On December 16th, Bay Windows, a Boston newspaper, covered the legislation I worked on to make Massachusetts the first state in the nation to explicitly ban anti-gay discrimination agains public school students.
Read more from Bay Windows in Governor Weld signs gay and lesbian student rights bill by Christopher Muther:
This week Massachusetts became the first state in the nation to explicitly ban anti-gay discrimination against public school students when Gov. William F. Weld signed the student-proposed bill into law Dec. 10.
The law adds sexual orientation to the list of categories protecting students from discrimination in admission to public schools and classes . The list also includes race, color, sex, religion and national origin,
Since the bill became law, there has been a swarm of interest from other states – and even other countries – in passing similar legislation.
There’s definitely national awareness,” said David LaFontaine, lobbying director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights. “This is a whole new frontier of activism.”
The law, commonly referred to as the “gay student rights” law, appears simple, protecting students against discrimination in admission to schools and classes. However, it also gives students legal recourse if they feel they are discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
LaFontaine said if a student feels they are being discriminated against and the school is not addressing the problem, the student can sue the school for tuition at another state public school.
And according to the head of the state’s gay teachers organization, the law may also pave the way for gay curriculum to be introduced in Massachusetts schools.
Robert Parlin, an openly gay history teacher at Newton South High School and co-chair of the Gay and Lesbian Independent School Teacher Network, said the state law has been used by other minority groups it protects to ensure they were represented in curriculum.
“The law could have the unintentional impact of getting gay history or literature discussed in the classroom,” Parlin said. “I know an African-American organization used the same law and threatened to sue the schools because they were not included in the curriculum.”
The law reads: “No person shall be excluded from or discriminated against in admission to a public school of any town or obtaining the advantages, privileges and courses of study of such public school on account of race, color, sex, religion, national origin or sexual orientation.”
Weld has supported the gay student law for the past two years, but has been outspoken against “a gay curriculum” in schools.
“I don’t personally favor teaching a gay and lesbian curriculum in the schools,” Weld said in May. “I don’t think that’s at all necessary.”
Advocates of the bill, especially its teen supporters, said they were disappointed Weld signed the bill into law with little fanfare, and say they hope the governor will hold a more public bill signing this month.
The Coalition has planned a “youth speakout” on Tuesday, Dec. 21 from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Nurses Hall at the State House. Organizers say they hope Weld will attend the event.
Weld dismissed claims he was down-playing the bill-signing because of complaints he would receive from fellow members of the Republican party who have spoken out against his pro-gay stance.
“Frequently we have ceremonies after the signing,” Weld said.
Many of the bill’s supporters credit its passage with the efforts of teenagers who have been telling legislators of physical and verbal abuse they have endured at school.
Marty Linsky, chief secretary to Weld said he believes the steady stream of students to Beacon Hill was what brought the bill out of a Senate committee and to a vote.
“The main difference between this year and last year has been the students,” he said. “Last year the bill died in committee becuase there wasn’t the same presence.”
Students like Chris Hannon, a 16-year-old Dorchester teen who dropped out of Boston College High School his sophomore year, told legislators how he was continually called “homo,” “faggot” and “queer”.
I was pushed, kicked, thrown against lockers, and worst of all, spit on like some vile piece of trash,” Hannon told legislators at an Oct. 13 rally at the State House.
The October rally proved to be a turning point for the bill. The following week, 150 students lobbied senators, with a group of 30 students meeting with Senate President William Bulger. The following week, the bill was released from the Senate Committee on Steering and Politics where it had died the previous year, and passed the Senate in a voice vote.
Since the fall, thousands of homosexual and heterosexual teens had converged on the State House, holding rallies and weekly vigils to see the bill passed.
Although it moved quickly through the House the bill was stalled for nearly two months in the Senate’s Third Reading Committee. Supporters of the bill said the bill was stalled in the committee by its opponents, who did not want to speak openly against the bill.
Fred Simon, a 17-year-old senior at Lexington High School, said he thinks the new law will be successful because his school has a similar anti-discrimination policy in place.
“I’m pretty lucky,” Simon said. “I don’t get much harassment.”
Simon said he was harassed by a student as he was leaving a shool building a few weeks ago. The teen said to Simon “Faggot, faggot, I see a faggot.” Simon responded by telling the boy that if he were black, he wouldn’t call him a “n—–.” The other boy then pushed Simon saying “Get out of my way, faggot.”
Because the anti-discrimination policy is in place and the school’s administration has been supportive, Simon said the other teen was suspended from school.
Although Massachusetts has had a gay civil rights law in place since 1989 protecting gay men and lesbians from discrimination in housing, employment and credit, the law only protects state residents 18 years old and older.
The gay student rights law protects all school age children from anti-gay discrimination from kindergarten through high school. About 10 percent of public schools in the Bay State already had some form of anti-discrimination policy in place before the student bill passed.
A conservative Catholic organization has condemned the bill, saying it is being used as a way to “exploit public education.”
“The next step will be homosexual programs in the public schools, at tax payers expense, that will affirm the gay lifestyle,” said C.J. Doyle, director of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. “This will result in both limitations on free speech and discrimination against Catholics, and other religious believers, as criticism of homosexuality will then be construed as harassment.”
In addition to helping students, some openly gay teachers say the bill will indirectly benefit them as well.
Al Ferreira, head of Cambridge Rindge and Latin’s Project 10 East, a program for gay students, said he thinks the new law will give reluctant teachers a boost to intervene when a student is being harassed.
“It will be seen as more of an injustice,” Ferreira said. “The bottom line is that this is a civil rights violation, and I think this will help teachers see that .”
Parlin of Newton South High School said he thinks the law may encourage some gay teachers to be more open about their lives because it will create a more comfortable climate in schools.