The Truth About Gay and Lesbian Issues in the Public Schools

The Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee has announced its intention to hold a hearing on Parental Involvement in Social Issues in Education and a number of allegations have already surfaced in anticipation of these hearings. Some are general -- that our public schools are filled with teachers and counselors who are "recruiting" for the homosexual movement -- and others are more specific, dealing with particular programs in use in the schools. It is vital that anyone seeking the truth --- Members of Congress, the media, the public, and particularly parents of schoolchildren --- go to the appropriate place for the truth: the curricular materials, the teachers and the counselors themselves. Only in that way can they determine exactly what is being taught and what programs are in place.

In recent years, a number of public school districts have instituted programs that include discussion of homosexuality. Local communities have chosen to incorporate these programs because they meet the needs of students. School board members, administrators, counselors and teachers have responded because gay, lesbian and bisexual students are under attack, and young people are being lost. They suffer from isolation and fear. They are harassed, verbally and physically, by their peers. They are beaten and raped. They have higher rates of drug and alcohol abuse. They drop out of school at higher rates. And, most critically, government reports document that approximately 30 percent of teen suicides occur among teens who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, or who are struggling with sexual orientation issues. American educators have identified the need and have worked with health care professionals, parents and others concerned about this problem to develop programs to help gay, lesbian and bisexual (g/l/b) students and to ensure a safe and supportive educational environment where all students can develop their potential. The goals of these programs are several: to fight violence, discrimination and harassment against students who are gay or are perceived to be gay; to fight prejudice; to provide comprehensive sexuality education and AIDS education (often mandated by state law); to provide support to students who may be struggling with sexual orientation issues; and to provide accurate and complete information to students.

This backgrounder examines, in brief, some of the programs currently in the schools. It provides an overview of the types of programs in place in the schools, and attempts to respond to some of the deceptive allegations of the opponents of these programs, the most prominent of whom is the Rev. Lou Sheldon, Chairman of the Traditional Values Coalition. The allegations are most often based on partial truths about elements of programs that have been taken out of context. This backgrounder attempts to provide that context. Full descriptions of the programs themselves, however, have been made available to members of the committee, and it is only by reviewing the full context -- the curriculum, mission and purpose statements and evaluations -- that one can have the full picture of how these programs operate.

There are four types of programs in the public schools. The first, and most common, consists of support services for gay, lesbian and bisexual youth. It can include support groups, counselors who have special training in these issues, events designed for g/l/b youth, and policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination. The second type of program is found in sexuality education programs. In most comprehensive sexuality education curricula, a discussion of homosexuality is included. This does not necessarily address specific sexual acts, but may address general issues of same sex attraction and the damaging effects of prejudice. Third, a number of school districts have instituted staff development training for teachers and counselors, aimed at raising their awareness of these issues and the special needs of g/l/b students. Finally, a few districts have made efforts to include gay and lesbian issues in the curriculum. For example, in history and literature classes, instructors provide information on gay and lesbian historical figures or authors, and their contributions. Such information can be invaluable in countering the isolation experienced by g/l/b students. Contrary to opponents" allegations, in none of these programs is homosexuality or bisexuality "promoted," "encouraged" or "endorsed," nor are educators "recruiting" students into homosexuality.

The so-called "gay agenda" is not "promoted" in the schools, any more than a Christian agenda is promoted in a history lesson that acknowledges that the Pilgrims were Christians. No educator advocates that a student try homosexuality. No counselor or teacher discusses the advantages of homosexuality. The programs that are so vilified by the Rev. Lou Sheldon and others who oppose them have been instituted because local communities have determined that they are needed. A great deal of the harassment and violence against g/l/b youth arises out of ignorance and fear of difference. If students do not have authority figures and role models to look to who will lead them beyond the ignorance and fear, it is reinforced, and the discrimination and harassment escalate.

Public School Programs

The following are brief descriptions of elements of some of the programs that have been developed by school districts.

San Francisco, California

The San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD) established their Support Services for Gay, Lesbian & Bisexual Youth program because of their belief that "[a]ll students within the SFUSD have a right to an education in a safe and nurturing enviroment. This includes students who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, or those who are questioning their sexuality." The SFUSD program is in its sixth year and during the 1994-95 school year, responded to more than 200 contacts from students and/or their families. The program provides counseling, curriculum and suggested reading materials for students and their families, and training for teachers and counselors in dealing with sexual orientation issues. The training includes guidelines for assessing for health risks including suicide, drug and alcohol abuse, sexually transmitted disease, and HIV infection. The program is based on providing support and information to students who seek it out, not on promotion or recruitment.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Since 1984, the School District of Philadelphia has sponsored a staff development program for educators titled "Equity in an Era of Diversity." The program examines the issues of "sexism, racism, heterosexism and ableism." The program's rationale states:

There is an emerging need for the School District to develop a comprehensive program to assure that our schools and staff ensure an atmosphere in which all children, regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic background, disability, language, or sexual orientation, can develop their full potential.

In the staff training, along with units on diversity in general, and sexism, racism, and prejudice based on disability, teachers discuss the prejudice against gay men and lesbians and how to counter its effects on students, gay and straight. Participants have the opportunity to learn to identify stereotyping; understand the effects in the educational setting of behavior based on prejudice, stereotyping and power relationships; and to explore strategies to reduce prejudicial behaviors and to instill an appreciation of differences.

An evaluation of the program in a recent school year included the following comment from a participant:

What I found disturbing was the attitude that some people held that this issue does not belong in the Public Schools of Philadelphia. Whether we like it or not, there are homosexual students in our classes. Their feelings have to be heard and their needs met to the best of our abilities.

Another participant reported:

I still don"t think I can approve of the lifestyle but I can appreciate the need to be sensitive to those who are homosexual.

This program is not designed to undermine participants' (teachers or students) religious or moral beliefs. It is intended to help educators address the needs of their students, and the need for a safe and supportive learning environment.

The State of Washington

In Washington State, the Safe Schools Coalition Anti-Violence Documentation Project reports on incidents of violence against gay and lesbian students. The incidents include verbal and physical harassment (including tearing off of clothes and throwing of objects), physical assaults (including serious beatings) and gang rapes of children and teens. While this is not a school based-program, it provides vital information to educators who are working to counter prejudice in the public schools. The descriptions of the treatment of children as young as 10 and 12, based solely on the perception that they might be gay or lesbian, are chilling. Thirty-four agencies and a number of private individuals are involved in the Safe Schools Coalition, including the Washington Education Association, American Friends Service Committee, and the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health. The Coalition's Anti-Violence Documentation Project also provides recommendations for creating safe schools.

Also in Washington State, the Growth and Prevention Theatre Company (GAP) travels the state presenting to students a series of plays that focus on the effects of discrimination, racism, sexism and homophobia. GAP describes its mission as "educat[ing] young people and communities through high energy, entertaining theater and encourag[ing] people of all ages and backgrounds to make emotional connections to vital social issues: confronting bigotry, building self esteem, avoiding substance abuse, resisting negative peer pressure, living in a racially and culturally diverse society, and renouncing violence."

St. Paul, Minnesota

In the St. Paul public schools, the "Out for Equity" program provides voluntary support groups for gay and lesbian students in three schools. The program's materials make quite clear that it is not a part of the curriculum, it is completely voluntary, and there is no recruiting or advocating of homosexuality. The rationale for the group states, in part:

The experience of gay, lesbian and bisexual youth by self report and research available is one primarily of isolation and fear. . . [T]his project will strive to improve the quality of life and educational experience of lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth, as well as improve school climate for all those involved.

The project's goals are to reduce harassment of g/l/b students, reduce high risk behaviors among g/l/b students, and create school environments that foster the valuing of diversity.

A Response to Allegations Made by Traditional Values Coalition

In anticipation of these hearings, the Rev. Lou Sheldon, Chairman of the anti-gay Traditional Values Coaltion, distributed a letter to his members and supporters, in which he took credit for arranging for these hearings to be held, and outlined his allegations about programs in a number of school districts. Because so many of his allegations were false or, at best, a mischaracterization due to lack of context, this response seeks to provide the facts about the programs he attacked.

Los Angeles, California

Since 1985, Project 10 has been implemented in nearly fifty high schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). Contrary to Sheldon's allegations, the project is not intended to recruit students but to provide support for students who are struggling with sexual orientation issues. A recognition of gay pride month or the holding of a gay prom for students who would be harassed for taking a same sex date to the prom does not promote homosexuality, but it may keep a student in school who would otherwise drop out, or save a teenager from being attacked by his or her fellow students.

Project 10 focuses on dropout prevention, prevention of violence and harassment of gay and lesbian students, and suicide prevention. As the Los Angeles school district has recognized the very severe pressures brought to bear on students struggling with these issues, it has provided support. And the results have been positive. Gay and lesbian students have stayed in school, and violence and harassment have decreased.

Sheldon's allegations that teachers in Los Angeles are given salary increases for taking courses on "how to promote homosexuality" is totally false. First and foremost, there is no course available to teachers on "how to promote homosexuality." Secondly, to encourage faculty to update their skilss and knowledge, the district has a policy providing for salary increases for taking additional coursework on many subjects; the increase is not specifically awarded for taking a course on gay and lesbian issues. Sheldon's allegation that Abraham Lincoln is being promoted as gay in Los Angeles schools is equally false. The newsletter of the School Board's Gay and Lesbian Commission reported on a book by a University of Massachustts professor that alleged that Lincoln had a sexual relationship with a friend. This allegation was not presented as truth, nor does it appear in any curricular materials or materials available to students.

National Education Association

For the same reasons that LAUSD established Project 10, the National Education Association has sought to aid its members in responding to the needs of students who are gay and lesbian, or who have questions about sexual orientation. Contrary to Sheldon's allegations, NEA did not pass a resolution declaring October as gay and lesbian history month. The resolution passed in June 1995 was one that recognized the need for sensitivity among teachers, students, parents and the community to sexual orientation issues, and stated NEA's support for the development of training programs for educators that would lead to identifying and eliminating sexual orientation stereotyping in the educational setting. Among the suggested topics to be covered in those programs: "Support for the celebration of a Lesbian and Gay History Month as a means of acknowledging the contribution of lesbians, gays and bisexuals throughout history." Thus, the celebration of such a month was a suggestion for inclusion in a training program, not a mandate to any teacher or school district, and no specific month (October or any other) was named.

Fairfax County, Virginia Family Life Education

Sheldon erroneously claims that "the curriculum" was written as a "test curriculum for homosexuality in the public schools." In Fairfax County, the Family Life Education program -- the program that includes not only sexuality education but instruction in relationships, child rearing and nutrition, among other things -- includes, in grades nine and ten, two lessons on homosexuality. Those lessons were reviewed and approved (as were all FLE lessons) by the state mandated community advisory committee (composed of parents, clergy, physicians, public health nurses, PTA representatives, teachers and students). The lessons on homosexuality were included because of educators" awareness: 1) that gay and lesbian students are disproportionately victims of verbal harassment and physical violence: 2) that Centers for Disease Control statistics show that up to 20 percent of HIV cases are contracted during adolescence, with a majority of those being young gay males; and 3) that youth suicide is significantly higher among gay teens than their heterosexual counterparts. It is also important to note that the Fairfax County program's two lessons emphasize that students should be encouraged to seek the help of a trusted adult, preferably a parent, when struggling with sexual orientation issues. In addition, students in the program are told that homosexuality is highly controversial, that some people view it as normal and others view it as contrary to what is normal, and that promiscuous behavior is very dangerous and can result in serious consequences. Homosexual practices are not mentioned and homosexuality is neither endorsed nor promoted in either of the lessons.

Des Moines, Iowa

No "comprehensive curriculum" on gay and lesbian issues was ever developed in Des Moines, Iowa as claimed by Sheldon. After a unanimous vote by the school board several years ago to include sexual orientation in an anti-discrimination policy, an advisory committee was charged with developing ways to implement that policy. The committee drafted a proposal for the inclusion of gay and lesbian issues in the curriculum. No "promotion" or "recruitment" was involved; the program would only have provided information on the contributions of gay men and lesbians throughout history, and given students the opportunity to explore and discuss the harmful effects of bigotry. Once again, a school district was motivated by concern about violence and harassment of gay and lesbian students and teachers, and a desire to lessen hatred, division and bigotry. The goals, as stated in the draft proposal, include "promot[ing] equality and justice for all people," and "provid[ing] information [on] why gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers are considered youth at risk." Before the advisory committee's proposal could be presented to the school board, it found its way into the hands of a local right-wing talk show host who mischaracterized it as "promoting homosexuality" and stirred up an enormous community controversy. The school board voted to drop the proposal. As is often the case when these controversies tear communities apart, the losers were the students.


The governor of Massachusetts has enacted by executive order, a "Safe Schools Act" because of a desire to protect gay and lesbian students who were threatened with violence and harassment. The findings which led to the passage of this Act included the following:

Public health and educational research has documented that gay and lesbian students and other students dealing with sexual identity issues face increased risk of violent victimization, harassment, and discrimination, impeding their ability to do well in school. In addition, due to their low self-esteem, lack of support, and family difficulties, some of these students may be at greater risk for alcohol and other drug abuse, suicidal behavior, infection with HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases, and homelessness.

The state Board of Education voted to adopt a set of recommendations designed to improve the safety of schools and school-based support services for g/l/b students. They include encouraging schools to 1) develop policies protecting g/l/b students from harassment, violence, and discrimination; 2) develop training for school personnel in violence prevention and suicide prevention; 3) offer school-based support groups for g/l/b and heterosexual students; and 4) provide school-based counseling for family members of g/l/b students.

Sheldon falsely characterizes the Massachusetts program as "not allowing people to have a difference of opinion" and wanting to "indoctrinate an entire state."

The State of Minnesota

In Minnesota, the State Department of Education has developed a publication titled Alone No More: Developing a School Support System for Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Youth, that addresses the need to create safe and healthy school climates for gay, lesbian and bisexual students. It is a resource for educators, not a curriculum and not a "how to" manual on sexuality. As did the state of Massachusetts, Minnesota recognized the isolation and fear, the harassment and abuse suffered by g/l/b youth, and made a commitment to respond to this need.

Sheldon's comment on the Minnesota publication is that the state has "prepared guidelines to do nearly everything the National Education Association suggests." To the extent that both the NEA and the state of Minnesota have committed to trying to prevent harassment, discrimination and abuse of g/l/b youth, Sheldon is correct. In this case, it is his characterization of this as somehow wrong that is in error.

The programs at issue in these hearings provide the following to students: A discussion of the harm done by prejudice and bigotry, a plea to treat fellow students with respect regardless of sexual orientation (their own or that of family members), a recognition that others -- even a few well-known historical figures, or writers or performers -- were or are gay or lesbian, a "safe space" in which to discuss one's concerns about sexuality issues. The programs do not promote homosexuality, they are not used to recruit students to homosexuality. They may, in fact, prevent a child's death either by his or her own hand or by others viciously acting out their own prejudice. In a society that persecutes, harasses and condemns those who are or who are perceived to be gay and lesbian, or even those who question their sexual orientation, it is inconceivable that responsible educators could be accused of promoting and recruiting. As the mission statements of so many of these programs state, students are suffering, physically and emotionally, and caring teachers and counselors want to reduce that suffering in whatever responsible way they can. It is unconscionable that a political movement -- particularly one that claims to represent God and family -- is perpetuating prejudice and bigotry by vilifying these educators for their caring and compassion.