News - March 1996

"Don't take away our teacher away from us"

Gerry Crane is every gay rights advocate's dream come true, but he is living every gay teacher's worst nightmare.

On Monday, December 18, at 7 p.m. in the high school gymnasium, the Byron Center Board of Education met to decide the fate of Crane, 31, the school's music director. Poised and outwardly calm, the soft-spoken Crane sat among his students and waited to learn whether he would be employed the next day.

Though the meeting started with quiet words of prayer, it ended with shouts of anger. Board President Bob Kraiser moved quickly through the agenda to address the one item local and national media, as well as over five hundred anxious spectators, had crammed themselves into narrow bleachers to hear. At 7:15 p.m. the board went into closed session to determine, in Kraiser's words, "The dismissal or disciplinary action against Crane."

For almost two hours the crowd shifted on the hard wooden seats, nervously gathering in small groups, furtively watching the door, and speculating on why it was taking so long. Students of Crane, wearing blue ribbons of support, raised posters high above their heads which read, "Don't Take Our Teacher Away From Us" and "We Love You, Mr. Crane." As time dragged on they began to sing "Lean On Me."

They were joined by many of the over two hundred gays, lesbians, and bisexuals and friends who also came out to wear ribbons and rally around Crane. A handful wore pins that said, "Welcome to Salem." At one point a shouting match occurred between Crane supporters and the smaller, equally vocal Christian group who carried their Bibles and one sign that read, "Please Say No To Homosexuality."

At 9:15 p.m., in the middle of the final stanza of "Amazing Grace," spontaneous applause erupted as the board filed into the room, their postures stiff, their faces unreadable. By 9:17 p.m., Crane's future was announced.

Crane, a graduate of both Cornerstone College and Calvin College, had hoped to be retained in his position with a statement of support from the board. He had the backing of the National Education Association, the Michigan Education Association, the Kent County Education Association and the Byron Center Education Association. He was well respected by many students, parents and fellow teachers in Byron Center, and received overwhelming positive response from the [Grand Rapids Press] editorial page. He had ten years of experience in public and Christian schools, three at Byron Center. He had transformed Byron Center's music program into an award winning object of pride. And most importantly, he had tenure and his classroom performance evaluations were always outstanding.

Opponents of Crane, including the outspoken Richard Gregory, pastor of Byron Center Bible Church and executive director of Grandville-based Independent Fundamental Churches of America, hoped to see him fired immediately. Since early October, he and a handful of fear-driven parents had begun to push to have Crane dismissed as an inappropriate role model because he is gay. They mounted a campaign with letters, phone calls, and fliers filled with the most damaging myths about "the perversion of homosexuality" in an effort to gain support for their 'moral' cause. they even gathered 41 signatures on a petition to remove Crane.

In an exclusive interview, Gerry Crane broke his months of silence and spoke about the events leading to the deciding moment on the floor of the Byron Center High School gymnasium.

It started in July when Crane and Randy Block, his partner of four years, began planning their October ceremony of commitment. Crane contacted a woman he believed was "safe" to play in a string quartet at the event. Though she could not perform, she talked with other acquaintances about the proposed union between the two men. Crane speculates one of these people was a disgruntled ex-student whom he had banned from class earlier this year.

On the first day of school in August, Crane was confronted with a situation few gay teachers ever want to experience. He was summoned to the Assistant Superintendent of Personnel's office to discover that the Superintendent and several other administrators knew he was gay and had heard rumors of his pending ceremony. When Crane asked what they planned to do about it, they said they would do nothing and hoped the situation would blow over.

Now it was up to Crane and Block to decide what to do, continue as planned or wait. "It was an important time in our relationship to make a commitment," Crane explained during our interview at his home one Sunday morning before church. "Why wait?" Block interjected. "If it was going to blow up, it was going to blow up. Why continually live with this over our shoulder?" They decided to proceed and were united by Reverend William Evertsberg of Westminster Presbyterian Church on Saturday, October 21, 1995 at the Frederick Meijer Gardens in Grand Rapids. It was at that time that Crane believes the disgruntled student secured a program of the ceremony and distributed copies to the Board of Education and local ministers. He also called several of Crane's students and made jokes about the service.

By Tuesday, October 24, the school was buzzing with stories of Crane's wedding, and students flooded him with questions. Contrary to reports, at no time did he stand up in class and say that he was gay or substantiate the rumor that he was married to a man. In fact, he answered the students' questions with a question of his own, "Does it matter?"

On Wednesday, Crane was called to Principal William Skilling's office and told to stop making an issue of the situation, to which Crane responded, "I wasn't the one making an issue out of it, but I told him I wouldn't lie anymore either." According to Crane this was the same principal who, when Gerry was applying for a position with Byron Center, called his former Superintendent at Wyoming Public Schools and asked if Gerry was "effeminate," a term referring to his sexual orientation. The Superintendent responded that Gerry was always very professional.

Weeks later, when Crane eventually addressed his classes, which he recorded on tape each time, he never mentioned the words "gay," "homosexual" or "marriage." "What I said was," Gerry clarified, "I know you've heard rumors about me. You have to ask yourself two things: Is it true? and Should it matter? If not, then I have a job to do, and you have a job to do. Let's get to it."

But it did matter to some people. On Thursday, parents began pulling their children out of band and choir classes, and calling the school board to take action against Crane. Many students returned their band uniforms in tears. To date, eighteen students have been removed, though many continue to visit Crane daily and even share lunch with him. When Crane later asked what students were being told when they were reassigned to other classes, Principal Skilling, a member of Byron Center Bible Church, said they weren't being told anything. Crane later learned that a senior counselor at the school, a graduate of Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, was encouraging students to make statements against Crane.

At the end of the week, Crane received a call from Reverend Gregory of Byron Center Bible Church, stating that Crane needed to meet with him and discuss the issue as his primary concern was Crane's well being. Crane declined, saying "his personal life was his business and not a subject for discussion." In early November, Crane was also served with a letter from First Reformed Church Consistory, the representative voice of the Byron Center Ministerial Association, in which he was given a few days to respond or a letter asking for his termination would be sent to the Board of Education. By this time, Crane had retained William Young, an attorney for Michigan Education Association who advised him not to respond to the church's letter. Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund also took on Crane's case. David Buckel of Lambda's New York office, who has trial experience with other teachers' cases, told Crane he saw this as a perfect vehicle to bring such injustice to national attention.

The Board of Education met twice in closed sessions to hear statements from the community, on November 20 and again on December 4. Both times they heard from people demanding Crane's immediate dismissal and from his supporters. Neither time did the Board invite Crane to speak for himself. At the end of the Dec. 4 meeting, the board stated that a decision as to the future of Crane's employment would be made by December 18.

"The MEA advised us to change our phone number," Block explained. "But we haven't received one crank call yet. After this hit the headlines, our answering machine was full of supportive messages from people we didn't even know."

Crane told BTL that at a social event on December 9, several board members approached MEA attorney Young in private and suggested that Crane write a letter requesting audience with the board. Despite his reservations, Crane did request to speak to the board and met with them on December 11. When asked if the board had any questions for Crane, he said, "They wouldn't even make eye contact with me."

A short time later, Crane was asked by the board's attorney Patrick White, "What will it take for you to go quietly?" Crane was offered pay until the end of the year, to which he responded, "You have destroyed my career. I was going to teach until I was 60. I'm now 31, you crunch the numbers." The board countered in writing with an offer to pay him through the following year with benefits. Crane declined.

At the meeting on December 18, Randy Block told me the board had made one more offer of a financial settlement to Crane but he could not disclose the details. Block only said, "Gerry is not going to be bought off. This is too important an issue. He wants to stay."

When I asked Crane what he felt the decision would be, he was leaning towards being fired. "My lawyers don't agree and they can't understand how I can say that. I told them, 'You have to understand the fundamentalist's mind.'" Crane is all too familiar with that mind set, having been raised in a strict Christian home. He has received no support from his family during this ordeal. In fact, his parents would not even enter his house if Block was there, until this December. They stopped by with Block answering the door, and gave Crane his Christmas present, a brass music stand.

At 9:17 p.m., after months of angry debate and two long hours of waiting, a crowded room sat silently as President Kraiser read the Board of Education's five paragraph statement. In essence, it said the board "firmly believes that homosexuality violates the dominant moral standards of the district's community. Individuals who espouse homosexuality do not constitute proper role models as teachers for students in this district... The district continues to investigate and monitor the current circumstances and controversy and will take prompt and appropriate lawful action when justified."

Shouts of "What does that mean?" and "Does he go or do you go?" rose from the frustrated spectators. The board, stony faced and intense, refused to clarify, and after conferring with their attorney, again read the same statement. One woman from the gay community addressed the board and asked them to state their names and the end of their terms in office so they could be voted out in the next election.

Applause broke out. The board did not respond to the question, but President Kraiser informed the agitated throng that the governing body would hear comments concerning the statement in closed session. Numerous people rushed from the stands to put their name on a waiting list.

Bob Hazen, board member of the Lesbian and Gay Community Network of Western Michigan, added his name to the list. "I want to ask them what constitutes the board's definition of acceptable role models in this district," Hazen said. He waited for over an hour in vain as the board refused to answer his questions and would only entertain comments.

In the end, it looked as if Gerry Crane had the worst of all possible worlds. He still had a job, but he was working in the strange limbo of indecision. The board was not supporting him, to the contrary, they had served notice that they would be watching him closely. Crane, tight-jawed but outwardly composed, responded after the decision, "I found the wording of the statement very offensive, but I'm going to continue to do my job."

Others found the statement equally disturbing and a direct attack on the character of all gays and lesbians. The board's statement is also contradictory to the MEA's broadening view on diversity with the inclusion of its own Gay & Lesbian Task Force. Indirectly, the board has served notice on all teachers in the district, over 60% of whom are not tenured. One lesbian teacher, who asked not to be named, says the board's ambiguous statement sends a message that "the witch hunt continues."

Scott Slate, member of AWAre, a support group for gay & lesbian Christians, and close friend of Crane's, was outraged. "This is an injustice to the students," he stated. "They look to these adults for answers, and they get sidestepped. How cruel." Slate is one of many gay men who says he was "almost a statistic" after he attempted to take his life in high school when he realized he was gay. "What about the gay and lesbian students here?" he asked in dismay.

Many of the students have already been harassed in class by other students and teachers for backing Crane. Allegedly, one student was told by Principal Skilling that she was just as much a sinner as Crane because she was supporting him. Another teacher, Thomas Rocker, who instructs Health and Social Science has taken to reading the Bible at the beginning of each class. His wife took it upon herself to distribute a letter expounding on the horrors of homosexual recruitment to the classrooms of the elementary school. Mrs. Rocker was eventually stopped at the middle school but not before the damage was already done.

Directly after the meeting, many stunned supporters met at Westminster Presbyterian Church to pray, watch the 11 o'clock news and debrief. "Where do we go from here?" was the question in everyone's mind.

A teacher's union representative said that they would be watching to make certain Crane is not harassed. The local gay and lesbian organizations in Grand Rapids such as Dignity, PFLAG, the Network and AWAre will also continue to "investigate and monitor the situation" in Byron Center.

"I think it's time to ask some serious questions about what's really going on in the public school system of Byron Center, said Bryan Ribbens, local activist and past president of the Lesbian and Gay Community Network. "It sounds like they have a private school paid for by public funds."

Phil Dunn, President of the Lesbian and Gay Political Action Network, says, "This is the perfect example of why we must continue to seek protection against discrimination on the state level."

As for now, Crane just wants to do what he does best - prepare the leaders of tomorrow. Regardless of whether he does that in Byron Center High School or not, he will always be a teacher. His ordeal has certainly given us a valuable lesson in the price of ignorance and fear. "We all need to take steps to make ourselves known," Crane says. "We can no longer hide because hiding means being ashamed. We have something to protect and be proud of."

Despite what the Byron Center Board of Education says, Gerry Crane is a role model of courage and strength in whom we can all be proud.

This article originally was reprinted in the January issue of "Between The Lines: Michigan's Community News for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals & Friends." It was reprinted with permission.
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