What brought the story back to mind for me was this Washington Post piece that reminded me of just what it was like to be growing up gay and going to school during a time when the subject couldn't even be talked about. This year will mark 20 years since I graduated from high school, and 26 years since I came out. (Yup. I was a prodigy in that sense.) And it reminded me just how difficult it was to get any information when I was coming out. It also made it clear how far some people would like to turn back the clock.
The initiative to place Montgomery at the forefront of the explosive national debate about teaching sex in schools began with a citizens committee, which reviewed the county's family life and human development curriculum five years ago and recommended that the Board of Education lift its virtual ban on discussing homosexuality in class. Teachers could bring up the topic only in response to a student's query.
The old curriculum, which is still in place across the county, "was ignoring the reality of the world we live in," said school board member Patricia O'Neill (Bethesda-Chevy Chase). "Before this, we were silent."
The structure of state regulations about sex education speaks to the delicate balance between providing lessons to children about sexuality, discrimination and public health and respecting the religious and moral values of parents.
I guess I'd forgotten about those days, or pushed the memories far enough back in to my mind that they don't surface often. They're not good memories. That was mostly a time when I had lots of questions and no information or support for my burgeoning sexual orientation, which had always been there but became clear around the time that puberty hit. I didn't have anyone to talk to at home. The most my folks would do was to recommend I read up on Sodom and Gomorra. When I told them about the harassment I was getting at school, and what the kids were calling me, the response I got was "Well, you're not. Are you?" Believe me, I knew what the "right" answer was.
And at school? The subject came up. Probably because I brought it up. And I remember being told at some point that the rules were that teachers could not bring up homosexuality, or lead a discussion on it, but could only address it in response to students questions. Which means if I hadn't brought it up, it wouldn't have come up. And that was after I changed schools, because I couldn't take the harassment I faced in my old school anymore.
I remember it created an atmosphere in which I didn't think I could trust anybody. Once I returned to class visibly upset after several male classmates had shoved me around and called me names in the bathroom. My teacher noticed and asked me what was wrong. I told her about the shoving and name calling, but didn't tell her what I was called. I didn't think I could. Not safely, anyway. The teacher, who was also African American, assumed it was about race, and took us all out into the hallway for a "talking to."
I didn't correct her. Would she have stood up for me otherwise? Would she have been able to? I don't know, but I'll never forget the looks on the faces of my classmates as they filed back into the classroom. I had the teacher on my side, if only on false pretenses, so they left me alone. I'm not sure what I would have faced if I hadn't had at least that pseudo support.
It was my own resourcefulness that saved me. In 6th grade, I became a library assistant, after I realized that it would get me off the playground and away from my tormentors during recess. Thus, I learned how to find my way around a library. It wasn't long after that I went to our public library and found the section on homosexuality and the book that saved my life.
That was more than 20 years ago, and evidently that's the way it was in our school district until just 5 years ago. That's the way it still is in some other school districts, like Washington state where 23% of school districts ban discussion of homosexuality. That's what people like the folks at PFOX want to take us back to. And beyond, if they can. Let's keep in mind that one focus of their objections was the "Respecting Differences" section of the curriculum, and what's at stake for LGBT youth when tolerance isn't part of the curriculum. Let's keep in mind these are the same kinds of people who oppose suicide prevention for gay youth.
And it's not just gay kids that are at risk, by the way. As this AlterNet piece points out "abstinence-only" sex-education, advocated by the same people who oppose teaching tolerance regarding homosexuality, may also be putting young women at risk. (Young heterosexual women, that is.) And don't think that's not by design because, after homos, heterosexuals are next on the fundamentalist's hit list if they don't tow the fundie's line on sexual morality. (Remember, rape, AIDS, unwanted pregnancy are not the enemy to as far as they're concerned.) If our children don't get accurate sex-education, they'll pay for it later.
The sad truth of why things stayed the way they were in Montgomery county, and are still that way in Washington state and in countless other school districts comes down to something Ed put rather well on his blog, regarding a school board objecting to a showing of An Inconvenient Truth because, "The Bible says that in the end times everything will burn up, but that perspective isn't in the DVD." Bill says:
In my experience, a great many school boards actually have people who think like this on them. And if they don't, they have people like this they have to cater to. Either way, it is appalling to me that someone this clueless has any influence at all on what is taught in schools. Unfortunately they do, all over the country.
I know something have changed since I was in school. There's lots more information. There's the internet. There's gay people on sitcoms. There's gay/straight student alliances in some schools. But there are also kids who are in the same boat I was in, growing up a skinny, effeminate, black, gay boy. In the south. During the Reagan era.
In 2007, that just shouldn't be. And to anyone who thinks it should be, and that it's their job to make it that way, I can only echo the words of one of our board of education members. "That's okay … Bring it on."