In Philadelphia, both sides bare feelings over gay history in schools
Anti-homosexual slurs flew through the air, as did the gay-pride rainbow flag, during an emotionally charged meeting of the School Reform Commission yesterday. High school students, teachers and activists, some with emotion-filled voices, spoke out in support of the school district's decision to recognize October as Gay and Lesbian History Month on school calendars for the first time.
Opponents said recognizing the month was an attempt by the district to indoctrinate students to the homosexual lifestyle. They said it was an insult to equate gay rights with the struggles of African-Americans for civil rights.
Some angrily asked the reform commissioners what group would they recognize next: Adulterers? Fornicators? Prostitutes? Pedophiles?
"I am requesting that you rescind this gay and lesbian pride month. Issue new calendars for October and call this month anti-violence month, reading month," said Ann Martin, a grandparent and ex- school district employee.
"Shame on you. Shame on you," she said, shouting at the school officials. "It's never too late to right a wrong. What were you thinking?"
Robert Gray, of the African American Freedom and Reconstruction League, stood as his wife read his statement: "The children aren't taught to read, write and master life-survival skills. However, our children are being taught gender preference. This is totally unacceptable."
Gray contended that Bartram, Martin Luther King, University City and Girls High Schools have problems with gangs of lesbians.
In the near-capacity audience was a group of students from King High School, accompanied by King special education teacher Erika T. Garnett-Wootson, who described herself as "a mother as well as an out lesbian."
"When the papers began to report that people were complaining [about the calendar] it came as no surprise to me," Garnett-Wootson told the meeting. "I knew that the world was full of cowards and homophobes who would use misplaced ethics, fear, intolerance and biblical jargon to oppress my people," she said, lamenting that those who had expressed the most opposition are black, like her.
After the meeting she said there are at least 100 to 150 homosexual students at King, and that about 20 or so attend weekly meetings of the school's Gay-Straight Alliance. She said all who attend the meetings are girls, except one boy who is in the process of becoming a female.
Deirdra Williams, 15, a King 10th-grader, was brought to tears by the anti-gay heckling from some audience members.
After the meeting, surrounded by her lesbian friends, she spoke of the experience. "At first, it hurt me. But then I stopped crying because I realized that these people don't know me and I don't know them," she said. "But I would hate to be their child, having to come out of the closet to them."
Carrie Jacobs, executive director of the Attic Youth Center, which provides services to gay youth in Philadelphia, was heckled and cheered during her remarks.
"Gay and Lesbian History Month is about the contributions that gays and lesbians have made to Western civilization and to our shared culture," she said. "It is not about promoting an agenda or attacking anyone's values."
Cecilia Cummings, a school district spokeswoman, explained to the audience that Gay and Lesbian History Month is not being taught as part of the school district's curriculum. However, she said the 35 Gay-Straight Alliance clubs in schools may hold activities after school, as other student groups do.
She said Gay and Lesbian History Month was included in the calendar because it is one of many commemorative events listed by the National Education Association.
About 120 parents with concerns have called her office, Cummings said. "Hopefully the inclusion of Gay and Lesbian History Month in the calendar has sparked some understanding, at least a dialogue," she said.
James Nevels, chairman of the School Reform Commission, said he supported adding gay history month to the calendar.
"The calendar was drafted in a way to be able to reflect the diversity of this great school district that we have and the young people that we have in it," he said.
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