A spate of suicides by gay teenagers has produced what looks like a united front against anti-gay bullying. But at least one conservative leader sees a sinister homosexual agenda in efforts to combat such bullying by acknowledging and affirming gay students.
As The Times recently observed, harassment of gay and lesbian students is part of a larger problem, and therefore, schools should pursue comprehensive anti-bullying efforts. That doesn’t mean teachers and administrators shouldn’t recognize anti-gay bullying as a distinct issue rooted not only in adolescent cruelty but in cultural condemnations of homosexuality. When they do so, however, they are accused by some conservatives of taking sides in a culture war.
An extreme example was a recent article by Tony Perkins president of the Family Research Council. Perkins accused the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network and similar organizations of exploiting the suicides of gay teenagers “to push their agenda of demanding not only tolerance of homosexual individuals but active affirmation of homosexual conduct and their efforts to redefine the family.” For good measure, he said, “the homosexual movement, and their allies in the media and the educational establishment,” may be creating despair that can lead to suicide by telling homosexuals that they are “‘born gay’ and can never change.”
Perkins’ characterization of GLSEN is unfair to the point of absurdity. But it is true that many of those who decry the bullying of gay and lesbian students also believe that schools should accept and affirm their identity, and treat homophobia with the same opprobrium with which they view racism. These advocates also believe, rightly, that schools shouldn’t endorse the theory that gays and lesbians can be converted to heterosexuality, a notion dismissed by psychiatrists and psychologists.
In time, the idea that schools shouldn’t take sides when it comes to the dignity of gays and lesbians will seem as quaint as the idea that teaching children about racial equality is furthering an “integrationist agenda.” Meanwhile, schools should treat gay and lesbian students and families with respect and welcome efforts by students to oppose anti-gay bullying, such as the Gay-Straight Alliance groups that have been formed at thousands of U.S. schools. Preventing the harassment of gay students will require careful attention to the law (which gives students who want to criticize homosexuality the right to express their opinion in a nondisruptive way). But schools should recognize that protecting gay students involves more than protecting them from bullying.