making sense of homosexuality and grappling with the discrimination and bigotry faced by lesbians, gay men, and bisexuals, the filmmakers provide a powerful refutation to the right’s “children can’t deal with homosexuality” rhetoric.

Anti-Gay Backlash

Chasnoff and Cohen aren’t satisfied with the liberal compromise which kept gay issues pigeon-holed as the purview of high school teachers and health classes. They show that gay issues are ubiquitous in the lives of children from television talk shows and movies aimed at children, to playground slurs and hallway graffiti. They insist that the reality of children’s lives be confronted in classroom pedagogy.

Yet most educators gay, lesbian, bisexual, or heterosexual who are grappling with these issue do not teach in the large urban centers (New York and San Francisco) or liberal college towns (Cambridge or Madison) featured in It’s Elementary. They work in places like Salt Lake City, Utah, Elizabethtown, Penn., or Colorado Springs, Colo. Lesbian and gay issues play out very differently in these locations than they do in San Francisco or Madison. Consider:

In response to the formation of a gay-straight alliance to provide peer support to lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth at Salt Lake City’s East High School, the school board banned all student clubs and associations not formally tied to school curricula. Banished are groups ranging from hockey and mountain bike clubs, to Native American and Polynesian associations, to the school’s Key Club.

Inspired by a “pro-family” resolution drafted by Beverly LeHaye, president of Concerned Women of America, the school board of Elizabethtown, Penn., adopted a resolution condemning various family forms including single-parent families, extended families, and lesbian and gay families. Despite student walkouts and community-wide protests, the board has refused to reconsider its position. It recently proposed an expanded anti-gay policy stating that “the curriculum will not promote or encourage same-sex sexual relationships or orientation.” The board has received support from both Concerned Women of America and the Rutherford Institute, a far-right legal advocacy group.

In October, 1996, the Palmer High School newspaper included two student-initiated articles about gay issues, a front-page story on the trials facing lesbian and gay youth in a hostile culture, and an editorial supporting same-sex marriage. Immediately after publication, the local Christian right mounted a campaign demanding tighter controls on student publications. Colorado for Family Values, the group which initiated the state’s controversial anti-gay initiative (later declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court), jumped into the fray. Their effort is focused on getting school boards to “promote abstinence, affirm traditional marriage, and discourage promiscuity … in every aspect of student life.”

Paradoxical Position

This is a tumultuous time for social justice advocates working on making schools safe for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender youth and for teachers committed to serving all their students. Never before has so much activity emerged in public schools which challenges educators, school boards, and communities to come to terms with issues which were unimaginable 25 years ago, except for in a few key urban centers.

Issues span a broad spectrum: openly gay and lesbian teachers and principals, out-of-the-closet students who are organizing for their rights, lesbian mothers leading PTAs, explicit sex education and AIDS prevention curricula which deal head-on with gay male sexuality. The National Education Association offers a resolution in 1995 supporting Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual History Month. The American Educational Research Association holds a special day-long training at its 1996 annual meeting for researchers whose work focuses on gay issues in schools. Courses on anti-homophobia education and gay issues in education pop up at Education Schools such as Berkeley and Harvard.

Yet never before have gay issues in schools been the target of such a multitude of local, statewide, and national efforts by a highly-organized right wing. In Anchorage, Alaska, the school board was forced to vote last fall on whether a gay/straight alliance might remain active on a high school campus. In Idaho, the state superintendent of public instruction threatened this winter to return $80,000 in federal funding for HIV/AIDS education, insisting on an “abstinence only” policy which effectively writes off gay male youth as an expendable population. In Modesto, Calif., anti-gay organizers launched an attack on teachers planning to attend a regional conference on gay issues in schools in the spring of 1996 and insisted that no district funds be used for this kind of staff development.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed with the current volume and intensity of attacks on gay and lesbian participation in public schools. On a weekly basis, teachers have their jobs threatened for including gay issues in their classrooms, students feel increasingly marginalized by their peers, and books are eliminated from libraries.

Yet this is also a time of impressive progress and important opportunities. This January, Arizona state officials considered proposing a ban to outlaw gay student clubs from their schools; the same month, Massachusetts saw the founding of its 100th public-school-based gay-straight alliance. A few weeks after an Arkansas youth was harassed and viciously attacked in an anti-gay campaign by his peers last fall, Jamie Nabozny, a young gay man from Wisconsin, won nearly $1 million in damages from his high school for failing to protect him from years of peer abuse. During a time when 52% of school board members in the United States identify themselves as religious conservatives, the Harvard Educational Review, arguably the nation’s leading journal on academic research, published a special issue (Summer 1996) focused on gay, lesbian, and bisexual issues in schools.

Uneven Progress

The current political landscape on gay/lesbian school issues feels like a paradox because many of us have been inculcated in a simplistic, linear model of social change. We believe that political organizing has a specific trajectory of wins and losses which eventually culminates in total victory. Yet the past 30 years of organizing in various movements has made it clear that a more dynamic and less predictable pattern of victories and defeats, backlashes, and retreats, surprise gains and disappointing losses are mixed together in the social change stew.

Thus it’s not surprising that as gay issues have moved from invisible (1960), to socially marginal (1970), to part of a “liberal agenda” (1980), to a central place in mainstream political debate (1990s), the anti-gay right wing has shifted tactics and re-energized and reinvented its attacks. In the 20 years since Anita Bryant and California Senator John Briggs first brought gay issues in schools into the public debate, both the right wing and the gay and lesbian movement have increased in sophistication, resources, and organizational know-how. Hence the skirmishes occur with increasingly higher visibility and increasingly higher stakes.

Peter LaBarbara, a leading figure of the religious right, summarized the right wing’s understanding of attempts by advocates for gay and lesbian youth and teachers to make schools safe for all. In prepared remarks for a recent Capitol Hill briefing in support of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, LaBarbara wrote:

“The campaign to teach school children and teens that ‘gay is OK’ benefits from the usual coordination of a united ‘gay’ movement which has the advantage of pressing for a single radical goal, versus its pro-family opponents who face a multiplicity of challenges. Parents who simply want a good education for their children are increasingly confronted with the prospect of seeing precious educational resources spent on talking about homosexuality, and they are drawn into time-consuming and divisive debates over this issue.”

Are teachers, parents, and administrators who aim to “do the right thing” for lesbian and gay students, simply pawns in a greater “campaign” organized around what LaBarbara calls “a single radical goal”? Is it possible for educators to be both committed to a “good education” and believe that frank, respectful discussion of lesbian and gay issues is part of quality education? How can the right wing simultaneously be leading efforts to limit and in some cases reduce public funding for schools and blaming “talking about homosexuality” for limiting the financial resources available for education?

Gay Issues as Wedge Issues

Suzanne Pharr, in her powerful new book, In the Time of the Right: Reflections on Liberation, argues that the issue of homosexuality “provided a major source of fundraising for the Right’s organizations as well as their best vehicle for changing the country’s thinking about civil rights.” She also notes that homosexuality has effectively functioned as a “wedge” issue.

Pharr shows how homophobia is used to divide and fragment communities of color, “destroy the potential for multi-issue movement building,” and allow the right wing to gain a toe-hold in new spheres where it can then launch campaigns for its broader and more far-reaching agenda.

The right wing’s attack on public schooling offers one of the best examples of how gay issues are used as a front to amass support in preparation for a larger agenda. It has been relatively easy for right-wing organizers to garner mass support and raise big bucks when gay issues can be fanned into a local sex panic. They’ve successfully done this in circumstances ranging from a gay teacher getting “married” to a same sex partner, to the introduction of Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual History Month as a curricular feature, to AIDS groups offering prevention education for youth in schools. Skillful organizing by right-wing activists deploys stereotyping and scapegoating as weapons intended to encourage citizens to channel a range of anxieties and misgivings about their local schools but even about extraneous non-school issues into triggering the gay issue.

This has frequently brought about the election of religious right activists to local boards of education, the banning of books and other educational materials, and an escalating public rhetoric of “family values.” Yet, once in power, a much broader agenda emerges as the true game plan.

Lesbians and gay men continue to be marginalized and scapegoated, but broader philosophical and pedagogical questions swiftly emerge: elimination of all sex education, opposition to pedagogies intended to strengthen critical thinking, attacks on the teaching of whole language, considerations of expanded privatization of schooling, challenges to multicultural history units. The right wing pushes forward to support expanded and deregulated home schooling, voucher initiatives that would include parochial schools, the teaching of creationism rather than evolution, and an exclusive focus on phonics in the teaching of reading.

The interaction between this broad agenda attacking public education and lesbian and gay issues is evident in a recent video produced by Eagle Forum and hosted by Phyllis Schlafly. Entitled Crisis in the Classroom, the hour-long video seems designed to serve as a wake-up call to parents throughout America who must immediately organize and take back public education from the unions, socialists, and queers. The film purports to show how the misguided thinking of “socialist” philosophers such as Hegel and John Dewey has squirreled its way into a dominant position in public schools. It then goes on to attack cooperative learning, outcome-based education, and whole-language instruction arguing that such pedagogical perspectives are part of a plot by the “educational establishment” (read, “the unions”) to take over the minds of the young.

Thus far in the video, there is nary a peep about gay issues. Yet at the climax of the video, a mother who organized in Alabama to keep Goals 2000 money out of the state because it would force the schools to abandon phonics-only teaching methods and to adhere to federal education guidelines focused on equity begins raving about a “lesbian counselor with an agenda” at her child’s school. This then turns into a larger discussion of how schools are channeling funds into “teaching homosexuality” and “showing movies of people having sex,” rather than into traditional classroom teaching methods.

While gay issues make only a brief cameo appearance in this Eagle Forum video, they are positioned to hook viewers into accepting a much broader right-wing critique of education.

Who’s Fighting the Right?

The heroes in the public battles to address lesbian and gay issues in schools tend to be ordinary individuals who stand up to the bigotry and bullying tactics of the right wing. Most do not start off considering themselves social justice advocates or politically savvy strategists. They seem to hold a common commitment to public education and a broad understanding of how what is considered “the public” is under constant attack these days.

When a rural New Hampshire school administrator attempted to keep gay-themed books out of high school English classes, she unwisely chose to target Penny Culliton. A heterosexual teacher with tremendous integrity, Culliton believed that gay issues merited examination in the schools. She decided to continue to teach such books, was fired, and successfully fought her firing in the courts.

In Wisconsin, meanwhile, when school officials in Ashland spent three years looking the other way as a teenage boy was scapegoated, bullied, and beaten by his peers, they didn’t know they were dealing with Jamie Nabozny. With support from his family, Nabozny filed a ground-breaking lawsuit arguing that school officials bear responsibility for ensuring that homosexual students are not subjected to abuse and harassment.

When the Salt Lake City School Board took radical action to keep young gays and lesbians from creating a support group with the schools, they forgot about the Kellie Petersons of the world. A newly “out” lesbian teenager in the school, Peterson would successfully lobby, protest, and organize to create and sustain such a group and in the process focused national attention on what, until then, had seemed just another local school controversy.

The right wing argues that there is a vast conspiracy a unified “gay agenda” aimed at taking over American public schools and recruiting children into homosexuality. But, in actuality, the flashpoint gay issues which have emerged in schools usually arise spontaneously out of the local context.

One of the great shifts brought about by what has become known as “the Gay Moment” the brief period after Clinton’s first inauguration when the “gays in the military” issue brought unprecedented debate and visibility to gay issues was the vast impetus given to non-urban, non-coastal gay men and lesbians to come out and live open lives in their small towns and neighborhoods. But controversies emerge when individuals or small groups rebel against the historic silences in schools on lesbian and gay issues.

The battles usually are waged with little support from formal political and legal organizations. In this way, gay and lesbian issues in schools appear to be following a path quite distinct from that of other groups who have fought for full inclusion in schools.

Throughout the 20th century, social movements have looked to the public schools as a key institutional site for contestation. Asians and Latinos fought for equal access to education through bilingual and English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) programs. The Civil Rights Movement spent generations fighting for school integration, culminating in the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954. The women’s movement continues the fight for Title IX and the disabled community struggles aggressively for full inclusion in public school classrooms. While each population often has different histories of, and contexts for, discrimination, these movements seemed to share in a vision of public education as essential to democracy. If “their children” were to succeed in America, equal access to education had to be demanded and won.

The major national lesbian and gay organizations have not taken on public schooling as a primary site for political contestation. Other institutions such as the military and marriage have commanded the greater portion of the community’s resources and political action. Only Lambda Legal Defense, the premiere gay and lesbian legal organization, has devoted a staff position to school-related issues. Schools somehow seemed off the radar screen, despite decades of case law and the imprint of terror which remained in the memory of many gay people’s minds. The central political organizations of the community focus their attention elsewhere, leaving gaps to be filled by new organizations targeting gay teachers or coalitions of groups serving queer youth.

A number of organizations maintain some degree of oversight and involvement in these flashpoint battles in the schools (People for the American Way, the Human Rights Campaign, the American Civil Liberties Union, National Organization for Women). Yet only a few organizations have emerged as the leading forces combating the attacks from the right wing and offering a pro-active progressive agenda for education: the Gay, Lesbian, Straight Teachers Network (GLSTN), Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG), the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, and the National Education Association (NEA) along with its local affiliates. Other groups take leadership roles on specific issues: For example, the American Library Association has fought battles to protect books with gay content from being banned in school libraries for 25 years, and the National Advocacy Coalition on Youth and Sexual Orientation is often involved in issues specifically involving queer youth.

Many have argued that the gay movement’s failure to prioritize issues related to public education is rooted in two main facts. First, the movement’s leaders hope to avoid providing fodder for stereotypes which portray gays as child molesters; hence, they downplay gay youth issues in the hopes of avoiding charges of “recruitment.” Second, many lesbian and gay adults have failed to come to terms with their own painful childhoods. As a result, issues facing contemporary youth are too close to home to take on. Another factor is that many leaders within the gay movement do not have children in the public schools; those lesbians and gays who work on school issues tend to be students, parents, and teachers. Taken together, these factors have caused the movement to fail to take up schools as an issue whose time has come.

One might disagree about why gay groups and left-wing organizations have failed to take a formal and significant role in fighting the right wing on gay issues in schools. Regardless, the reality is that most of the progress on matters such as increased safety for queer youth in schools, acceptance of openly gay schoolworkers, increasing inclusion of lesbian and gay issues in school curricula is occurring as a result of the uncoordinated and often unplanned efforts of fair-minded individuals who maintain a firm commitment to democratic education in an increasingly undemocratic era.

Behind the Classroom Door

Thus gay and lesbian youth and educators find themselves in a precarious position in the 1990s. More visible and active than ever before, they are clearer targets for an increasingly powerful right wing. Thus, the examples of school teachers actively addressing homophobia and encouraging full participation by gay parents, youth, and teachers become increasingly important as models of what can be achieved behind the classroom door.

The pressure of the right wing leads many teachers gay and non-gay to avoid dealing with gay and lesbian issues in their classrooms. Is it worth the risk? Teachers engage in self-censorship, side-step sensitive questions, and participate in an elaborate “don’t ask, don’t tell” game with their students to keep gay issues out of the school’s formal curriculum.

Some teachers have approached these issues successfully through the school’s commitment to multicultural curricula itself under attack from a right wing which insists on privileging Western cultures as the centerpiece of a narrative of universal progress. Understanding that multiculturalism might move beyond race/ethnicity to include groups defined by religion (Jews, Sikhs, Moslems) and culture (deaf people, lesbians and gays, poor people), some teachers are valiantly creating rich, radical curricula which truly aim to teach “respect for all.”

Heterosexual teachers who seek to become allies with gay, lesbian, and bisexual communities might understand this work as coalition politics in its true and deeper sense. Working to support full participation in the schools might be seen as working on gay and lesbian issues. But it might also be articulated as promoting democracy and standing up to a theocratic, anti-democratic right wing. While the right consistently explains such efforts as attempts to be “politically correct” or responses to another “whiny minority group,” they might more appropriately be seen as efforts to strengthen and affirm the “public” in public education.

Eric Rofes is a doctoral student in Social and Cultural Studies in the University of California Berkeley’s Graduate School of Education, where he teaches the undergraduate class “Experiencing Education: Gay and Lesbian Issues in Schools.”