Rolling Stone has an excellent article on One Town’s War on Gay Teens, featuring Minnesota’s own Anoka school district, where Michele Bachmann and the Minnesota Patriarchy Council hold sway. I recommend it highly, but I also warn you: it’s a hard read, since it personalizes the kids who killed themselves after incessant taunting and bullying. I choked up a few times myself.
I’m going to leave out any discussion of the kids, because I hate crying on my keyboard — go read it yourself, if you think you can take it — and want to focus on one issue. The Anoka school district claims that it has no responsibility at all in these deaths, and instead blames gay activists for driving these kids to suicide; how, I don’t know. It’s probably a variant of the same accusation atheists face, that it’s their own fault for being themselves and provoking critics by openly existing. They also occasionally mention that right-wingers are responsible, but that rings hollow, since at every step the district has been dancing to the fundamentalist Christians’ tune.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the National Center for Lesbian Rights have filed a lawsuit on behalf of five students, alleging the school district’s policies on gays are not only discriminatory, but also foster an environment of unchecked anti-gay bullying. The Department of Justice has begun a civil rights investigation as well. The Anoka-Hennepin school district declined to comment on any specific incidences but denies any discrimination, maintaining that its broad anti-bullying policy is meant to protect all students. “We are not a homophobic district, and to be vilified for this is very frustrating,” says superintendent Dennis Carlson, who blames right-wingers and gay activists for choosing the area as a battleground, describing the district as the victim in this fracas. “People are using kids as pawns in this political debate,” he says. “I find that abhorrent.”
Read further into the article, and there are all these little revelations that show that the district has been pandering thoughtlessly to the Religious Right all along; they are so thoroughly steeped in the cult of Christian conservatism that they are unconscious of the problem.
It had been a hard day: the annual “Day of Truth” had been held at school, an evangelical event then-sponsored by the anti-gay ministry Exodus International, whose mission is to usher gays back to wholeness and “victory in Christ” by converting them to heterosexuality. Day of Truth has been a font of controversy that has bounced in and out of the courts; its legality was affirmed last March, when a federal appeals court ruled that two Naperville, Illinois, high school students’ Day of Truth T-shirts reading BE HAPPY, NOT GAY were protected by their First Amendment rights. (However, the event, now sponsored by Focus on the Family, has been renamed “Day of Dialogue.”) Local churches had been touting the program, and students had obediently shown up at Anoka High School wearing day of truth T-shirts, preaching in the halls about the sin of homosexuality.
Every goddamn school district in this state gets these lying whores for Jesus showing up to do “assemblies”. Here in Morris we’ve had the “You can run, but you can’t hide” ministries show up, or other variants. They’ve usually got some ridiculous “cool teen” schtick — they’re body-builders or wrestlers or rappers — and they bill themselves as presenting a positive, anti-drug message, something that they can superficially pretend is secular, and then they turn on the prayer and Jesus babble, and it’s transparent as hell — these are simply evangelical Christians in crappy camouflage, and the schools just let them sail on in and preach to the students.
It seems to happen at some school around here every year. It’s repulsive. I often don’t hear about it until after the fact, because here’s another giveaway: they don’t advertise publicly, they advertise in the churches.
So the Anoka school district wants to claim that the anti-gay bullying is not their fault, but they annually have a “Day of Truth” led by Exodus International or now, Focus on the Family (as if that’s an improvement)? The district turns the hyenas loose in the hallways, but denies responsibility if someone gets chewed up.
It’s not just the students. The schools have gay teachers and staff, who are silenced, and the straight teachers lead the way in gagging any protest.
“There has been widespread confusion,” says Anoka-Hennepin teachers’ union president Julie Blaha. “You ask five people how to interpret the policy and you get five different answers.” Silenced by fear, gay teachers became more vigilant than ever to avoid mention of their personal lives, and in closeting themselves, they inadvertently ensured that many students had no real-life gay role models. “I was told by teachers, ‘You have to be careful, it’s really not safe for you to come out,’” says the psychologist Cashen, who is a lesbian. “I felt like I couldn’t have a picture of my family on my desk.” When teacher Jefferson Fietek was outed in the community paper, which referred to him as an “open homosexual,” he didn’t feel he could address the situation with his students even as they passed the newspaper around, tittering. When one finally asked, “Are you gay?” he panicked. “I was terrified to answer that question,” Fietek says. “I thought, ‘If I violate the policy, what’s going to happen to me?’”
The silence of adults was deafening. At Blaine High School, says alum Justin Anderson, “I would hear people calling people ‘fags’ all the time without it being addressed. Teachers just didn’t respond.” In Andover High School, when 10th-grader Sam Pinilla was pushed to the ground by three kids calling him a “faggot,” he saw a teacher nearby who did nothing to stop the assault. At Anoka High School, a 10th-grade girl became so upset at being mocked as a “lesbo” and a “sinner” – in earshot of teachers – that she complained to an associate principal, who counseled her to “lay low”; the girl would later attempt suicide. At Anoka Middle School for the Arts, after Kyle Rooker was urinated upon from above in a boys’ bathroom stall, an associate principal told him, “It was probably water.” Jackson Middle School seventh-grader Dylon Frei was passed notes saying, “Get out of this town, fag”; when a teacher intercepted one such note, she simply threw it away.
The district is aware that there is a problem — dead kids are very bad PR — and has been waffling ineffectually about doing something or other. Pointless meetings are always the preferred solution for a bureaucracy.
Just to be on the safe side, however, the district held PowerPoint presentations in a handful of schools to train teachers how to defend gay students from harassment while also remaining neutral on homosexuality. One slide instructed teachers that if they hear gay slurs – say, the word “fag” – the best response is a tepid “That language is unacceptable in this school.” (“If a more authoritative response is needed,” the slide added, the teacher could continue with the stilted, almost apologetic explanation, “In this school we are required to welcome all people and to make them feel safe.”) But teachers were, of course, reminded to never show “personal support for GLBT people” in the classroom.
Never show personal support for GLBT kids. That’s the killer right there.
I have some suggestions for the Anoka school district that would be helpful. First, repudiate the Minnesota Family Council and Focus on the Family. These are hate groups that have no business advising the school administration; they should be recognized immediately as symptomatic of the bigotry problem they have. Second, adopt a strictly secular policy on all official school events. No more preachers, no more evangelical assemblies, no more church sponsorship of days or picnics or t-shirts or whatever the hell trick they try to pull. God is the poison here, get it out. That’s not to say that Christians must be oppressed, but that we need to learn that Christianity is a personal, private preference that does not instill a moral message. Third, crack down hard on the students: seeing a few bullying jocks getting kicked off the football team for cracking jokes about faggots would send a strong signal right there.
That’s a school district that definitely needs more atheists. Maybe the SSA needs to seed the place with a little rational thought.