NEA Backing for Gay Month Sparks Firestorm
A conservative women's group has stepped up its attacks on the National Education Association over a union resolution in support of Lesbian and Gay History Month.
The Concerned Women for America placed advertisements this month in newspapers around the country blasting the union for passing the resolution. "This is a blatant attack on children and schools," the advertisement declared in bold capital letters. "This is a threat to morality and decency."
NEA President Keith B. Geiger denounced the group's campaign as a ploy to raise money, and said reports of widespread resignations from the union over the issue were greatly exaggerated. However, the attacks have placed NEA affiliates on the defensive in several states, prompting damage-control efforts to explain the union's position to its members.
"It's a very emotional issue," Mr. Geiger said in an interview, "but it's being complicated by total misinformation being put out by the CWA."
The campaign by the Washington-based organization stems from a resolution approved at the union's annual meeting in July. Language expressing support for the history month was added to an existing NEA resolution recognizing the need for sensitivity to sexual orientation.
The CWA sent out a mailing to its members last month condemning the union for that action.
The letter brought a wave of telephone calls to the union from incensed parents and teachers. In response, the union issued a statement clarifying that the resolution was not a mandate but a mere expression of support for the month.
The CWA shot back with stronger rhetoric in its newspaper ads: "What's really frightening is the thought that our children will be celebrating the history of a group of people who historically prey on minors."
Two newspapers in which the ads appeared, The Sacramento Bee in California and The Seattle Times, have since apologized, saying the ads contained inappropriate statements. Two other papers, The Orange County Register in California and USA Today, refused to run them altogether.
'A Political Turn'
Jim Woodall, a vice president of the CWA, last week defended the attacks. He said the group has 600,000 members nationwide, 15 percent of whom work in education. His members rely on the group to track developments like the Gay History Month resolution and report on them regularly, he said.
"I have talked to many teachers who say they are resigning because the NEA has taken such a political turn," Mr. Woodall said.
Mr. Geiger countered that the 2.2 million-member union expects not a loss but a net gain in membership when numbers are tallied later this year.
The resolution, he said, stemmed from a democratic vote by union members. "I've gotten a lot of letters from people saying I should change the position of the organization," Mr. Geiger said. "They obviously don't understand democracy."
Mr. Geiger added that, ultimately, he was depending on state and local affiliates to help communicate the facts about the resolution.
"I believe the members and the public understand this attack is a fund-raiser," he said. "If they don't, all they have to do is call the 800 number [provided in the CWA advertisement]."
In states where the backlash has been the most severe, NEA affiliates have sought to calm irate members.
Grainger Ledbetter, the president of the 20,000-member Arkansas Education Association, sent members a letter clarifying the purpose of the resolution and condemning the CWA.
"This is nothing less than an irresponsible smear campaign on the part of Concerned Women for America, who are using hatemongering and fear to raise money," Mr. Ledbetter said in an interview.
Some teachers had originally threatened to drop their membership in the union, but he said his letter had a "dampening effect" on members' concerns. Mr. Ledbetter said he did not expect a drop in membership as a result of the resolution.
Kathy Woodall, the president of the Tennessee Education Association, originally estimated that her 45,000-member group would lose about 1,000 members over the flap.
But last week, Ms. Woodall, who is no relation to Jim Woodall, called that number an initial estimate and said the union rolls now showed an increase of about 500 members from this time last year.
Ms. Woodall wrote an article in the union's monthly newspaper clarifying that the resolution was not a mandate, and noting that gay and lesbian students deserved sensitivity.
Nevertheless, she wrote in the editorial that teachers can support those students "without the celebration of a special month signifying the gay and lesbian lifestyle." Ms. Woodall also said in an interview that the Tennessee union is working in conjunction with those in several other states to have the resolution repealed.
She said some of the members who resigned did so because of deeply held religious beliefs. "They simply believe so strongly that homosexuality is sinful that they can't be a part of the organization, and they can't give us time to work through what is traditionally a pretty long process [for repeal of a resolution]."