Homosexuality in the Schools
by Marc Stern
Today's debates over homosexuality raise fundamental
questions about human nature, the organization of society,
the permissable sources of moral authority, and the rights of individuals
and communities. All these questions have inevitably found their way into
the nation's public schools.
Some of the
resulting controversies concern the substance of what school personnel say
about homosexuality in the classroom or in advising students. Others have to
do with the actual treatment of gay and lesbian students and teachers. And
then there are those that have little relevance to the actual operation of
the schools, but which make use of them as a proxy arena for larger social
struggles. Perhaps not surprisingly, these symbolic issues tend to attract a
disproportionate share of media attention.
The results are
not necessarily good for the public’s opinion of public education. A poll
released at the end of August by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life
reported that only 17 percent of the public gave public schools favorable
marks for handling homosexuality, with white evangelicals, blacks, and
Hispanics being particularly critical.
For this article,
I reviewed newspaper coverage of gay rights disputes in the public schools
over the past year. The most heavily covered stories were the annual Day of
Silence/Day of Truth (promoted, respectively, by advocates and opponents of
gay rights) and a dispute over sex education in Montgomery County, Maryland.
The first generated articles across the country; the second, largely local
coverage in the D.C. papers, and especially the Washington Times, whose
reporting would have done the old Hearst papers proud.
The Day of
Silence/Day of Truth events held in schools across the nation in mid-April
every year are exercises in symbolism. Whatever other functions they serve,
getting media attention is clearly a major goal.
years ago in high schools and colleges, the Day of Silence is currently
sponsored by an organization called Gays, Lesbians, and Straights in
Education (GLSEN). GLSEN claims that 400,000-450,000 students at some 400
participating schools participate annually, although there is no independent
verification of these claims (a fact made clear in the coverage).
students agree not to talk for a full day—including not responding to
teachers’ questions—in order to symbolize the silence imposed on gay
students by their harassing peers. In some schools, students mark the day by
wearing black clothing.
Not wishing to
yield the field to proponents of gay rights, the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF),
a conservative legal group, this year started a countervailing Day of Truth,
marked by students wearing T-shirts and handing out information cards. As
reported by Trevor Maxwell in the Portland (Me.) Press Herald April 14, the
cards in that area read, “I believe in equal treatment for all, and not
special rights for a few. I believe in loving my neighbor, but part of that
love means not condoning detrimental personal and social behavior.”
Estimates (provided by and attributed to ADF) were in the range of 40,000
participants, a tenth of the number claimed by GLSEN for its Day of Silence.
With the exception
of an excellent follow-up article by Letitia Stein in the April 29 St.
Petersburg Times, which put the local Day of Silence in national
perspective, the stories tended to focus exclusively on the local event.
They allowed students and their adult supporters to express themselves, and
balanced their statements with interviews from Day of Truth participants.
Overall, I found the coverage straightforward and unbiased.
articles in one sitting, though, suggests themes that could have been
developed but for the most part were not—probably because a single reporter
covering a national story from a local perspective would not see them.
For example, Kevin
Pentn of the Allentown, Pennsylvania Morning Call reported on April 13 that
the local school district had overruled its attorney, who would have banned
the Day of Silence as disruptive. The attorney, said the superintendent, was
“making a mountain out of a molehill.” (Lawyers get paid to do just that.)
In her opinion, the Day of Silence was “healthy” for students.1
I found this
surprising, given the number of lawsuits and controversies nationwide over
students’ right to free speech in the face of administrative opposition. Yet
the Allentown school district did not seem idiosyncratic, judging from all
the reports of a welcoming attitude to the Day of Silence by school
officials learned to live with student demonstrations? Is there something
special about the schools or communities where these demonstrations are
allowed? Is a commitment to diversity responsible for this reaction or some
other factor? The reporting didn’t say.
Nor was there a
lot of clarity about the legal issues involved.
In the course of
holding that student religious clubs could meet after school hours so long
as they did not enjoy official school sanction, the Supreme Court has
insisted that the distinction between school sponsorship of speech and
school toleration of speech is obvious enough to be grasped by high school
students. But not, apparently, by many school officials, parents, members of
the public at large—or journalists.
One local school
official observed that by allowing the Day of Silence, schools opened
themselves to the charge that they supported homosexuality. “Generally,
wherever you have a club that sponsors this kind of thing, the view is it’s
a school-wide activity,” the superintendent of the Chaffey Joint Union High
School District in California told the Inland Valley Bulletin on April 14.
An article in the
Bergen (N.J.) Record, also on April 14, reported that the Day of Silence was
“endorsed by the Administration,” while at the same time describing it as a
project of the local Gay and Straight Alliance, a student sponsored club. To
complicate matters further, activities at other schools were described in
that article as “not officially recognized.” Similarly, on April 21, the
Syracuse (N.Y.) Post-Standard described the event as “student-led” but with
“the support of school officials.” What did that mean?
articles blurred the line between school sponsorship and school toleration
of the Day of Silence. If the former, the Day would be an official school
activity; if the latter, it is private student speech occurring on school
student speech is not endorsement as far as the law is concerned. But
endorsing the effort officially is another thing entirely. Given the
controversy over gay rights, the difference is significant. It is
unfortunate that the reporting for the most part failed to make this clear.
The blame did not
lie entirely with the media. In some schools, it was reported, teachers
actively supported the Day of Silence by wearing its symbols or serving as
sponsors. It is an open legal question whether teachers have the right to
participate in such events during the school day, and it is certainly the
case that such participation elides the difference between toleration and
support. No teachers were reported to have publicly supported the Day of
On another front,
many stories used such words as “tolerance,” “diversity,” and “harassment,”
without qualification or explanation.
• A school
principal in St. Petersburg, Florida, was quoted by R. Catalenello of the
St. Petersburg Times on April 13 to the effect that religious critics of the
Day of Silence “gave voice to the lack of tolerance the school was
[combating] in the first place.” Should it be assumed that tolerance
precludes criticism of homosexuality?
• Supporters of
the Day of Truth were reported in several states to be at pains to say that
gay students “should not be made fun of” and protesting that they were not
“religious bigots.” As one teen supporter of the Day of Truth told the St.
Petersburg Times April 14, “[D]iscriminating is just not chill.” But if so,
what are these persons’ objections to a Day aimed (at least according to its
sponsors) not at endorsing homosexuality but at ending harassment of gay
students? No one thought to ask.
• What did a
North Carolina principal mean when, according to an April 14 story by Mindy
B. Hagen of the Durham (N.C.) Herald Sun, he promised disciplinary action
against participants in the Day of Truth who made “discriminatory” remarks?
Is calling homosexuality a sin discriminatory? Again, no one asked.
• A student
supporter of the Day of Silence told the Raleigh (N.C.) News and Observer
April 13 that he thought the Day of Truth was fine as long as participants
did nothing “aggressive or offensive.” What did he mean by that?
• According to
the April 13 Lancaster (Pa.) Intelligence-Journal, school of-ficials at
Exploration High School were determined to minimize “negative student
sentiment” toward a school-sponsored day of diversity that was scheduled to
coincide with the Day of Silence. How did that square with freedom of speech
One hopes that
during next year’s Day of Truth, reporters could begin asking their
interviewees to address such questions.
finally, reported that students religiously opposed to homosexuality
repeatedly expressed the fear that they would be discriminated against, or
labeled bigots, as a result of criticism of the Day of Silence. This accords
with my own experience 20 years ago in connection with a legal battle over
equal access for student religious clubs.
While the adults
were battling over the right to proselytize in the schools, students seeking
to organize religious clubs assured me that they had no such intention, and
that the clubs were designed solely to enable Christian students to resist a
secular onslaught. Such feelings of vulnerability merit further journalistic
Montgomery County, Maryland schools prepared an experimental sex education
curriculum that included a matter-of-fact discussion of homosexual sex.
Student participation in this part of the program was subject to the right
of parents to opt out or choose an abstinence-only program.
In a letter to the
Washington Post published December 14, proponents described the proposed
discussion as “only about the importance of tolerance [that word again!] and
acceptance of sexual variance. Its aim is to dispel stereotypes and
bullying.” But in the view of opponents, as expressed in another letter
published the same day, the experimental curriculum included “materials
published by gay groups, while censoring other points of view.”
reporting on the proposed program a month earlier and publishing an article
on opponents December 5, the Post all but ignored the story until opponents
filed a lawsuit to stop the program on May 3. By contrast, its cross-town
rival, the Washington Times, kept up a regular drumbeat of often lengthy
coverage. Persistently, the Times’ stories were written from the critics’
point of view in what struck me as a campaign against the curriculum, not
After the lawsuit
was filed, the Post focused on objecting parents’ complaints that they were
ignored by the curriculum advisory committee, while the Times emphasized
that the opt-out feature would force students to identify themselves as
having religious objections or being “ex-gay.” Both papers covered the trial
court’s entry of a restraining order banning implementation of the new
curriculum on May 5.
According to the
Post’s first-day story, the gist of the holding was that the curriculum
“present[ed] only one view [on the subject of] homosexuality”—that
homosexuality is a natural and morally correct lifestyle. But in a follow-up
written (as most of the Post’s stories were) by Lori Aratani, it was pointed
out that the court’s principal objection was to materials prepared for
teachers in conjunction with the curriculum that “paint certain Christian
sects, notably Baptists, which are opposed to homosexuality, as
unenlightened and biblically misguided.” By contrast, the reporting in the
Times by Jon Ward emphasized the first objection, which is far broader and
involves the whole curriculum and not just the teacher’s manual.
criticism of some faiths, and the comments in the teachers’ guide about the
correct interpretation of the Bible, were plainly unconstitutional. It is
far less clear, however, that a school cannot constitutionally take a
position on an ideologically charged issue such as whether homosexual
activity is normal (or, to take another example, whether evolution is a
scientifically sound theory). Both newspapers’ stories would have been far
better if the reporters had consulted lawyers or law professors, asking them
to comment on the alternate grounds of the decision, and pointing out the
implications of each.
Post downplayed the story before the restraining order, it made up
for it later witfirstrate articles exploring the
views of parents and students by Paul Duggan on May 19 and
Aratani on June 20. Most students quoted by Aratani were blasé,
insisting that talk of sex was everywhere in their lives.
As in the Day of
Silence/Day of Truth coverage, the teens on both sides often sounded more
reasonable than their adult mentors. One hates to think that we need to turn
to adolescents for calm and clear-headed thinking about sex, but perhaps
it’s a good sign for the future.
post-decision stories took the view that the court’s decision was the
cutting edge of a national movement to reclaim sex education from the
radical left. As one op-ed in the paper put it, at issue was “berserk sexual
For its part, the
Post concentrated on talks designed to produce a mutually acceptable
compromise, culminating in an announcement of a settlement that the material
on various religious traditions would be eliminated. In a June 28 story, the
paper reported that two members of the groups opposed to the revised plan
would be appointed to the sex-education advisory board—a move the paper
praised editorially as reasonable.
Two points are
worth emphasizing about the Montgomery dispute.
First, it matters
greatly whether a court decides that public schools may not constitutionally
teach about contested moral issues without presenting more than one side, or
whether it bases its decision on prohibiting public bodies from taking
explicit positions on disputed theological premises.
The first is
unsustainable as a matter of law. Schools do not need to teach about the
desirability of autocracy if they teach the advantages of democracy.
Needless to say, it will often (but not always) be politic to teach both
sides, and sometimes good education. But there is no constitutional warrant
for requiring it.
spotlighting this (un-tenable) explanation for the restraining order could
the Washington Times make the Montgomery County case into one of national
significance. Indeed, it appears that the plaintiff’s lawyers did not share
this view of the case, because the settlement they signed addressed only the
narrower reading of the judge’s ruling.
Second, given all
the contemporary controversy over sexuality in education, it boggles the
mind that the powers-that-be in Montgomery County never seem to have
imagined that a significant portion of the citizenry in suburban Washington
might object to the sex education curriculum, and that it would be wise to
take the opposition seriously. But plainly they didn’t, as evidenced by
county school officials’ grossly editorial prediction that the challenge
would come to nothing, their failure to notice the obvious and flagrant
constitutional violation in endorsing some religious beliefs over others,
and their evident shock at the adverse court ruling.
To be sure,
readers of the Washington Times would never have guessed that the people who
put the sex-ed curriculum together were not 1960s free-love types, or that
they were responding in good faith to the realities of contemporary
adolescent life. But the Montgomery County dispute is just the latest in a
long series of cases involving religion and the public schools in which
elites failed to take conservative Christians seriously.
So where does the
struggle over homosexuality in the schools stand at this point in time?
Where to turn but the country’s newspaper of record—or perhaps not.
On June 9, 2005,
the New York Times published a 1,350-word article by Michael Janofsky, “Gay
Rights Battlefield Spread To Public Schools,” that begins, “Emboldened by
the political right’s growing influence on public policy, opponents of
school activities aimed at educating students about homosexuality or
promoting acceptance of gay people are mounting challenges to such
The article backed
up this view of the strategic positions of the forces on the battlefield by
quoting James Esseks, director of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project of
the ACLU: “There are a bunch of people who very much want to remove from
public discourse any mention of homosexuality.”
Montgomery County case, Janofsky omitted any reference to the fact that the
teaching materials endorsed some religious views and criticized others, and
that a federal court had invalidated the program for that reason. Nor, in
his report from the battlefield, was there any mention of tactical efforts
on the “gay rights” side, such as at least two widely publicized disputes
over students wearing anti-gay t-shirts to school that have ended up in
There is also a
case in Kentucky in which students opposed to gay rights seek to be excused
from “diversity training” classes (a claim that they will likely lose) and
assert that they have been punished for expressing disagreement with the
school’s point of view. Another involves a diversity day in Ann Arbor,
Michigan, in which a panel designed to discuss religious views on
homosexuality excluded, with the blessing of school officials, religious
spokespersons who believe homosexuality is condemned by the Bible. (As in
Montgomery County, a federal district judge held that favoritism toward
“progressive” faiths unconstitutional.)
All of the above
were the subject of news coverage and reported judicial opinions within six
months of the publication of the Times article. They were surely known to
some of the experts Janofsky quoted.
Times set out not to describe comprehensively school battles over gay rights
but to document an assault by the “political (= religious) right” on
enlightened public opinion. By publishing what amounted to an extended
opinion piece, the Times only added to the suspicion among traditional
Christians that it is biased against them. The real story is more
interesting and complex, with blame enough to go around.