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Cross posted at Dirigo Blue

"I certainly don’t believe school districts should force a sexual agenda on the community, but we can’t just put our heads in the sand and ignore the kind of harassment that’s going on." -- Finn Laursen, executive director of the Christian Educators Association International

One of the things I really like about writing this blog is that I learn about a wide variety of subjects. I'll stumble upon something while researching another topic, or I'll receive a suggestion or request to look into a matter that heretofore I had not considered. Oftentimes my new knowledge is directly related to a statement from an antagonist, gained as I work on a rebuttal to their remark.

This is one of those times.

In a response to my statement of fact at As Maine Goes regarding Charla Bansely, the teacher featured in the latest Yes on 1 TV advertisement, Bob Emrich, co-founder of Stand for Marriage Maine (S4MM), replied:

The teacher used by the proponents of homosexual marriage is one who pushed for the introduction of the GSLEN (Gay, Lesbian Straight Education Network) curriculum in her school district.

Yes, the same ad where you here that it is not being taught in schools

GSLEN has hijacked the "Safe School" efforts and the antibullying efforts for their own agenda. But why deny that such things are being taught when they clearly are and will be more so if LD 1020 is allowed to stand?

Emrich refers to Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national organization that:

works with educators, policy makers, community leaders and students on the urgent need to address anti-LGBT behavior and bias in schools. GLSEN strives to protect students from bullying and harassment, to advance comprehensive safe schools laws and policies, to empower principals to make their schools safer, and to build the skills of educators to teach respect for all people.

In this rant, I want to explain to Bob Emrich and others that allowing same-sex couples to marry really is about "the schools," just not in the way that they think it is.

I graduated from high school in 1980, in a class of about 450 kids. We had the usual cliques that seem to always be found in schools: jocks, stoners, gear heads, thespians, nerds (and in my day, Dungeons and Dragons freaks), etc. At the time, there were not any "out" lesbians or gays - at least they were not "out" to me. That's not to say that I didn't know of other students that I thought might be - but at my school, despite the cliques, there was a remarkable degree of tolerance. Despite that, homophobic pejoratives were common.

It was not until after graduating that things came more into focus.

Boys (now men, and girls too) that I had gone to school with came out of the closet. One good friend would, some twenty years later, stand with his partner at the christening of our first-born, "The Godfathers" of our daughter. One of my first jobs working in architecture was for a design/build contractor, and one of the finish carpenters - the only woman on the crew - swore me to secrecy when she told me she was a lesbian. The more my world expanded after leaving the comforts of my parents' home, the more I encountered lesbian and gay people.

It became normal.

I was reminded of all this when the Yes on 1 campaign turned to the only argument it has against same-sex marriage - to frighten parents that somehow allowing such unions will affect their children adversely. And so it was with great interest to me to read coming out in middle school, which will appear in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine (h/t jp). It relates of common experiences that I was not aware of, and I'll wager that most Americans are not - certainly not most Mainers.

Benoit Denizet-Lewis makes clear that there is a side to public schools that many would rather ignore than acknowledge exists:

A middle-school counselor in Maine summed up the view of many educators I spoke to when she conceded that her school was "totally unprepared" for openly gay students. "We always knew middle school was a time when kids struggle with their identity," she told me, "but it was easy to let anti-gay language slide because it’s so imbedded in middle-school culture and because we didn’t have students who were out to us or their classmates. Now we do, so we’re playing catch up to try to keep them safe."

As a response to anti-gay bullying and harassment, at least 120 middle schools across the country have formed gay-straight alliance (G.S.A.) groups, where gay and lesbian students — and their straight peers — meet to brainstorm strategies for making their campus safer. Other schools are letting students be part of the national Day of Silence each April (participants take a vow of silence for a day to symbolize the silencing effect of anti-gay harassment), which last year was held in memory of Lawrence King, a 15-year-old gay junior-high student in Oxnard, Calif., who was shot and killed at school by a 14-year-old classmate.

There is a segment of our society that have "no problem" with gays and lesbians, as long as they mind their own business. This means, of course, that as long as they are not demonstrative, or even simply honest, about who they are. As one former co-worker of mine said to me, "I don't have anything against gays, as long as they don't hav sex on my front yard." (I did ask if he would object to a straight couple performing the same act - he would.)

From Denizet-Lewis' article:

"Teachers would never let students say, ‘That’s so black,’ " says Eileen Ross from the Outlet Program in Mountain View, "but I’ve had teachers look at me like I’m crazy when I suggest that they should say something to a student who says ‘that’s so gay.’ They’ll say, ‘If I have to stop what I’m doing every time a student says that, I won’t have any time to teach!’ "

I wrote to Sherri Gould, the teacher featured in the NO on 1 ad to which Mr. Emrich refers. The 2005 Maine Teacher of the Year, Gould teaches English at Nokomis High School in Newport, Maine. In an email response, she told me that the school used to have a "Civil RIghts Team," but that it had disbanded before the GLSEN GSA at Nokomis was formed:

There is a Gay-Straight Alliance at Nokomis. It is in its third year. It was begun in response to a student request that I do so at the end of his freshman year in 2006. I was the faculty advisor for the first two years. This year, I am no longer the advisor, but I do attend meetings regularly (as do other staff). Our principal at the time is now the Assistant Superintendent and continues to be supportive.  The assistant principal at the time is now our principal and continues to be supportive.  Several staff are supportive as well.

Compare this to Denizet-Lewis:

They were joined at the tables by dozens of their straight friends and a handful of teachers. One teacher, Richard Mandl, approached me and asked what I thought of the school. I told him that I’d never seen so many happy gay kids in one place. "It’s a little disorienting," I told him. "I feel like I’m in a parallel gay universe."

He laughed. "Yeah, it’s pretty unusual what’s happened here," he said. "It definitely wasn’t always this way."

When Mandl began teaching at the school in 2002, he said that there weren’t any openly gay students — and that it was common to hear anti-gay language. "Kids would run by you and be screaming at another kid: ‘You fag! You’re so gay!’ " he said. "It wasn’t until a few years ago when the faculty sort of came together and said: ‘You know what? We need to stop this.’ "

---

The principal, Kendra Wallace, told me that she didn’t hesitate when the school’s science teacher approached her (on behalf of the boy and several of his friends) about starting a G.S.A. "I had some staff who were livid at first, because they thought it would be about sex, or us endorsing a lifestyle," she said. "But the G.S.A. isn’t about that, and they’ve come around. This is a club that promotes safety, and it gives kids a voice. And the most amazing thing has happened since the G.S.A. started. Bullying of all kinds is way down. The G.S.A. created this pervasive anti-bullying culture on campus that affects everyone."

One universal right that I think that most of us can agree on is that children must be provided with a place free of fear in which they can learn. There are many fears that plague all of us, and more that do children. As adults, it is our responsibility to do all that we can to ensure that as many of these fears as possible are eliminated, and when they are, every child is able to be who they are.

And this is no less true for LBGT kids. Sherri Gould added this note:

There is no GLSEN curriculum that I know of; there is no GSA curriculum that I am aware of; there is no GLAD curriculum that I have seen. What I know is that the GSA has never "promoted homosexuality" nor have I. The reality is that there are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered, and questioning students in our school. The reality is that there are students who are being raised in homes by gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered adults. Most GLBTQ students do not feel safe at school: they are verbally harassed, physically abused, and alienated. The same thing happens to students who may be straight but are perceived to be homosexual by their peers. All educators have an obligation, no matter what their personal beliefs on homosexuality may be, to protect students so they can learn in an environment that is safe. To do otherwise is simply unacceptable.

Allowing same-sex couples to marry will certainly help engender a more accepting environment for lesbians and gays throughout the Pine Tree State, which will filter into our schools. And it isn't just teachers that bear responsibility, but all of us "to protect students so they can learn in an environment that is safe."

If Bob Emrich has a problem with that, he is more than welcome to explain why in these pages.

Originally posted to Dirigo Blue on Sat Sep 26, 2009 at 05:20 AM PDT.

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