NEW YORK -- Penny Culliton, a New Hampshire high school English teacher who was fired for teaching two books by lesbian/gay authors, received the GLSTN/Northeast Pathfinder Award at the Sixth Annual GLSTN/Northeastern Regional Conference on April 27 at Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Teachers Network (GLSTN) gives its Pathfinder Award to individuals who "have created new paths for others to follow in the fight against homophobia in schools." Culliton is the first heterosexual person to receive the award.
A New Hampshire native, the thirty-four-old Culliton first became embroiled in controversy in the spring of 1995, when research she had done for a "Respect for All Youth" grant led her to conclude that Mascenic High School's curriculum needed to be revised to include lesbian/gay themed literature.
"I saw the tremendous pain lesbian/gay youth were in, and the ignorance which led so any heterosexual kids to be afraid of their own friends and family who were lesbian or gay," Culliton said, "and I knew we needed to make sure that our curriculum provided an opportunity for students to learn more about these issues."
Culliton added two books, Maurice by E.M. Forster and The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton, to her curriculum, and was promptly brought up on charges of "insubordination" by her school board. Dismissed in September 1995, Culliton pursued arbitration, and the board was ordered in April 1996 to reinstate her in the 1996-97 school year.
GLSTN Executive Director Kevin Jennings, a former history teacher, noted that giving the Northeastern award to Culliton had a special historic resonance. "Maybe it's something in the water in New England, " Jennings said, "that produces people like Penny Culliton. She follows in that great New England tradition of folks Anne Hutchison and Henry David Thoreau, whose consciences told them to risk everything to stand up for what they knew was right and to not be intimidated by the powers that be."
Patty Smith, the Northeastern Conference coordinator, concurred. "Throughout the Northeast and even around the country, people have been watching Penny," Smith said, "and her refusal to be intimidated has inspired all of us to redouble our efforts to see 'respect for all youth' become a reality in our schools." Jennings added, "I think some people thought we were crazy when we added 'straight' to the organization's name two years ago, and I still see many people stumble over it when they read it aloud. Jennings concluded, "Penny Culliton proves you don't have to be gay to 'get it' when it comes to lesbian/gay issues. There's a more appropriate word than 'straight' for her, and that word is 'hero'."
When informed of the award, Culliton expressed delight but also concern. "My fight is far from over," she said, referring to the fact that the school board is appealing the arbitrator's decision to the New Hampshire Supreme Judicial Court and/or possibly to Federal Court. "But winning an award like this helps keep me going, as has GLSTN's tremendous support over the past very difficult year."
Culliton noted the outpouring of support she has received from people, both gay and straight, in New Hampshire and beyond, as critical. "I never knew how many folks there were out there who agreed with me on these issues," she said. "I hope the organizing that my case helped prompt will continue and lead to lasting changes in our schools." She concluded, "As someone who grew up in a rural area, I think this work is especially important in places like New Hampshire."