New School Curriculum Seeks To Combat Anti-Gay Bias

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While educators concentrate on keeping gay and lesbian students safe from bullying and other harassment, a Massachusetts advocacy group is offering a new program intended to take the issue out of the hallways and into the classroom.

The Shared Heart, a Lenox, Massachusetts-based organization dedicated to promoting positive images of homosexuals and bisexuals, released a high school curriculum marking the recent anniversary of the beating death of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student. That slaying in October of last year focused national attention on violence against homosexuals.

The group's curriculum centers on a book of portraits and handwritten text detailing the experiences of 40 gay and lesbian 16- to 24-year-olds. Other materials include a resource guide directed at teachers, students, and parents, a CD-ROM, a classroom poster, and a set of 20 slides that correlate with a proposed activity.


"The Shared Heart," available for $95.00 from The Shared Heart, P.O. Box 47, Lenox, MA 02140; (413) 637-4278.

Adam Mastoon, the founder of The Shared Heart and the photographer of the book's subjects, began the project as a traveling photo exhibit three years ago. The curriculum was created, he said, as a more effective vehicle for getting the program into schools.

"We found that [the exhibit] was a very effective teaching tool, but it may take us 100 years to travel to every school in the country," he said. "That's why we created the curriculum--as a vehicle for getting the work into schools throughout the country."

Promoting tolerance was another factor in the program's origin. "It's clear to me that we need to do something to help create safety for our kids in schools, and that's what this curriculum is designed to do," he said.

Thomas W. Payzant, the superintendent of the Boston public schools--whose wife, Ellen, serves on The Shared Heart's advisory board--has spoken out in favor of the program, as have a host of well-known personalities.

But not everyone thinks the classroom is the right place to discuss such topics. "We see homosexuality as first and foremost a moral issue that should be talked about at home," said Peter LaBarbera, a senior policy analyst in the cultural-studies department of the Family Research Council, a conservative think tank based in Washington.

A Question of Morality

"Liberal educators just see one side of the issue. They want to talk about sensitivity and tolerance, but they don't want to talk about the moral opposition to homosexuality," Mr. LaBarbera said.

"We've all condemned the death of Matthew Shepard," he added, "but they are trying to overhaul the entire curriculum to make it pro- homosexual."

But Kevin Jennings, who was a high school history teacher for 10 years and now serves as the executive director of the Gay Lesbian Straight Education Network, an advocacy organization in New York City, argues that schools need to face up to the subject of sexual orientation. "The education system now does absolutely nothing to educate about the differences among human beings," he said. "If we keep teaching that lesson, our homework will be more tragedies like Matthew Shepard."

His group, known as GLSEN, recently teamed up with MTV, the music-oriented cable television channel, to produce a public service announcement that depicts a series of students yelling anti-gay epithets.

At the end of the 30-second spot, a sorrowful Judy Shepard--Matthew Shepard's mother-- comes on the screen and says, "The next time you use words like these, think about what they really mean."

A major determinant in shaping the TV campaign was a recent survey glsen conducted of 469 gay, lesbian, bisexual, and "transgender" students. Of those students, 91 percent said they had heard anti-gay comments, and 69 percent had been personally verbally abused. Half that 69 percent said they had been verbally abused on a daily basis.

"Considering the current epidemic of hate, I can't think of a more important lesson to teach," Mr. Jennings said.

But Mr. LaBarbera suggested that singling out gay students for help was unfair to other students who might also be victims of verbal abuse. "There should be a blanket policy teaching kids decency, and that all children should be respected," he said. "Fat girls get picked on more than kids who think they are gay."

Funding Tolerance

David P. Driscoll, the Massachusetts state commissioner of education, agrees that harassment is widespread. "It's true that bullying occurs across the board," he said, but added that gay students experience more abuse than other groups.

In Massachusetts, 1994 state legislation created the Safe Schools Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, which helps pay for student groups, workshops for parents, and suicide-prevention programs.

"What we've tried to do is make sure that in all schools there is an attitude of tolerance--where every student feels safe and can therefore learn," Mr. Driscoll said.

While Massachusetts was a pioneer in addressing the problems of homosexual students, state officials are not resting on past successes.

"Are we heads and shoulders ahead of everybody? I don't think that's the case," said Mr. Driscoll. "It's still a problem, and we still have to pay attention to it."

According to Gwendolyn Cooke, the director of urban services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va., the priority for administrators nationwide is not curriculum so much as it is a concern for safety.

"The issue is what school administrators are doing in response to the epithets. It's what we are doing to make school feel welcome and inviting for all of our children," she said.

The responses have been varied, she added. "Some schools are very proactive; others pretend the problems don't exist."

Vol. 19, Issue 10, Page 6

Published in Print: November 3, 1999, as New School Curriculum Seeks To Combat Anti-Gay Bias
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