Straightness 101

Christian Conservatives Take Their Antigay Campaign to the Schools

Warning signs of "pre-homosexuality" included having a sensitive temperament, being aesthetically inclined, and responding strongly to either well- or badly dressed women.

Illustration by Limbert Fabian

A recent lawsuit might be considered the legal equivalent of those outraged sounds. In Saxe v. State College, David Saxe, a professor in Pennsylvania, successfully argued that the anti-harassment policy in his local school district infringed on the right of Christian students to express their belief that homosexuality is a sin. The February decision, in which the Third Circuit Court of Appeals found the policy to be overly broad, was "a ray of light on a dark issue," according to Dick Carpenter, Focus on the Family's education-policy analyst. The school district is now reexamining its policy, which originally prohibited harassment based on hobbies, values, and clothes, as well as on sexual orientation.

Questions of wording aside, gay and educational groups continue to insist on the need to protect kids against taunting and violence. One 1998 survey done in Massachusetts showed gay teens to be 3.4 times as likely as their peers to have skipped school because they felt unsafe, 5.5 times as likely to have been threatened or injured with a weapon, and 2.9 times more likely to have been in a physical fight in school. In a 1995 study, 34 percent of 194 lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens surveyed reported having an object thrown at them because of their sexual orientation.

According to GLSEN's Cullen, this "white noise" of continuous affronts is a distraction that makes it difficult for students to learn—and at worst, threatens their lives. While Focus on the Family contends gay advocates have inflated the teen suicide rate for political purposes, there is little question that it is higher in gay than in straight teens.

In fact, gay teens who have attempted suicide often link their misery to harassment. Timothy Dahle, a gay 18-year-old who slit his wrists in Crawford County, Pennsylvania, is even suing his school district for not protecting him from his classmates' abuse. The suit alleges he was teased about his sexual orientation from the time his peers first realized he was gay in sixth grade. According to a deposition by his mother, Dahle was so terrified of school that when she tried to wake him up in the mornings, "He would start throwing up, literally shaking, almost like a panic attack." The school district denies the claims.

The various efforts to avert such situations have, not surprisingly, been contested as promoting homosexuality. Until recently, the loudest such conflict has been over gay-straight student alliances, extracurricular groups in which students talk about issues of sexual orientation. With more than 800 GSAs now in existence and five recent suits all resolved in the student groups' favor, Christian conservatives have shifted their legal focus from after-school activities to in-school education. According to David Buckel, a senior staff attorney for the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, what can be taught about homosexuality is increasingly at issue. Lambda is now representing two Michigan teachers who were asked to take down a gay pride display they made as part of a diversity education project.

School-based education about sexuality has also become a target outside of court. Earlier this year, Focus on the Family took on the National Education Association, which is producing a nine-part video series called "Safe Schools." "They're pissed at us because the seventh episode dared to say that gay and lesbian students should be treated like normal human beings," explains NEA spokesperson Darryl Figueroa, who says the teachers' organization is still receiving angry e-mails, letters, and calls about the video from Focus on the Family members.

Such grassroots activism is Focus on the Family's forte. The group, which is nonprofit, also publishes a how-to book telling members how to get their message out. In "Teaching Captivity? How the Pro-Gay Agenda Is Affecting Our Schools," children are advised to ask questions like "It's documented that thousands of people have come out of homosexuality—why do some people say it's not possible?" The book supplies outraged form letters as well as practical advice on tracking down offensive material in textbooks, AIDS and sex education curriculums, and school libraries. (The group also wisely counsels parents against quoting scripture or using clichés like "God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" in school board meetings.)

To people like Jane Boyer, who preached to conference-goers about her decade-long struggle with lesbianism, such efforts are all about preventing sin and moral destruction. To her opponents, however, it is the antigay youth movement that is the source of pain and devastation. Lambda's Buckel, who is now trying a case involving multiple attacks on a gay student in Nevada, expects that an increase in antigay violence will accompany this wave of activism.

Others focus on the damage to young psyches. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently criticized therapy meant to convert gay kids as provoking "guilt and anxiety while having little or no potential for changing orientation." And a coalition of professional groups, including the American Federation of Teachers, the American School Health Association, and the National Association of School Psychologists, has directly responded to events like "Love Won Out" with a report urging schools to keep out "ex-gay" messages.

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