As editor of the gay newspaper Wisconsin Light, Terry Boughner has frequent run-ins with bigotry. But nothing prepared him for the Milwaukee School Board meeting Nov. 20.
Some 800 people, most of them mobilized by a fundamentalist radio/TV station, protested plans to increase services for gay and lesbian students and to include non-biased presentations of homosexuality in school curriculums. Many held signs equating homosexuality with sin and perversion, linked homosexuality with AIDS, and tried to shout down those who disagreed. A significant number were not from Milwaukee but from nearby suburbs and towns.
“I have never in my life run into such blatant ignorance, bigotry and sickness as I ran into there,” Boughner said of the meeting. “Never have I faced such overwhelming hatred and desire, literally, to see me dead. I was petrified.”
The fundamentalist mobilization worked. The School Board passed a watered-down set of recommendations from the Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Teens. Among other things, the School Board resolution side-stepped a proposal that “curriculum materials, teaching strategies and school policies which include non-judgemental information on sexual orientation be implemented in the schools,” and “that sexual orientation be addressed in the sexuality component of a comprehensive health instruction curriculum.” While the administration had outlined its intention to ask the task force to develop appropriate curriculum materials, the board resolution omitted any call for specific curriculum development.
The new resolution was shepherded through the board by member David Lucey, who has often portrayed himself as a liberal but who displayed anti-homosexual prejudices throughout the debate. The vote also took place in the context of the gay community being largely abandoned on the issue by liberals and progressives, who failed to help organize to counter the right-wing. The right-wing mobilized not only for the full School Board meeting, but had packed a committee hearing a week earlier.
The controversy surrounded a set of recommendations of the Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Teens, composed of teachers, administrators, and community representatives, both homosexual and heterosexual. It was formed by former Superintendent Robert Peterkin after reports that gay and lesbian students were being harassed at MPS schools, and national studies that homosexual students were disproportionately prone to commit suicide because of anti-gay prejudices and harassment.
In addition to the curriculum recommendations, other key recommendations of the task force included: that school personnel prohibit any sexually oriented deprecating, harassing, and prejudicial statements; that in-service training be provided for teachers to increase their sensitivity to gay and lesbian issues; and that there be drop-out prevention strategies for gay and lesbian students. The administration had supported the recommendations.
The School Board essentially scrapped not only the curriculum components but also the call for new drop-out prevention programs specifically for gay and lesbian youth. A modified in-service proposal passed, and the board reaffirmed the right of gay and lesbian students to a safe environment at the schools. In regard to sexually oriented prejudicial statements, the resolution reminds principals to enforce state law which prohibits discrimination against pupils on the basis of sex, race, color, national origin, ancestry, creed, religion, pregnancy, marital or parental status, sexual orientation, or physical, mental, emotional or learning disability.
Boughner said he was glad the board passed some of the measures, especially a proposal to train teachers to be more sensitive to gay and lesbian issues.“I will always run with half a loaf,” Boughner said. “I used to teach, and the in-service measure is very important.”
Miriam Ben-Shalom, an English teacher at Riverside University High School who was a member of the Task Force on Gay and Lesbian Teens,said she initially agreed with the half-a-loaf analysis — until she analyzed what the School Board approved. “It looks like we got half a loaf but in fact we got nothing,” she said. “There is no reference to the task force in the resolution by the board, so there is no one to develop the in-service.”
Doug Nelson, executive director of the Milwaukee AIDS Project, said the School Board’s lack of courage was especially troublesome in light of the growing incidence of Acquired Immune Deficiency among adolescents — an issue that involves not only questions about sexual orientation, but other controversial topics such as teenage sexual activity and drug use.
“The board had an opportunity to establish an enlightened and progressive policy and it failed to do so,” Nelson said. “And it’s not enough to say, ‘Gee, we took a small step forward.’”
“As I look ahead over the next three to five years in this city, I see the AIDS caseload on a steep increase.” Nelson continued . “I identify the school system as an institution in our community that must take an activist and progressive approach to this epidemic.”
Some 23% of those with diagnosed AIDS cases in Wisconsin are between the ages of 20-29. “The majority of those were infected during their teenage years, there’s no doubt about that,” Nelson said.
Bills’ Courageous Stand
School Board member Mary Bills was a notable exception to the political timidity shown by the School Board. During the meeting, despite boos and hisses from the crowd, she referred to the court-ordered desegregation of the schools in 1976 and said: “I thought I had seen it all during desegregation….But I have recently listened to enough hate and intolerance to last a lifetime.”
Bills said after the meeting that the phone calls she received over the issue were disturbingly similar to those in opposition to desegregation 15 years ago. “They were almost the same,” she said. “And they would begin, ‘I have nothing against,’ and they used to say Blacks and now they say homosexuals. And then they would go on to say the most bigoted statements imaginable. It’s a sad, sad commentary on our community.”
Boughner said he was disturbed that the fight over the task force recommendations deteriorated into a battle largely between the fundamentalists and the gay community.
“I think our natural allies deserted us,” Boughner said. He said he was referring to others often attacked by the religious right, such as the women’s movement, progressive Catholics, the Jewish community and those politically left-of-center.
“Perhaps we didn’t outreach to them as effectively as we might have,” Boughner said. “But on the other hand they didn’t seem to realize that our cause was their cause, that prejudice is not singular, it is of a piece. Sooner or later, if they hate me, they’re going to hate you too. ❒