Despite Flap, Seattle To Keep Grant for Books About Homosexuality
At first glance, a $6,000 grant to buy books for school libraries in the Seattle school district was a welcome gift. But when some parents and conservative groups discovered that the award was to pay for books about homosexuality, they wanted school officials to return the money.
Despite the criticism, which also came from some board members, the school board decided this month to keep the grant as one way to address the needs of the district's diverse student body.
"Our policy is that we provide our students with information; we are not promoting any issue," said board Chairwoman Linda F. Harris. "What it comes down to is that we need to deal with the health and safety issues of all of our students."
Around the country, opponents have initiated similar battles to ban such books, which, they charge, promote homosexuality and are inappropriate for children. While many educators argue that they make the materials available to educate students and promote tolerance of diversity, controversy tends to brew when parents and civic groups interpret such efforts as advocacy of a lifestyle they consider wrong.
"These books are clearly designed to promote the normalcy and acceptance of homosexuality, and they avoid factual information that might cast homosexuality in a more negative light," said Robert H. Knight, the director of cultural studies for the conservative Family Research Council, based in Washington.
Matthew Freeman, a senior vice president at People for the American Way, a liberal advocacy organization in Washington, said such challenges to schools have climbed during the past several years, and he took issue with the critics of books with gay themes. "In my experience these materials are not promoting anyone's agenda, they are simply making information available to kids and their families," he said.
School board officials in Merrimack, N.H., last year approved a policy prohibiting "alternative lifestyle instruction." The policy has since been repealed. In California, a bill to prevent discrimination against students, faculty, and staff members on the basis of their sexual orientation has alarmed some local school board members who say the measure would lead to instruction about homosexuality. Last week, the bill was moved to the state Assembly's so-called inactive file.
Challenges to books and policies that critics say promote homosexuality have also cropped up in Connecticut, Louisiana, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Yet, publishers report that the number of titles and sales of books on homosexual issues continue to grow.
"There are still sensitivities in places around the country where librarians are loath to purchase books on controversial topics for fear that a parent will object when their child brings it home," said Roger Rosen, the president of the Rosen Publishing Group in New York City, which has been publishing books for schools on a variety of sensitive topics from venereal disease to incest to AIDS since 1950. "But many librarians feel they have a duty to provide this information to the population they serve that is at risk."
Books on homosexuality and AIDS are among the best sellers for Circle of Friends, a book distributor based in Friday Harbor, Wash., that caters to school districts. The company includes nearly three dozen such titles in its catalog, which it distributes to 10,000 administrators and teachers annually, according to co-owner Tasha Salas.
Seattle officials point to a health survey of teenagers conducted in 1995 in which a significant number of the district's 45,000 students said they were gay or have a family member who is gay.
"As much as 10 percent of our students have an issue with homosexuality and need the information," said Ms. Harrison, the school board chairwoman. "We need to deal with this issue. According to the survey, we have a dropout rate and suicide rate and a drug- and alcohol-abuse rate that is much, much higher among these students."
A board-appointed council has drafted a list to help officials choose books for their libraries. As for those who disagree, Ms. Harris says that each school can decide whether to accept its $60 share of the grant.