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Classroom warfare: public schools have become the battleground of choice for antigay conservatives.

They really didn't expect such a fierce and prolonged battle. A year ago, in March, school officials in Montgomery County, Md.--a liberal-leaning suburban area near Washington, D.C.--thought they were simply protecting all kids from harassment when the school board added two little words to its antiharassment policy: sexual orientation. Of course, there was some opposition. Parents split into rival camps. School board members were threatened with political retaliation. But like most firestorms, this one had a flash and then was reduced to embers.

Then, last fall, the embers flared again when students at a Montgomery County high school produced a public affairs program on same-sex marriage. Administrators canceled the show. And in January, when students in two county high schools

"This is going on all across the county," says Deanna Duby, director of education policy for People for the American Way, a pro-gay public policy organization in Washington, D.C. "There are a lot of right-wing groups that monitor what goes on in the schools, that send materials to their followers...and basically the hot issue for them is the gay stuff."

In Montgomery County the debate started in September 1995 when a survey on high schoolers' experience with prejudice revealed that 53% of students believed gays and lesbians suffer more than any other,student group from discrimination at school. School officials reacted by adding sexual-orientation wording to the school district's policies prohibiting harassment.

"The environment really hasn't changed that much. People are still getting harassed about their sexual orientation," says one sophomore at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., who de scribes herself as bisexual. One of her lesbian classmates recently found a photograph of herself, scrawled with the word DYKE and marked by a cross of staples, hanging outside a classroom. "That's the kind of thing that's happening every day in Montgomery County public schools," the student adds, "and nobody's doing anything about it."

Across town at Springbrook High School, Susan Ott says she has also witnessed antigay attitudes on campus, although she hasn't been the target of harassment herself. Ott, an 18-year-old senior who is openly lesbian, praises the school board for taking a "step in the right direction" but says it isn't enough. "They need to take a more active role in helping gay students," Ott says. "Acknowledging my existence is nice, and I appreciate that, but acknowledgment isn't active help."

Both girls are two of more than 120,000 students in Montgomery County's public school system. These students come from middle-class and higher-income families, mostly white, many headed by moms and dads who have jobs tied to politics and government. County politics drift to the liberal side of the scale. Voters here went big for President Clinton in both 1992 and 1996. Constance Morella, who represents Montgomery County in Congress, ranks among the most liberal Republicans in the House.

But even among the limousine liberals, there's still something unsettling when it comes to homosexuality. "People think that this is something that's really on the edge and shouldn't really be talked about," Duby says. "It's up to those of us who believe in academic freedom and that these are issues that should be talked about to see to it that the truth gets out there. No one is promoting homosexuality."

Try telling that to people like Michael Calsetta, one of the leaders in the fight to persuade the Montgomery County school board not to add any reference to sexual orientation to its antiharassment policies. "I do not want the public school system telling my children that it is OK to be gay," says Calsetta, a father of four who believes that homosexuality leads to unhealthy and destructive behavior and ultimately could lead to death because of AIDS. "The moment you make the school system a battleground, of course I'm going to stand up and say, `Oh, no,' not just for my children but for any children that would come under your influence."

The national movement to keep gay issues out of the classroom is well-established. The Christian Coalition, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, and the Eagle Forum. are among the organizations that have appealed to their members on the subject. They've been joined by fundamentalist and evangelical churches in communities where the issue gets raised. In. Montgomery County, for example, one school board meeting at which the antiharassment policy was discussed was punctuated by a Spanish hymn sung in protest by Latino Christians.

Last year the right wing opened a new front in the war. Conservatives in Colorado pushed for an amendment to the state constitution to give parents the right "to direct and control the upbringing, education, values, and discipline of their children." Gay rights backers said the proposal would have the effect of silencing any discussion of gay issues in the classroom. Voters defeated the referendum in November, but its supporters vowed to bring a revised version back to Colorado as well as to push for it in other states and in Congress.

Among gays and lesbians, attention to school issues has been a long time coming, says Kevin Jennings, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network, which has grown just in the past two years into a national organization with 54 chapters and more than 5,000 members, two thirds of whom are gay or lesbian. While many gay men and lesbians might prefer to forget about what it's like to be gay in high school, Jennings says, they can't afford to abandon gay teens, who in many cases have already been abandoned by their biological families: "If anybody's going to fight for those kids, it's got to be us. We've got to act like gay kids are our children, because they really are."

And in fact, the growing number of openly gay and lesbian parents have a special stake in seeing gay issues addressed:, in the public schools. "Kids form their values when they're in elementary and if you wait until they're older, becomes--if it's done at all--unlearning bigotry, unlearning prejudice," Chasnoff, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker whose most recent documentary titled It's Elementary. Talking About Gay Issues in School.

In Montgomery County, students and groups that work with young gays and lesbians say they are prepared to use legal action if necessary to force their positions "We will do whatever it takes to in that schools and school districts change," says Craig Bowman, executive dire the Sexual Minority Youth Assistance League, a 13-year-old organization that operates in the metropolitan Washington D.C., area. But Bowman says the group would rather educate school officials about gay issues than drag them to court.

Religious and social conservatives use similar "whatever it takes" language when talking about the future. But for them, that: means Election Day, 1998. Joseph E. Simon, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Montgomery County, told the school... board last year that its decision to include sexual orientation in its antiharassment policy would haunt its members. "As a result of your decision, our base of coalition volunteers has increased tremendously and is growing each day," Simon said, noting that by the time the board acted, it was too late to get Christian Coalition-backed school board candidates on the November 1996 ballot. "We are now looking forward to 1998 and will share with parents, teachers, and the public the knowledge and the truth concerning homosexuality."
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Article Details
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Author:Moss, J. Jennings
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Date:Mar 4, 1997
Previous Article:Silent but deadly.
Next Article:Dr. Love and the politics of disease.

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