On March 24, 1994, Bay Windows covered two stories related to the aftermath of the Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law which I worked on in 1993. The first was about a protest to a faculty member’s homophobic letter to a school newspaper at Boston Latin High. The second was about a conference at Northeastern University on how to enact the law in schools.
More from “Students and faculty protest a teacher’s antigay letter in a Boston Latin newspaper” by Christopher Muther in Bay Windows:
A rebuttal to an anti-gay letter published in Boston Latin High School’s student newspaper last month remains in limbo while faculty and students anxiously wait to see if the headmaster allows its publication.
In the February issue of the Argo, Boston Latin teacher Owen O’Malley wrote a letter opposing a story that had appeared in the monthly newspaper in January. The story, reviewing the newly-enacted gay student rights law, detailed the law and also polled students on how they felt about the legislation.
In the following month’s issue, O’Malley wrote into the Argo Forum, first complaining about the nature of the gay student law, which protects public school students against anti-gay discrimination, and then assailing homosexuality.
“Weld and his advisors are in error in promoting homosexuality propaganda in the public schools of the Commonwealth,” he wrote in the letter. “They have no right to use funds and/or public schools and facilities for such questionable and evil causes… the high school students of Massachusetts do not need to waste their time and fill up their minds reading this trash,” O’Malley w rote of the Argo article. “A high school newspaper is not a good forum to discus certain issues anyway. Additionally, the overwhelming number of our students and young people are not homosexual, and would pay little attention to such subjects unless they are imposed on them.”
At the end of his letter, O’Malley lashed out against homosexuality as “a great weakness and sickness.”
“Adults who deliberately engage in homosexual acts are perverse and wicked and extremely dangerous to any society,” O’Malley wrote.
Many students and faculty members said they were offended and angered at O’Malley’s letter. Physics teachers Steven Fernandez said he began a petition among the school’s 140 teachers to let students know that now all teachers feel the same way about homosexuality.
“I was very upset at this article and his point of view,” Fernandez said. “There were some teachers who were shocked at Mr. O’Malley’s statement.”
Fernandez collected 50 signatures on a petition he prepared and submitted the letter to the school newspaper. However, Fernandez said the school’s headmaster has objected to printing the letter in the school newspaper for fear that students will sense a rift between members of the school’s staff.
The headmaster, Michael Contompasis, could not be reached by press time.
“I’m still waiting to see if the letter will get printed,” Fernandez said. “With the studies indicating fairly high levels of depression and suicide among gay teenagers, I think this is something important. It’s a confusing time for a lot of kids, and something like this can make it worse.”
Fernandez has contacted the American Civil Liberties Union to find out if the school has a legal obligation to run the letter. The deadline for Argo submissions was March 18 , and he said expects a decision will be made soon.
The petition signed by 50 teachers reads: “We do not support the sentiments [O’Malley] expressed in the article. As an educational institution, Boston Latin School has the responsibility to teach students to celebrate diversity, rather than fear it. The views expressed in the letter are contrary to these high ideals.”
Although Fernandez is heterosexual, he said he has received threatening letters in his school mailbox for spearheading the petition.
Since the letter appeared in the paper, Fernandez said there have been no assemblies or trainings for staff on awareness of gay and lesbian issues.
“It’s really unfortunate [there have been no assemblies] because the school is conservative in a number of ways,” he said. “There are a large number of gay teachers on the staff, so I find it ironic the school is as conservative as it is.”
Many students at the school, even those who may be uncomfortable with homosexuality, say they were angered by the letter, according to Alejandra St. Guillen, a 17-year-old senior at Boston Latin. She and her friends “felt contempt” for O’Malley after the letter appeared.
“I don’t feel comfortable that a teacher was writing a letter so critical of being gay,” she said. “As a teacher, in a position of authority where students are looking up to him, he is trying to instill his beliefs in us.”
As a science project, St. Gullien recently polled 140 of her fellow students at the 2,500-student public school to find out their attitudes on homosexuality. She found that many students still thought of gay men and lesbians in stereotypical ways, but many did not think that homosexuality is immoral. The responses were distributed evenly along lines of race, religion, sex, and social class, she said.
Brian O’Leary, an openly gay senior at the school, said he thinks O’Malley has the right to express his own opinion, but he should have worded his thoughts in a way that would not be an offense to others at the school.
“As a teacher, he’s supposed to be a role model,” O’Leary said. “It’s outrageous that someone in his position is able to do this.”
He said he thought the letter and petition should be printed in Argo for the same reasons O’Malley’s letter was printed, as a forum to discuss views.
David LaFontaine, head of Governor Weld’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and the Massachusetts Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights, said he thinks Boston Latin should take disciplinary action against O’Malley.
He said if a similar letter were written decrying another minority group, there would be a huge response. He also urged local gay activists to put pressure on the school’s headmaster to take action.
More from “Students Meet at Northeastern Conference” by Christopher Muther in Bay Windows:
Jennifer Adleman has been dissatisfied with the way her Boston-area school has responded to anti-gay slurs and harassment.
Adelman, a 17-year-old junior at the 1,000-student Arlington High School, said a gay and lesbian task force, made up only of Arlington High faculty, has been meeting since January and the student said she has seen little come out of the group to improve the environment at the school.
“They’ve had a lot of meetings, but so far nothing’s changed,” she said.
Adleman and other students want to start their own gay/straight alliance and plan pro-gay activities at the school, and now she says she has found the legal route to do it. Adleman was one of approximately 175 Massachusetts high school students, teachers and administrators who attended a training session at Northeastern University on March 19 to learn how to use a newly-enacted state gay and lesbian student rights law in their favor.
Through opening remarks by heads of organizations like the Massachusetts Department of Education and the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination and a series of six workshops, students, teachers and faculty learned how to make the most of the law.
“We wanted to give them resources, places to go if they need help,” said Michael Leclerc, a member of the Boston-based Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Rights and a conference organizer. “We also just wanted them to give a chance to talk to one another, so students in Duxbury who are just starting up a gay/straight alliance can have an opportunity to talk to students at Brookline High School, who have had a gay/straight alliance for a while.”
The gay student rights legislation which was signed in to law December 10 and goes into effect this month, appears simple, protecting students against discrimination in admission to schools and classes. However, it also gives students legal recourse if they feel discriminated against because of their sexual orientation.
Massachusetts is the only state in the country to explicitly ban anti-gay discrimination against public school students. Under the law, if a student feels they are being discriminated against and the school is not addressing the problem, the student can sue their school for tuition at another school.
David LaFontaine, chair of the Coalition said the March 19 training was part of a new statewide campaign to make sure students know the law is in effect. Students and faculty memebers were urged to translate the law creatively and ue it to their benefit in convincing school administrators that pro-gay programs are needed.
“It was very broadly written and can be used in a myriad of ways,” La Fontaine said. “Students can be much bolder in coming out for gay student rights and can be forceful that school administration deal with homophobia.”
If a student feels administrators are not adequately addressing anti-gay behavior, LaFontaine said the student can request a school-wide assembly on the issue or faculty training.
“The law gives students options about how a situation should be best handled, and they can use the law as leverage to work out a problem,” he said. “The last thing any school wants is to be sued and receive bad press. With this they can offer an option to the school board.”
The process in which students would take action against schools has not yet been determined, according to Michael Duffy, chairman of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. Duffy said he is scheduled to meet this week with officials from the Department of Education to come up with guidelines. He said student complaints will first be handled by the Department of Education before going any further.
Duffy told conference participants that discrimination, bullying and prejudice “didn’t end with the stroke of a pen,” and that students would have to come out and be assertive to help change their environment.
“Everybody I talked to said they are still experiencing, to varying degrees, an inhospitable atmosphere in their school,” Duffy said following the conference, “even in the most open-minded schools in the Boston area.”
Mary Bonauto, an attorney with the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, told students that the law is important not so much to sue schools, but to use as a bargaining chip to make sure student concerns are addressed,
“Schools need to be creative in making this work for them,” she said. They need to ensure they’re providing a safe environment for learning.”
In order to take legal action against a school, LaFontaine said it is important for students to document in writing any harassment they are experiencing, The information shouldn’t be given to the school principal, with carbon copies sent to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth and the Department of Education.
Once a school is notified there is a problem, LaFontaine said those agencies can give suggestions on how the problem can be handled. If that doesn’t work, he said an outside organization can be brought in to help remedy the problem.
“I hear a lot of frustrating stories,” he said. “There are schools claiming to be dealing with the problem, but in reality they’re not.”
In addition to problems in Arlington, a group of gay and lesbian students in Concord/Carlisle regional school district who want to form a group specifically for gay students are being told they can’t meet on school grounds.
“They are being bolstered by this law,” he said. “They have the same right as any other school club. As long as they follow the rules they can meet on school grounds. Just because you’re a group who is for gay rights doesn’t mean you can’t meet,”