The question of how public schools should deal with homosexuality, if at all, became the source of a highly emotional debate here last week, both within the National Education Association and among outside groups that condemned an NEA proposal on the issue.
While conservative organizations staged a rally nearby, NEA leaders attending the union’s annual meeting weighed a resolution to call for new school programs aimed at ensuring a “safe and inclusive environment” for gay and lesbian students.
The NEA’s main governing body, known as the Representative Assembly, had yet to take action on the matter by press time. But by then it seemed very unlikely that the assembly would vote on any such controversial language in its July 4-7 meeting, held at the Los Angeles Convention Center.
By midweek, both President Bob Chase and the leaders of the union’s Gay and Lesbian Educators’ Caucus said they supported tabling the resolution in favor of forming a task force to study the issue and to gather more comment from members.
“I don’t see this as a backing-off on the issue,” Cathy Figel, who chairs the caucus, said late last week. “Everybody needs to have a sense that they’re being heard on this. We don’t want this to be something that’s going to tear us apart.”
The policies of the 2.6 million-member NEA, the nation’s largest teachers’ union, already support programs aimed at eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation. But some union members have argued that the organization needs to take a more active stance, especially in light of recent reports claiming that teachers and administrators often turn a blind eye toward the harassment of gay and lesbian students.
Introduced last winter by a group of California members, the resolution debated here called for new instructional materials—produced with input from gay educators—to “meet the needs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender students.” The language also proposed the creation of school programs that recognize gay educational employees as role models and that address the “health-risk factors,” the high dropout rates, and incidence of suicide among such students.
The measure quickly ignited a firestorm among many conservative and religious groups, which accused the NEA of promoting a “homosexual agenda.” James C. Dobson, the president of Focus on the Family, lambasted the resolution in his nationwide radio show. An item on the Web site of Concerned Women for America warned of “a sweeping resolution that promotes homosexuality, to be voted upon by the National Education Association.”
Focus on the Family, based in Colorado Springs, Colo., last week joined the Capitol Resource Institute—a Sacramento, Calif., organization—in sponsoring a demonstration here against the proposal.
The two-hour event drew a diverse gathering of parents, educators, and local residents, along with many religious leaders from the local Latino and Korean communities. With the hot July sun beating down, participants carried signs reading “Educate, Don’t Indoctrinate” and “Teach History, Not Homosexuality.”
“The real issue here is who do you believe should teach your children what to believe about homosexuality—you or the neighborhood school?” Karen Holgate, the policy director of the Capitol Resource Institute, told the crowd. “That is why we are here. We are not here out of hate.”
The issue also has been a controversial one internally for the NEA. Some worry that taking such stands not only opens the union up to political and ideological attacks, but also could cost some affiliates members, as happened when the NEA adopted language supporting Gay and Lesbian History Month in 1995.
“This is going to divide us,” said Sissy Jochmann, a 1st grade teacher from Moon Township, Pa., a suburb of Pittsburgh.
A loyal listener of Mr. Dobson’s radio show, Ms. Jochmann said it was her opposition to the proposed resolution that prompted her to seek nomination as a delegate to this year’s Representative Assembly, the first she has attended in eight years as a member of the NEA.
“My concern is that we’re not only teaching tolerance now of homosexuality, but we’re legitimizing the behavior and the whole lifestyle,” Ms. Jochmann said. “They’re going to be asking us to educate our students on the normality of homosexuality.”
But on July 4, the NEA’s resolutions committee opted not to recommend the measure for a vote by the delegates. Instead, the committee proposed appointing a study panel to look at the issue before further action is taken. It also recommended expanding current NEA language on non-discrimination to reference “homophobia” and call for a “safe and inclusive environment for all.”
In a statement, Mr. Chase said the task force plan did not mean the NEA was caving in.
“We will not allow our policy or our discussions to be dictated by any outside group,” he said, “particularly those that wish to demagogue on the issue instead of focusing on the needs and problems of these students and educational employees.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 11, 2001 edition of Education Week as NEA Poised To Defer Vote on Aid For Gay Students