Despite an angry backlash from parents and school officials, gay and lesbian activists said Thursday they would continue protests on behalf of two Burbank teachers who contend they were hounded into resigning because they are openly homosexual.
The teachers roused parents and administrators Tuesday by donning T-shirts bearing the words "Queer Teacher" and leading a demonstration by about 25 fellow gay and lesbian activists outside John Muir Middle School. They are still teachers there until the resignations take effect next week.
Chuck Stewart, one of the two, said many of the school's 1,200 students "responded very positively and sympathetically" to the hourlong demonstration before the start of classes. He added, however, that some parents reacted with "extreme, even vicious anger."
Stewart said a woman screamed at the group, "What the Nazis didn't finish, AIDS will." He commented: "I live in this town and I didn't think this was such a conservative, intolerant community."
"I'm surprised that they were surprised about this community," retorted school board President William Abbey, who called the protest "totally inappropriate" because it "takes what is a personnel matter to the streets in front of young students."
School officials, who deny that the two teachers were discriminated against because they are gay, said they have been swamped with calls from angry parents disturbed at the protesters' public defense of homosexuality. Richard Gray, a leader of Queer Nation, the gay and lesbian activist group that organized the protest, said the group had received about 15 "really nasty" telephone calls from parents, some of them threatening.
Stewart reported Thursday that three students had been transferred out of his eighth-grade physical science class by their parents since the Tuesday morning protest.
Nonetheless, both Stewart, 40, and Dale Landefeld, 51, of Studio City said they plan to meet this weekend with other members of Queer Nation to plan further action, probably aimed at the school board.
Stewart said that both see little likelihood that further protests will result in their rehiring, "but the injustice is so great, we just don't feel we can go quietly into the night."
Both men said that since they decided last fall to be open about their homosexuality, they have been questioned repeatedly by school administrators about their sexual orientation and how they handled the subject in their classrooms.
Stewart said he does not volunteer information to students about his sexual orientation but "never evades these questions, always trying to answer them simply and matter of factly."
He said students pepper him with a "wide variety of questions about my lifestyle, including about my dates with a guy named Frank and whether we have oral sex and so on."
Landefeld, who is nearing the end of a two-year probationary period as an industrial arts teacher, said his performance evaluations in the first year were "very complimentary, very positive."
"But after I outed," he said--using a popular gay term for proclaiming one's homosexuality--"they immediately became extremely negative."
Stewart, who arrived at John Muir last September and persuaded Landefeld to join him in being openly homosexual, said his evaluations have been "devastatingly bad."
Stewart said he is "a very popular teacher" and is convinced that the critical evaluations result from his refusal to "make apologies or hide" his homosexual orientation.
With bad evaluations accumulating, both men said they resigned last month--effective at the end of the school year Wednesday--to head off a near-certain vote by the school board against rehiring them.
Sid Jurman, a Burbank Teachers Assn. official, said he suggested to the two that they consider resigning "so it would not be on the public record that the board voted against rehiring them."
Jurman said such resignations are a common tactic employed by probationary teachers who receive negative recommendations. Teachers rehired after two years probation receive tenure, enabling them to challenge any attempts to fire them, but there is no established procedure for probationary teachers to challenge a decision against their rehiring, Jurman said.
Stewart and Landefeld said their chief antagonist has been Assistant Principal Ron Lipari, who wrote most of their evaluations. Stewart said that at a meeting in January, he was told by Lipari that he was a fundamentalist Christian who was "opposed to homosexuality and felt that people like me must be stopped."
Lipari did not return a reporter's telephone calls.
John Muir Principal William Kuzma and Supt. Arthur Pierce refused to discuss the two teachers' cases, citing state legal guarantees of employee privacy.
But school board President Abbey said that based on conversations he has had with Pierce, "I'm convinced that the decision not to rehire the two was based solely on classroom performance, and that the claim of discrimination is a red herring."
He said that sexual orientation is "not a consideration in hiring and not a consideration in firing" at Burbank, although he said the district has no written policy on the subject.
Discrimination against gay and lesbian teachers "has never been a problem" in the Los Angeles Unified School District, said Catherine Carey, spokeswoman for United Teachers of Los Angeles, which represents 36,000 teachers and support personnel working for the district.
She said the union openly sponsors a caucus of gay and lesbian teachers and supports the district's long-established program of special counseling for homosexual students.
"We have problems with the district on hundreds of issues," she said, "but discrimination based on sexual orientation is one that has never come up."