Anti-Gay Groups Decry Safe Schools Efforts

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday September 8, 2010

Anti-gay groups worried that efforts to promote safe schools and counter bullying say that Christians who believe gays are "sinners" are being sidelined and "belittled." But lawmakers and school administrators perceive a need to take action, in the wake of a string of suicides that claimed harassed victims as young as 11 years.

Anti-gay group Focus on the Family told the Denver Post that as society in general--and public schools--begin to comprehend that gays and lesbians are a normal and natural part of human diversity, anti-gay religious views may be shunted aside and no loner hold sway in the classroom.

"We feel more and more that activists are being deceptive in using anti-bullying rhetoric to introduce their viewpoints, while the viewpoint of Christian students and parents are increasingly belittled," the FOF's education expert, Candi Cushman, said.

Christian groups in recent years have targeted LGBT youth by pressuring schools not to allow the national "Day of Silence" to be observed. The Day of Silence is marked by students who refuse to speak while outside of class, in order to express a sense of powerlessness and lack of voice, or to show sympathy with gay youths who experience that sense of disenfranchisement.

Handbooks on countering the Day of Silence, distributed by anti-gay religious groups, recommend that parents pull their children from school rather than attend on a day when LGBT youth and their straight supporters make a conspicuous show of quietude. The handbooks also offer talking points for parents and students who wish to confront school administrators or Day of Silence participants, including claims that homosexuality is a "chosen" behavior and not an innate characteristic.

The head of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network (GLSEN), Eliza Byard, told the Denver Post that Focus on the Family had it partially right. "Yes, we want LGBT students afforded full respect," Byard acknowledged, going on to say, "Bullying is a serious public health crisis in this country, according to no less an authority than the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services."

A 2007 GLSEN report on the experiences of gay youth in America's public schools noted that the overwhelming majority of students had heard--or been subjected to--anti-gay slurs from their peers, or even from teachers and staff. Nearly a quarter of gay youths surveyed said they had been physically attacked due to their real or perceived sexuality or gender identity--and more than half said they did not feel safe while at school, leading some to make a habit of cutting classes or to drop out altogether.

The Post noted that Cushman had created True Tolerance, a website that purports to help parents "respond in a loving and fact-based way"--not to bullying, but to "homosexual advocacy" in schools. The site offers materials prepared in conjunction with anti-gay groups the Alliance Defense Fund--a legal organization that describes itself as "a legal alliance defending the right to hear and speak the Truth through strategy, training, funding, and direct litigation"--and Exodus International, an organization that purports to help gays "convert" to heterosexuality and which promises that, "Freedom is possible through Jesus Christ!"

One document available for download bears the Alliance Defense Fund logo and reads in part, "there are individuals and organizations that seek to limit the information students receive rather than expand their knowledge on some of the critical issues they face during their formative years. This one-sided approach is especially visible during events such as the Day of Silence, which is annually promoted by GLSEN-the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network.

"GLSEN and other advocacy groups encourage students and teachers to use events like the Day of Silence as a political tool to force an adult agenda into school policy and curriculum," the letter claims.

The letter goes on to say that "no one disagrees with the fact that all students should enjoy a safe environment." But to school administrators and state lawmakers, the need to take action on making schools safer for all students has only been heightened in recent years, as one young child after another has killed him- or herself after enduring relentless anti-gay taunts--even though some of the victims were not gay.

Schools End Up Paying

In some cases, parents tried in vain to get school officials to intervene; 11-year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover of Springfield, Mass., suffered anti-gay taunts at school despite his mother's reported "weekly" attempts to get the school to stop the harassment. Hoover hung himself on April 6, 2009.

Less than three weeks later, another 11-year-old boy, Jeheem Herrera, hung himself in Georgia, after enduring anti-gay taunts.

In some cases, harassed youths and their parents have taken school districts to court and won sizeable settlements. A year ago, a student in Minnesota who was reportedly harassed by two teachers for being gay--even through the student was heterosexual--received a $25,000 payout. A Nevada school district ended up paying nearly a half million dollars to a former student who endured anti-gay harassment and threats, and who was left to fend for himself by staff and faculty.

The loss of life and the legal consequences of failing to maintain safety in the school environment has led to some high-profile attempts at remedying the situation. Earlier this summer, The New York state senate passed a measure to combat bullying in public schools, the Dignity for All Students Act, with bipartisan support and by an overwhelming margin of 58-3.

The bill penalizes bullying motivated by bias on a number of fronts, from weight to gender to sexual identity and expression. The bill also covers race, religion, national origin, and disability, and mandates development of policies to prevent and to deal with bias-motivated school violence and hate, training for school staff and administrators, and the introduction of appropriate material into classroom curricula, including discrimination awareness. The bill also requires that incidents of bias-motivated bullying be reported to the state education department.

A similar bill--though one that lacked specific language regarding LGBT youth--was signed into law in May by Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Although the bill does not specifically extend protections to GLBT youth, safe school advocates expressed the hope that the bill, if "implemented and enforced correctly," would protect sexual minorities.

The nation's patchwork of laws regarding the bullying of youthful LGBTs could be standardized if federal lawmakers pass a bill introduced in May by Minnesota Democratic Sen. Al Franken.

"Our nation's civil rights laws protect our children from bullying due to race, sex, religion, disability and national origin," noted Franken. "My proposal corrects a glaring injustice and extends these protections to our gay and lesbian students who need them just as badly."

In addition to criminalizing anti-gay harassment and violence at school, the bill provides penalties for schools that do nothing when its students are being bullied. Under the bill's provisions, standing by and doing nothing while GLBT kids are attacked will mean a loss of federal funds. The bill also forbids discrimination by the schools themselves. Franken's measure has garnered the support of 22 co-sponsors.

But religiously motivated foes of anti-bullying programs have only stepped up pressure to derail efforts at making schools safer. In California, an evangelical pastor named Dion Evans led an attempt to strip anti-bullying lessons out of school curricula.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.