Taking a Stand

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Des Moines, Iowa

On a good day, Jonathan Wilson can see more than 20 miles from the window of his 25th-floor office in downtown. But on an idyllic afternoon in late summer, another vision was reflected in his somber face as he recalled the events of January.

At the time, Wilson, a 12-year veteran of the city school board, was embroiled in an increasingly nasty public debate over a draft plan to more openly discuss sexual orientation in the public schools here. A disgruntled school employee had leaked the proposal to the public, kindling a firestorm of protest. Opponents of the plan had threat-

ened Wilson and others on the seven-member board. And for reasons he was soon to make public, Wilson was targeted for threats so personal and serious that he began wearing a bulletproof vest.

Tensions were running so high that when Wilson told his 19-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, how he planned to publicly respond, she backed him, but said, "Daddy, I don't want them to kill you!"

Still, Elizabeth and her brother, Matthew, stood at their father's side at an emotional school board meeting Jan. 24 as he took his stand.

"The negative things that have been said in recent weeks about gay people, the awful stereotypes, are lies. I know, because I am a gay person," Wilson, the son of a Methodist minister, told the hushed crowd. "This healing process will be a defining moment for our community, as it has for me. It will test our character, our Iowa values. ... I am coming out to educate and so that I can speak with a clearer, unintimidated voice."

Wilson's homosexuality had been widely rumored for years. Some observers even called it the "worst kept secret in Des Moines." Still, for the divorced father of two--a prominent local corporate lawyer and a fixture in the education establishment--to publicly declare his orientation was a pivotal moment in his life and in the debate over the policy; that same evening, the superintendent dropped the proposal.

Wilson's coming-out has also reshaped school board politics here. On Sept. 12, voters will go the polls to elect two members to the board. Wilson is running for re-election, the other incumbent is not. Instead, there's a field of seven other candidates, at least one of whom is openly running against Wilson on a conservative platform. The top two vote-getters will be elected to three-year terms.

Although much of the rhetoric in the final weeks of the campaign has focused on an effort to refurbish an aging school system, the city has also been abuzz with discussion of "that issue," as some locals call it.

The race has drawn the attention of activists for gay and-lesbian rights nationwide, who have poured an unprecedented flood of money into Wilson's war chest. Conservative Christian groups are working overtime to round up enough votes to remove Wilson from office. And Republican presidential hopefuls stumping here before the recent straw poll have attempted to woo conservatives with condemnations of the policy and, implicitly, of Wilson himself.

Next week, the voters of Des Moines will have their say.

Wilson, known to many people here simply as Jonathan, is a handsome, charismatic 50-year-old whose energy makes him seem years younger. He's also an enthusiastic and skillful orator who has held various national posts, including the chairmanship of the Council of Urban Boards of Education. He's described as passionate about public education. He comfortably won each of his four previous school board bids in Des Moines, and the board has entrusted him with its presidency three times.

Among school board members, he's something of a novelty. Of some 15,000 school boards nationwide, only nine, including Des Moines, have an openly gay member, according to the Washington-based Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, a nonpartisan group that helps openly gay and lesbian candidates get elected to public office.

Clearly, Wilson has changed a great deal from the time five years ago when a board member proposed that the district's nondiscrimination policy be expanded to include sexual orientation. "I was a closeted gay person who wanted to oppose this conflict like a plague," recalls Wilson. He ended up backing the measure, but only after it became clear that it would pass.

Since coming out in January, he has been invited by President Clinton to visit the White House as a member of a group of gay elected officials from across the country, and he now speaks openly on gay rights.

"The facts are against those who resist equal treatment for gay and lesbian people," says Wilson. "They characterize them as special rights, as if rights are a fixed sum and giving anybody equal rights takes away the rights of other people."

To his detractors here and across the nation, however, Wilson is a proponent of a "gay agenda" that seeks to force the introduction of homosexual materials in the nation's schools. The Iowa Christian Coalition and a cadre of Des Moines parents have targeted Wilson for defeat and say that Wilson--not them--made his homosexuality a campaign issue.

One of Wilson's most implacable opponents is Bill Horn, a soft-spoken father of five who is the Midwest regional director of The Report, a small grass-roots conservative Christian group run out of a 300-member church called the Spring of Life in Lancaster, Calif. A central tenet of the group is that homosexuality is a sin. The group publishes a newsletter that goes to 500 subscribers, though Horn claims an Iowa mailing list of more than 6,000, which he has used for fund raising and other purposes. Horn moved to the heart of the Corn Belt last year to fight the "evil forces" that he saw corrupting other areas of the country.

Last December, Tom Lutz, the district's Title I program evaluator, leaked to Horn a draft document being prepared by a school district advisory committee. Taking its inspiration from the district's nondiscrimination policy, which currently includes sexual orientation, it proposed that students in grades K-12 receive instruction on the historic contributions of gays, lesbians, and bisexuals. In addition, there would be classroom discussion of the nature of families, and support in each school for gay, lesbian, and bisexual youngsters.

Horn was appalled. "I teach my sons and daughters that homosexuality is not normal, natural, or healthy," he says. "I don't want someone teaching them otherwise."

He got busy alerting his troops.

Horn found a sympathetic ear--and a well-placed mouth--in Jan Mickelson, a conservative radio talk-show host who is known as the Rush Limbaugh of Des Moines. His morning show can be heard across the state Monday through Friday on radio station WHO.

A former high school teacher, Mickelson is a fountain of opinions on education. "The only thing we can do is declare government education a demilitarized zone in the cultural war," he says. "We must say to radical homosexual advocates and environmental activists, 'Hands off.' We have to say to the religious right, 'Hands off; you are not going to use the school to rebuild society in your image."'

In his eyes, the district's proposal was just such an intrusion. "Twenty years ago, gays wanted tolerance. Now, tolerance is the standard," the hefty Mickelson lectures a reporter in his cluttered, windowless office. "Now they say, 'We're going to require you to accept us, and we'll use your tax dollars and your public schools to change how the next generation views us whether you like it or not. And if you don't, you're homophobic."'

"This isn't our school board issue," he adds. "This is a culturewide, transcendent issue. We just happen to be a flash point."

Thanks to his persistent commentary and interviews with Horn and Lutz, 3,000 people turned out for a hastily called meeting at a church Jan. 3 to denounce the proposal. Horn and Mickelson both addressed the gathering.

Both men say Wilson's coming-out was theatrics. "It was like Hillary Clinton saying she's a feminist," scoffs Mickelson. The same goes for the bulletproof vest. "I got threats, too," says Horn. "But I didn't make myself look like a victim and play on the emotions of people."

Wilson, clearly irritated, responds in a near-whisper: "They didn't see the tracks leading up to my window in the snow or hear the threats. They don't know what they're talking about."

Horn denies that Wilson himself is under attack. "Wilson is not being judged on his homosexuality," he says. "He's being judged on his record, and he's on the record in favor of the proposal." But Horn acknowledges that Wilson's homosexuality cannot be considered apart from his school board work. "He's come out in his speeches and said he's not intimidated and that he's an empowered person. So he's said his homosexuality plays a major role in his thinking."

Kathleen DeBold, the deputy director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, insists that Wilson's homosexuality is "the only issue right now."

"There probably would not be much of a challenge if he had not come out," she says. "He's incredibly qualified. This is indicative of the discrimination that gay and lesbian people face. The radical right is telling voters, 'We want you to fire this man because he's gay.' "

The national cultural war that both Mickelson and DeBold allude to is helping to pump thousands of out-of-state dollars into the Des Moines race.

Horn wrote in his group's March newsletter that while the sexual-orientation proposal was dropped, "the coals are still smoldering and a new kindling is being stacked for use against the moral America." He asked for funding to aid his educational mission and added, "We need to make Iowa an example for the rest of the nation."

Wilson interpreted this and comments by other activists as a threat to take over the school system. "I was convinced my candidacy would offer a rallying point and could potentially raise resources that would get the message out about the threat and the real education issues," he says.

He, in turn, solicited the endorsement of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund. The group's backing helped Wilson raise $35,000 as of mid-July, half of which came from individuals outside the state, says Phil Roeder, Wilson's campaign spokesman. Roeder says Wilson may spend up to $60,000 on his campaign. By comparison, Jacquie Easley, the current board president, spent about $5,000 in each of her two election wins.

Meanwhile, it's impossible to say how much conservative groups are spending directly and indirectly on the race. Because of its religious status, Horn's group is not required to reveal his expenses or revenues. He will say only that his mail fund-raising appeal across the state has been "very successful."

Similarly, the Iowa Christian Coalition, the state affiliate of the Rev. Pat Robertson's national conservative group, is not required to disclose how much it is spending on educational and get-out-the-vote efforts. Ione Dilley, the state coalition's chairwoman, says her organization wants Wilson ousted not because he is gay, but because he supports a curriculum on homosexuals. The group says it will distribute by mail and through churches up to 40,000 4-by-6-inch cards outlining the candidates' positions on issues that are important to the coalition, including diversity education, school vouchers, and outcomes-based education.

The sole locals-only group is the Concerned Parents of Des Moines. Lutz, the school employee who leaked the curriculum proposal, helped organize the group as a political-action committee. It has raised about $10,000 to defeat Wilson and elect conservative board members.

Several GOP presidential candidates have even weighed in on the race, casting about for local votes in next February's caucus. Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan blasted the curriculum proposal for "putting homosexuality on a par with marriage." U.S. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas wrote a two-page fund-raising letter that was mailed to everyone on The Report's Iowa mailing list. "Thank God for Bill and the thousands of parents who would not be intimidated by the liberal media or radical homosexual community," he wrote.

"I think that they were capitalizing on the climate that existed," says Kris Mesicek, the president of the Des Moines Education Association, the local affiliate of the National Education Association. "And if it meant a little media attention for them. ..." she trails off. The city teachers' union has endorsed Wilson in the race.

Wilson says of the GOP hopefuls: "If they want to be on a school board, they jolly well ought to run for one."

No one knows to what extent the outside attention and money will affect the race, though some observers predict that voter turnout will at least double from the roughly 7,500 voters in previous years.

As the campaign entered its final weeks, there was considerable ambivalence over the abandoned policy and Wilson's coming-out.

Only one candidate, Harold "Sandy" Sandahl, who is running as a conservative, is clearly targeting the anti-Wilson votes. He is endorsed by Concerned Parents.

Peter Prugh, a free-lance writer running for one of the seats, is long on opinions but short on patience for the debate.

He draws chuckles from the 80 people at a candidates' forum in the Central Presbyterian Church by waving two magazine covers from the podium. One features a male model baring a washboard stomach. The other is a nude profile of model Cindy Crawford. "It's all about the choice between this," he gestures, "or this. Like the difference between a Ford or Chevy. Why are we making such a big fuss about this?"

Yet, there are scores of parents like Richard Cleaveland, the father of two, who started following the school board in January because of the curriculum proposal. "The board was out of control," he says. "If Wilson is defeated, I think that it will send a message to the board that we're not interested in pressing that issue any more."

In spite of it all, Wilson says the controversy is not such a bad thing. "We have the benefit of sex appeal to get people's attention to teach them about other education issues," he says with a laugh. "I don't think that is necessarily terrible." And other issues are getting a public airing, especially Vision 2005, a massive $315 million project to overhaul aging school buildings and upgrade equipment. A 1 percent sales tax that would pay for the plan goes to voters next year.

Mary Wennerstrum, the president of the Des Moines PTA Council, was visibly relieved at the end of the Aug. 22 candidate's forum she helped organize. Not only were the 80 people there a fourfold increase over last year, but Vision 2005 was the most widely discussed issue. Number two, however, was "that issue."

But even Wennerstrum admits that Wilson and the curriculum debate "have gotten many more people questioning what's going on in their children's schools."

On another front, the curriculum debacle forced the school system to evaluate committees and the policymaking process. Superintendent Gary L. Wegenke says a more open and aggressive process of recruiting committee members has already been implemented and includes announcing committee openings in the media.

He also recommended that the board look at expanding the number of members on its key committees and ordered a review of how system administrators receive committee reports on new curricula. "I think it's important for people to get on committees and identify others with counter viewpoints," he adds.

In a working-class neighborhood north of downtown, a fading sun seeps through the stained-glass dome that caps the Metropolitan Community Church, where 30 gay and lesbian parishioners are worshiping.

In her sermon, the Rev. Sharon Sloat says some Christian churches have substituted institutional rules for the justice- and love-based teaching of Jesus Christ--a reference to those who interpret the Bible in ways that can be used to discriminate against homosexuals.

In the church basement, where cookies and conversation are shared after the service, Sloat says Wilson is "a courageous person who said, 'I am what I am,' and that doesn't change anything in terms of his profession and service to the school board."

She supports a curriculum that would address sexual orientation. "On issues of morality, people are well within their rights to instruct kids as they wish," she says. "But to say [in school] that homosexuality exists is not to make a value judgment. It's part of who we are and what we need to know."

Yet, religious differences over the nature of homosexuality are dividing parents, church leaders, and teachers whether the issue comes up in the classroom or in the voting booth.

Wegenke was widely praised for asking clergy of various denominations to develop a position on the curriculum proposal. But the issue of accepting homosexuality as natural and not sinful became the sticking point.

"Our differences are deeply rooted in our beliefs and cannot be easily reconciled," a Jan. 19 pastoral letter states. It adds, "We regret that religious language has been used to condemn and degrade others."

The religious leaders affirmed the district's need for a "strong, comprehensive nondiscrimination policy" but called on the school board to remove the sexual-orientation curriculum proposal. Wegenke eventually withdrew the plan but recommended that the district maintain its policy specifically prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.

Lutz, an elder in his church, calls that policy the "engine that drives the gay agenda" and vows to try and overturn it.

Wilson feels strongly that sexual orientation must be mentioned in the policy, or, as he asks, "How is the youngster supposed to know who we're talking about? What do we say when a kid is called fag or queer?"

Wilson, whose father and sister are United Methodist ministers, engages the religious opposition. When a group of conservative ministers agreed to interview potential candidates to oppose him, Wilson began attending their churches.

The Rev. Forest W. Harms, the executive director of the Des Moines Area Religious Council who mediated several clergy discussions on the curriculum plan, says that Wegenke's invitation to the churches was unprecedented. "Instead of viewing the religious community as a problem," he says, "it was a case where the religious community was able to be part of the solution to a problem," he says.

And that experience could serve the church groups, and the broader Des Moines community, well in the future. For as Wilson says, "Until everybody dies, issues do not die."

Vol. 15, Issue 01

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