This is the second post in what I hope will be an ongoing series. Part I is here.
The most egregious and vituperative example of the systematic attempts to turn back the hands of time against the inevitability of LGBT equality is not the fight against same-sex marriage, which is merely the most high-profile struggle. It is actually the systematic and vituperative attempts to keep any discussion of homosexuality out of the schools, which touches on a series of other issues. This campaign has taken many different turns which has included at various points: (1) discrimination against gay teachers; (2) attempts to prevent stronger anti-bullying laws; (3) school and community pressure to prevent the formation of Gay/Straight Alliances; and (4) the elimination of all mention of anything LGBT-related in the schools no matter how innocuous it may be.*
Political campaigns against gay teachers rarely happen anymore. They are not successful. The most famous failure was the Briggs Initiative in 1978, which brought Harvey Milk to national prominence. Even so, every once in a while some idiot politician will make a remark about trying to ban gays from teaching. One example was South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who proudly continues his state’s shameful history of hatred and bigotry toward minorities (whose prominent exponent of modern times was, of course, the late Strom Thurmond.) The real danger against LGBT teachers though is in internal not external. LGBT teachers have to censor themselves out of fear of the reaction from parents and the larger community. Sometimes the self-censorship is so oppressive that gay teachers will not prevent students from using homophobic slurs, thereby perpetuating the circle. Yet the reaction is completely understandable. LGBT teachers are afraid of coming out to their students, lest they be fired. Most states still do not have anti-discrimination statutes to protect the LGBT community, and Congress has thus far failed to pass the Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
Because of a rash of suicides among LGBT teenagers, Dan Savage began the It Gets Better Project (IGBP). One side effect of both the prominence of the suicides in the media and the IGBP, is that it became easier for states to pass tougher anti-bullying laws. Once again, Congress has failed to act, but at this point that should come as no surprise.
Although finally action is being taken against bullying, this is a relatively new phenomenon. Stronger anti-bullying laws had been a huge point of contention, especially for the religious right who views any attempts to prevent bullying, especially anti-gay bullying as both tacit and explicit acceptance of homosexuality, and something that cannot be allowed. Hate groups such as Focus on the Family perpetuate scare tactics which follows this line of thinking: ” (1) Outlawing bullying is the same as outlawing any criticism of homosexuality; (2) The gay rights activists want to criminalize your religious beliefs and your thoughts; (3) They want to either criminalize your children or turn them into homosexuals.” Hence they justify themselves with the canard that bullying is just a fact of life, and these sissies need to be toughened up.
This justification is incredibly dangerous. If these bullies were adults, their actions would be blatantly criminal and would involve prosecution. Yet no one wants to get involved when it happens in the schools, often including school officials. There are occasionally court cases against schools for their failure to protect, but they are rare. The reason they are rare is because the facts of the case are usually so horrific that legal action is the only alternative. Take any of these cases for example, and then imagine that you were in the shoes of these children.
What has done a good job creating change is student empowerment for change and specifically the rise of Gay/Straight Alliances (GSAs). The best way to prevent bullying and create safer schools is less about punitive laws (although there is a place for such laws) and more about changing the school environment. If for no other reason, there is strength in numbers, and bullies attack individuals, not crowds. It is not coincidence that as more GSAs appear in schools across the country, more LGBT teenagers come out at younger ages.
The homophobes know this too, and for years have fought losing battles across the country to prevent GSAs from forming. The truth is that legally they cannot stop GSAs without taking extreme action against the school community as a whole. In 1984, Congress, in its infinite lack of foresight, passed a law called the Equal Access Act (EAA). The intention of the EAA was to force public schools to allow religious (i.e. Christian) extracurricular clubs to use school grounds. The EAA requires that if a school allows even one club that is not curriculum-related to use school facilities, then it must all clubs regardless of content. Ironically, the GSAs benefitted most from that law. Even when the entire school and surrounding community opposed the GSA, the courts demanded that the GSA be allowed to meet. The only way that a school can get around the EAA is to close school grounds to all extracurricular activities, something few schools would do.
The underlying reason for the centrality of the battles over the schools, is because the homophobes want to stamp out homosexuality or failing that, all mention of homosexuality. (Take, for example, the idiotic and blatantly unconstitutional law in Tennessee that would prevent teachers from even saying the word “gay” in class before 9th grade.) The logic behind that is that kids don’t hear it when they are at an impressionable age, they won’t become gay. This is an obvious falsehood, but it successful marginalizes an entire community, and what’s more it starts the oppression against LGBT children at a very early age. Children, who absorb everything, intentional or not.
The homophobes want to eliminate anything LGBT-related from the school. One of the big weapons that the homophobes used in the Prop 8 battle in California was the specter that the schools would be forced to teach children about homosexuality. Now clearly this is not true, not that truth matters, but even if it were, so what? There are two responses to this. The first is that being gay is not about sex, it is about identity. The LGBT community is a distinct minority with its own history, just like any other. We are not just about sex. We exist. We are people. We have every much right to have our history (a history fraught with oppression and triumphs) taught as any other group does. The scare tactic is not about history though; it is about sex. The fear that is being sold to parents is that their little kindergarteners are going to be learning about such age-inappropriate topics, such as gay sexuality.
Opponents of school desegregation used the specter that allowing little black children (re: boys) to mingle with little white children (re: girls) would lead to widespread miscegenation. In other words, way back in the day, the same bigoted scare tactic was used: play on parents fears by introducing sex into the discussion.
Schools have always been the ground zero of the civil rights struggles. No group understands that more than African-Americans. To see true hatred, watch videos of school integration. Yet that too passed. The hell that, for example, the Little Rock Nine had to go through is nearly unthinkable today, and Central High School is a thoroughly integrated school. In the same way, although not nearly as drastic, sexual orientation is inevitably going to be taught as part of the curriculum. The LGBT community is to fully ingrained into the schools and the larger society, and history is filled with the community’s contributions. Save for the Harvey Milk School in New York, there are not other schools that serve primarily LGBT students. Those who rant and rave about the children are either not thinking about the gay children or want to brutalize them (making the schools a latter-day Reading Gaol.)
It’s the old canard: Gays can’t have children so they have to take yours. But that’s not true, and as such young people are being strangled by a refusal the blatantly obvious. It’s the fear that homosexuality is so much stronger than heterosexuality. Being near a gay person makes a child gay. But no one ever turns that around. One would think constant exposure to heterosexuality everywhere would make ensure that all children would grow up straight. Nevertheless, that just never enters the conversation.
* In Britain, the Tory government passed Clause 28 in 1988, and it was not repealed until 2003. Clause 28 was both extremely controversial and harmful, and just last year, David Cameron, the current (Tory) Prime Minister of the United Kingdom apologized for his party’s role, and his own, in its passage. As apolitical as the play (and movie) Beautiful Thing is on its surface, because of its aggressively happy ending, it is not hard to read it as both a modern-day Maurice, and a direct attack on Clause 28.