Brush fires fanned by homophobia fears are blazing in school-board meetings across the country.
In Merrimack, N.H., a recent school-board resolution bans any neutral discussion of homosexuality in schools -- including suicide-prevention counseling for gay and lesbian students. In St. Paul, Minn., Catholic and conservative groups have joined forces to call for an end to a highly lauded school program for gay students that has encouraged safe sex, cut the dropout rate and even saved lives. And in Des Moines, Iowa, in September Jonathan Wilson -- who had served four terms with distinction on the school board -- was defeated for re-election. What caused the voters to turn him out? Several months earlier, he came out of the closet and announced that he is gay.
What a message we are sending to our students.
The question no longer is, Do gays and lesbians exist in our schools? They do. Like it or not, they are part of the real world. Homosexuals are teachers, administrators, librarians, nurses, para-professionals, coaches, counselors, custodians, secretaries, and anywhere between 5 percent and 10 percent of the students. Debate should focus on what we can do to make our schools comfortable, positive environments for everyone.
If gay and lesbian issues are not addressed -- if our libraries do not hold books and videos on the subject, if we do not invite speakers to talk about their lives, if we do not say the words during classroom discussions, if we deny youngsters access to information that can make them feel less isolated and petrified -- we send a not-to-subtle message to every child, gay or straight: Gay life is not worthy of discussion. It's OK to make jokes. Gay people are not real human beings.
We do that with no other minority group. In part that is because every other group is visible, or at least acknowledged. Not so with gay, lesbian, bisexual -- and questioning -- youth. They are invisible. In a 30-year career, an educator may teach more than 3,000 students. Statistically, a least 300 are gay -- yet most teachers never know even one.
So students cower in the closet. Desperate to hide their secret, they react in various ways. Some underachieve, spending every waking minute hiding their "horrible secret." Others over-achieve, masking their pain behind honors classes, clubs, sports and jobs. Some students retreat behind the haze of drugs or alcohol; others turn to promiscuous sex. Many try to kill themselves. Too often, they succeed. Unlike other minorities, gay and lesbian youngsters do not seek sympathy at home. Most cannot share their overpowering fear with their families.
For them, school should be a haven. No educator says, "We want our building to be a safe, secure place for 90 percent of our students." Yet every day gay, lesbian, bisexual and questioning youngsters sit in classrooms where teachers ignore homophobic comments or friends snicker about "fags." They have no idea that they share a history, culture and world of their own, because gay and lesbian issues are not discussed anywhere in school.
Should such issues be raised? Of course. The function of education is to open students' eyes, minds and hearts to the world around them. The purpose of school is to help young people look at life, then process, analyze and synthesize new information. They don't necessarily have to agree with everything they read or hear, but they must try to understand it.
Like it or not, homosexuality exists; it surrounds us every day. Today's students are tomorrow's world citizens, living with gay and lesbian colleagues, bosses, neighbors --perhaps even gay or lesbian children. What better place to begin learning about that world than in school?
The answer is clear. Gay and lesbian issues not only belong in our schools; they must be there. They must be there for the many gay and questioning youths who need to know they are not alone. They must be there for all the straight students, too, who need to know that the world is a diverse, complex and exciting place.
And maybe, just maybe, if Merrimack, St. Paul, Des Moines and other school districts address gay and lesbian issues today, maybe tomorrow they will become non-issues.