Saturday, February 4, 2012

One town's war on gay teens

Adolescence can be hard enough as it is. What if you're gay? What if you're gay in an environment of widespread homophobia and bullying, where adults can't - or won't - defend you?

From Rolling Stone, here's a tragic case of a Minnesota school district where anti-gay fanatics have created a climate of fear, leading to a rash of suicides by kids.
Located a half-hour north of Minneapolis, the 13 sprawling towns that make up the Anoka-Hennepin school district – Minnesota's largest, with 39,000 kids – seems an unlikely place for such a battle. ...

For years, the area has also bred a deep strain of religious conservatism. At churches like First Baptist Church of Anoka, parishioners believe that homosexuality is a form of mental illness caused by family dysfunction, childhood trauma and exposure to pornography – a perversion curable through intensive therapy. It's a point of view shared by their congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who has called homosexuality a form of "sexual dysfunction" that amounts to "personal enslavement." In 1993, Bachmann, a proponent of school prayer and creationism, co-founded the New Heights charter school in the town of Stillwater, only to flee the board amid an outcry that the school was promoting a religious curriculum. Bachmann also is affiliated with the ultraright Minnesota Family Council, headlining a fundraiser for them last spring alongside Newt Gingrich.

Though Bachmann doesn't live within Anoka-Hennepin's boundaries anymore, she has a dowdier doppelgänger there in the form of anti-gay crusader Barb Anderson. A bespectacled grandmother with lemony-blond hair she curls in severely toward her face, Anderson is a former district Spanish teacher and a longtime researcher for the MFC who's been fighting gay influence in local schools for two decades, ever since she discovered that her nephew's health class was teaching homosexuality as normal. "That really got me on a journey," she said in a radio interview. When the Anoka-Hennepin district's sex-ed curriculum came up for re-evaluation in 1994, Anderson and four like-minded parents managed to get on the review committee. They argued that any form of gay tolerance in school is actually an insidious means of promoting homosexuality – that openly discussing the matter would encourage kids to try it, turning straight kids gay. ...

At the close of the seven-month-long sex-ed review, Anderson and her colleagues wrote a memo to the Anoka-Hennepin school board, concluding, "The majority of parents do not wish to have there [sic] children taught that the gay lifestyle is a normal acceptable alternative." Surprisingly, the six-member board voted to adopt the measure by a four-to-two majority, even borrowing the memo's language to fashion the resulting districtwide policy, which pronounced that within the health curriculum, "homosexuality not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle."

The policy became unofficially known as "No Homo Promo" and passed unannounced to parents and unpublished in the policy handbooks; most teachers were told about it by their principals. Teachers say it had a chilling effect and they became concerned about mentioning gays in any context. Discussion of homosexuality gradually disappeared from classes. "If you can't talk about it in any context, which is how teachers interpret district policies, kids internalize that to mean that being gay must be so shameful and wrong," says Anoka High School teacher Mary Jo Merrick-Lockett. "And that has created a climate of fear and repression and harassment."

Yeah, openly talking about homosexuality will turn straight kids gay! Think about how crazy that is. Try it, you'll like it, huh? Where do they come up with such idiocy?

Unfortunately, not only did anti-gay bullying become common, but gay teens had no one to turn to. Even teachers who were sympathetic feared to say anything, and complaints got nowhere. Some teachers apparently joined in the bullying, themselves.

And the result has been an epidemic of teen suicides.
LGBT students were stunned to be told for the first time about the existence of the neutrality policy that had been responsible for their teachers' behavior. But no one was more outraged to hear of it than Tammy Aaberg. Six weeks after her son's death, Aaberg became the first to publicly confront the Anoka-Hennepin school board about the link between the policy, anti-gay bullying and suicide. She demanded the policy be revoked. "What about my parental rights to have my gay son go to school and learn without being bullied?" Aaberg asked, weeping, as the board stared back impassively from behind a raised dais.

Anti-gay backlash was instant. Minnesota Family Council president Tom Prichard blogged that Justin's suicide could only be blamed upon one thing: his gayness. "Youth who embrace homosexuality are at greater risk [of suicide], because they've embraced an unhealthy sexual identity and lifestyle," Prichard wrote. Anoka-Hennepin conservatives formally organized into the Parents Action League, declaring opposition to the "radical homosexual" agenda in schools. Its stated goals, advertised on its website, included promoting Day of Truth, providing resources for students "seeking to leave the homosexual lifestyle," supporting the neutrality policy and targeting "pro-gay activist teachers who fail to abide by district policies."

Asked on a radio program whether the anti-gay agenda of her ilk bore any responsibility for the bullying and suicides, Barb Anderson, co-author of the original "No Homo Promo," held fast to her principles, blaming pro-gay groups for the tragedies. She explained that such "child corruption" agencies allow "quote-unquote gay kids" to wrongly feel legitimized. "And then these kids are locked into a lifestyle with their choices limited, and many times this can be disastrous to them as they get into the behavior which leads to disease and death," Anderson said. She added that if LGBT kids weren't encouraged to come out of the closet in the first place, they wouldn't be in a position to be bullied.

See, if gay kids just stayed in the closet and pretended to be "normal," they wouldn't have to worry about being bullied. In fact, maybe they should join in the bullying themselves - just for cover, you know? Of course, most of these kids were in the closet, and some weren't even gay. They were just targeted for being different.

And that "Day of Truth"? That's where the homophobes actually encourage bullying in the schools. Straight kids are supposed to wear anti-gay t-shirts to school and preach the "sin of homosexuality."

Look, crazy right-wing opinions are one thing. They have a right to believe whatever they want, no matter how loony I think it is. But when we can't even protect our kids, something is seriously, seriously wrong.

This is an absolutely shocking article. Right-wing fanatics working with a compliant school board have created a climate of hate, leading to children killing themselves. I don't care about your loony religious beliefs. Nothing should be more important than making sure all kids can go to school without facing constant harassment.

1 comment:

WCG said...

I just removed an anonymous comment listing Barb Anderson's home address. That's not appropriate, no matter how you feel about this situation. (I do understand the impulse.)

However, if you want to send letters, here's an address which is perfectly appropriate:

Anoka-Hennepin School District
11299 Hanson Blvd. N.W.
Coon Rapids, Minnesota 55433

phone: 763-506-1000

I got that from their website, where there's also a form for email contact.

Contacting Barb Anderson at her home, even by letter, is just harassment. It certainly won't change her mind, and it might even be counterproductive (certainly if any threats are made).

Contacting the school board, though, is not just appropriate, it's every citizen's duty. They'll care a lot more if you actually live in that district, but they're not going to like all the attention, in any case.

But please keep in mind that the person who answers the phone and opens the letters is not likely to be the person who makes any of the decisions around there. Please be polite!