School’s Out (book)

On May 8th, 1995, School’s Out: The Impact of Gay and Lesbian Issues on America’s Schools by Dan Woog was published by Alyson Publications. I was interviewed in School’s Out about my work with Massachusetts Gay and Lesbian Student Rights Law and activism in high school.

School's Out, 1995
School’s Out, 1995

from Kirkus Review:

An erratically presented survey of gay and lesbian experiences in schools across the country. In interviews with students, teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, school nurses, and parents, journalist Woog explores the ways that schools deal with gay and lesbian issues. His portrait is accurately complicated, at once dispiriting and heartening. He finds that “faggot” and “queer” are still the most common insults in schools, that many teachers remain closeted on the job, and that education and group counseling efforts are often obstructed by the religious right. He talks to a student who was kicked out of a vocational high school for being gay, and another who, fag-baited and physically threatened, went to the guidance counselor for help and was told, “You chose that lifestyle…You just have to take it.” Fortunately, Woog also finds openly lesbian and gay coaches and teachers who are valued mentors to gay and straight students alike, some gay-positive curricula on both coasts, more support groups for gay and lesbian students, and a boy who became more popular after coming out because other kids admired his courage and “girls thought it was cool to have a gay friend.” The diversity of setting and experience keeps Woog’s narrative lively: The milieus range from urban Boston English High School to elite East Coast prep schools to the Bible Belt and rural Montana. The problem is, Woog’s renderings of people’s stories are often confusing, with gaping holes in the narrative. In one instance, after reading a three-page profile of one teacher, we still don’t really know why he went back in the closet. Throughout the book, the author fails to reconcile contradictory details and relates events in an illogical order. The stories themselves are admirably various, but Woog’s spotty logic and narrative inconsistency make this a frustrating read.

From the chapter, “Safe Schools: The Bay State Leads the Way”:

In 1775, Massachusetts citizens stood at the vanguard of the American Revolution battling British troops at Lexington and Concord. In 1972, the Bay State was the only state in the nation to back George McGovern over Richard Nixon in the presidential election. Now, in the 1990’s, Massachusetts has become the first (and so far the only) state to ensure – legally, in writing, with four specific recommendations and a major legislative vote – the rights of lesbian and gay students to a safe, secure learning environment.

Advocates of lesbian and gay youth hope that in this instance Massachusetts is leading the country, not veering away from it. This particular and inspiring story began in late 1989, when the state legislature passed a gay and lesbian civil rights law. The Coalition for Lesbian and Gay Civil Rights soon filed legislation to create an advisory board focusing on youth services; it died, but in early 1992, Gov. William Weld formed an innovative Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth.

The man who had succeeded Michael Dukakis was an unlikely catalyst for such an act: born to a family that arrived from England in 1635 (Harvard’s Weld Hall and numerous other area properties honor his family; a New York investment firm named for his ancestors bought out a company founded by George Bush’s grandfather),  Mr. Weld looks, talks, and plays squash like the patrician he is. As governor he has made deep cuts in social spending to balance the budget, benefitting a man who won the 1990 election with the slogan “Tough on taxes. Tough on crime.”

But beneath that WASPy, preppy exterior lurks – well, perhaps not a bleeding-heart liberal, but at lest a compassionate, people-oriented person with a penchant for the underdog. He served, along with Hillary Rodham Clinton, on the staff of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate hearings, where he concluded that Nixon “wasn’t telling the truth.” He quit his number-three spot in the Justice Department in Washington after a spat with his boss, Attorney General Ed Meese. One of his favorite songs is “Lola,” the Kinks’ ode to cross-dressing. And his presidential aspirations are well known – though he has declared himself out of the running for the 1996 presidential race.

The Governor’s Commission’s twenty-seven members included the requisite human services professionals, along with three teachers, two parents of lesbian and gay children – and two high school students. Their mandate was to work to end all forms of discrimination agains gay and lesbian youth, with a special eye toward preventing suicide and violence. The commission held five hearings across the state in the fall of 1992; among the ninety people who spoke publicly were many teenagers, gay and straight. Their words were covered by print, radio, and television reporters; their stories were discussed in every Massachusetts village and town.

Even today, printed in black and white as part of the official commission report, their comments evoke chills. “Throughout eighth grade, I went to bed every night praying that I would not be able to wake up in the morning, and every morning waking up and being disappointed,” one eighteen-year-old said. “And so finally I decided that if I was going to die, it would have to be at my own hands.”

Inspired by such testimony, the commission realized that its initial focus had to be on schools – where, according to its first report, issued in February 1993, “the prevailing unsafe climate denies equal educational opportunities to lesbian and gay youth, Virtually every youth who testified before the commission cited the need for action to change their school environment. Often the first-person experiences these youth related were horrifying – stories of violence, abuse, and harassment, from both peers and adults.” Because state government has a responsibility to guarantee equal opportunity and a safe environment for all the students, the commission continued, the report homed in on creating an environment. “where all students mights learn, free from fear and intimidation.”

“We could have focused on human service agencies, not school systems,” admitted commission chair David LaFontaine, an English instructor at Massasoit Community College. “But it was obvious that schools are where gay and lesbian kids suffer the most, and where we can reach the most number of them.” He made no apologies for taking a very public approach to gay youth issues. “We haven’t been afraid of right-wing counterattacks, because we’ve been so very aboveboard talking about the need for this sort of thing.”

The commission sent five major recommendations to Governor Weld, the Department of Education, and the Executive Office of Education. They asked every one of the state’s three hundred high schools to establish policies protecting gay and lesbian students from harassment, violence, and discrimination; to train teachers, counselors, and school staff to respond to the needs of gay and lesbian students, including crisis intervention and suicide prevention; to establish a support group where gay and straight students can discuss important issues; to develop a library collection for students to learn more about lesbian and gay issues; and to develop curriculum that incorporates gay and lesbian themes and subject matter into all disciplines, in an age-appropriate manner.

In a historic and unanimous vote in May 1993, the Massachusetts Board of Education adopted the first four points as recommended state education policy; the fifth awaited development of discipline-specific guidelines. Approval brought no immediate practical effect – the state board can encourage, but not require, local school communities to enact policy – but its symbolic weight was enormous. Gay and lesbian youth issues had finally acquired government’s imprimaturl they leaped out of the closet, into every classroom in the commonwealth.

And that was only the beginning. Unlike many official commission reports, this one did not slide into obscurity or die a quiet death. Instead, actions began speaking even louder than the report’s powerful words. In July, Governor Weld stood in front of a group of educators and gay students in a Boston church to announce the first-ever state-wide effort  to train teachers about lesbian and gay issues. “The concept of schools as safe havens must apply to all students, including gay and lesbian students,” he said. “This is not about a different way of life; it is about life itself. We can take the first step toward ending gay youth suicide by creating an atmosphere of dignity and respect for gay youth in our schools.”

Even before the governor’s announcement, 110 school districts had expressed interest in the Department of Education project. Fortunately, they did not have to wait long to begin; in a launch rare for any government program, this one took off like a rocket.

One driving force behind what came to be called the Safe School’s Program for Gay and Lesbian Students, and one of the most enthusiastic bureaucrats to be found in any state department of education anywhere, is program director Jeff Perrotti. Originally hired as a consultant to work on AIDS training and education, he seized the chance to develop and nurture the $450,000 project, which is funded through the state legislature as part of its comprehensive school health curriculum. Within weeks Mr. Perrotti led a staff of twenty-five men and women (three of them full-time) whose sole mandate is to make Massachusetts schools more comfortable for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and questioning youths.

“We’re framing this in the context of school safety,” he explained. “It’s been presented by the Department of Education as a violence prevention program, to make the school climate safer for all students. We’re targeting one group that’s traditionally been at risk, but also poorly addressed.” The program is run by the same department unit that handles health education; the philosophy behind that, he said, is “you can’t address one part of a student’s life without addressing many others. Violence prevention is one part of school life, and gay and lesbian students are part of that part.”

Because Bay State taxpayers cherish local control of their schools, Mr. Perrotti’s group has embraced the belief that each district knows best what works for it, and what does not. “We don’t have the answers for each community – just suggestions,” he said. “Whatever schools want us to do, we’ll do it.” What districts want ranges from presentations on sexual harassment (with gay and lesbian issues simply one component), to evening community forums on gay and lesbian concerns, to in-service training, and much more.

The department’s first step was to contact every high school principal, asking each to select a liaison to the Governor’s Commission on Gay and Lesbian Youth, which had not disbanded following its report. Many administrators designated counselors or interested teacher; some named themselves or the vice principals. In the summer of 1993 Mr. Perrotti’s group requested each liaison to develop a team of people to attend a regional workshop; ideal teams were comprised of parents, teachers, guidance counselors, administrators, and students. Nearly half of the schools that had selected liaisons formed such teams.

The regional Saturday workshops began in the fall of 1993; fifteen were scheduled for that first school year. Each brought ten or so school teams together, to introduce them to each other and the Department of Education’s resources. Mr. Perrotti termed the workshops very successful. “We had good attendance and great interaction. They came away with incredible energy and ideas.” Though the focus was on high schools, several middle and elementary schools were also represented. Each team received a $100 stipend.

At the workshops, participants brainstormed about their schools. By the end of the day they had developed work plans, and received applications for grants ranging from $500 to $2,000 (the total departmental budget available was $100,000), plus technical assistance for applying. Grants could be used to develop programs or groups, such as gay-straight alliances; training materials for teachers; field trips to attend plays, gay pride marches, or similar events; film series; Outward Bound-type experiences to build group unity; speakers; conferences – “anything at all that relates to developing programs,” Mr. Perrotti said. However, the department discouraged spending grants on books or curricular materials. They did not want  a disaster like the New York Rainbow Curriculum battle over the inclusion of gay-themed material in elementary schools. Leaders were determined to keep the focus on violence prevention.

The department also spent its first year developing a student-based theater production that addressed gay and lesbian school safety. They made a training video for cable public-access television, planned resource manuals for students and families, organized four regional guidance counselor forums, and published a statewide directory of mental health practitioners and agencies. In the spring the department ran a large conference at which teachers, administrators, and students shared information about the use of their grants.

Though the program touched only a third of Massachusetts’s high schools in its first year, many of them from suburban and rural districts (city systems were curiously slow to respond), Mr. Perrotti was not discouraged. “We’re reaching out to the ones that aren’t involved,” he said, “We let them know what other schools are doing and encourage them to get involved. It’s an ongoing process. Our goal is to get every school to have a liaison, so they’ll have access to all our resources, materials, workshops, and newsletters. The department is making it clear this is not mandatory, but we hope every school will realize it’s available and important.”

Mr. Perrotti, who entered his first year as director of the Safe Schools Program with high expectations, admitted that his definition of “success” was modified. “What I define as ‘success’ might not sound like it. But I look back on these regional workshops as wonderful things. At the end of one, a completely closeted teacher came out. She realized she could count on the support of her colleagues, after fearing it for more than twenty years. There’s a direct link between how safe teachers feel, and how the students in that building feel. This woman can now serve as a positive role model, and every kid in her school can gain from that.”

A similar experience occurred when he led an in-service day for 150 faculty members. “A woman stood up, came out – it was very moving – and got a standing ovation,” he continued. “You can’t underestimate the significance of those moments on an entire school’s culture. I really feel that people meeting openly gay and lesbian people will do  more than anything to change attitudes. The more we can provide an openly safe environment in our schools, the more successful we’ll be. Having openly gay people at the Department of Education leading these workshops leads to people putting their toes in the water, and then going from there.”

Through his definition of success has changed, he knows from the evaluations he receives that the department’s program works. “It’s incredible,” he enthused. “People say things like, ‘This is the best use of state money I’ve ever experiences’; ‘It’s the most useful thing the Department of Education has ever done!’ People are so grateful we’re giving them access to open doors. It shows that policy is not just words – it’s power. We see that at our level: we’ve got a law, we’re here to help implement it, and by doing so we’re doing a lot for people. All it took was support from a high level, and fortunately we got that.”

And if Mr. Perrotti ever doubts the impact Massachusetts’s Safe Schools Program is having, he does not have to look farther than his own desk. He has spoken nationally on his work, and requests for information and assistance pour in from across the country. “It’s incredible he said proudly. “I just got a call the other day from North Dakota.”

But impressive as all that is, it’s not all that Governor Weld, his commission, and the Department of Education have accomplished. Aided by hundreds of young allies – some gay, some lesbian, many straight – they have succeeded in doing the near-impossible” they moved the state legislature to pas a controversial bill.

H. 3353 is its innocuous number; “An Act to Prohibit Discrimination Against Students in Public Schools on the Basis of Sexual Orientation” is its name, and it became law on December 10, 1993, when Governor Weld affixed his signature to i four days after it passed on a voice vote, with no debate. The bill – the first of its kind in the nation – protects lesbian and gay public school students from harassment and discrimination.

The wording of the bill was hardly momentous; it simply added sexual orientation to an existing public school anti-discrimination statute that included race, color, sex, religion, and national origin. In this case, however, words did not tell the whole story. Students did.

Angered by previous failures of similar bills, two of which were bottled up in Senate communities until they expired, students across Massachusetts engaged in what the New York Times’s SaraRimer called “an extraordinary lobbying campaign.” They worked for months, she said, “to affirm the rights of openly gay students to many rituals of adolescence; to form alliances and clubs, to take a date to the prom, to participate in sports.” As of March 10, 1994, any gay or lesbian student in the state who suffers harassment, discrimination, or violence, or who feels unprotected by school officials, can sue his or her district for negligence. For the first time anywhere in the United States, officials will be held accountable for the learning environments in their schools. The bill does not cover private and parochial schools. However, one advocate said, “It’s clearly going to set a tone and a standard for all schools in Massachusetts.”

Governor Weld’s chief secretary, Marty Linsky, readily acknowledged the impact of students on the bill’s fate. “There were a thousand young people up here endlessly,” he said. “And I think they were able to persuade members of the legislature that the problem was real and that the solution was reasonable. Their stories about their own difficulties were very compelling, very persuasive.”

Among the speakers was [Marsian] De Lellis, a seventeen-year-old senior at Belmont High School, who told legislators about the time his soccer teammates turned on him in middle school, spitting and calling him names. Andrew Lavin put himself on the line by addressing public hearings; as a result of the media attention, he became isolated and had object thrown at him during school. Chris Hannon told of leaving high school after receiving a death threat and other harassment for revealing his homosexuality. He and several friends made the bill’s passage an utmost priority: each personally called and wrote all forty senators. One indirect but ego-boosting result of their efforts was that several students received national attention. They fielded questions from reporters across the country, and appeared on television and radio stations across the land.

But effective as that was, the students’ efforts involved more than public speaking. Led by Mr. LaFontaine, chair of the Governor’s Commission, 150 young lobbyists descended on the State House one October day. They divided into groups, each with a leader, and together visited the offices of every state senator.

Thirty of them met with a top aide to powerful Senate president William M. “Billy” Bulger, a conservative lawmaker from an Irish-Catholic district. His earlier opposition had scuttled the bill; at the time of the lobbying, it was stalled in Senate Committee on Steering and Policy. After hearing the youths, Mr. Bulger helped release the bill.

Other lobbying efforts included a letter-writing campaign that elicited hundreds of pieces of mail, a candlelight vigil outside the State House, and a march down the Freedom Trail.

When the House and Senate passed the bill with an easy voice vote on December 6, the students were understandably elated. The last time one of the leaders, seventeen-year-old Brookline High School junior Sarah Lonberg-Lew, had lobbied legislators was in fourth grade. “It was to make the corn muffin the official state muffin,” she said. “We baked corn muffins for them.” This victory, she acknowledged was a bit more momentous.

Governor Weld took a bit of heat for signing the bill in private, although Mr. LaFontaine noted that he had been the commission’s strongest ally. “Having a Republican governor champion this issue, creating a group and funding training programs, has opened a lot of eyes. He has made this a much safer issue for both teachers and activists. And the governor forced Democrats to be much more active too, because they don’t want to be perceived to be to the right of Republicans. They have to live up to their rhetoric.”

Governor Weld’s private signing was forgiven eleven days later when he met with student leaders and ceremonially signed several copies of the landmark legislation. Then a hundred gay, lesbian, and straight high schoolers, along with their adult supporters, gathered in the State House to celebrate the bill’s passage.

Byron Rushing, the Democratic state representative who sponsored the bill in the House, told the group that they had made “an overt statement of your understanding of the respect and rights deserved by everybody. You said that because you are a human being and because you are here, you have inalienable rights that cannot be taken away by anybody. The legislature did not give you rights. You got those rights when you were born. The legislation says only that no one can take away those rights. It was your organization and your perseverance, and it was your clear, logical arguments that got this bill passed, and you should all feel great pride in your accomplishments.”

Yet developing, introducing, even passing a bill is one thing – implementing it is quite another. Citizens can petition and lobby, legislators can debate and vote, governors can sign – but ultimately it is up to the bureaucrats to put it into practice.

Making the Massachusetts legislation work is one of the challenges facing the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Department of Education – specifically, people like Jeff Perrotti. His job is to translate the act’s theory into reality. Fortunately, it is a task he relishes.

“This bill is remarkable – it’s a major thing,” he began. “It give gay and lesbian kids real protection. Schools are mandated to develop an atmosphere that prevents harassment. The effects can really be far-reaching. In the past this law has been the basis for textbook changes; it’s led to reparations for people of color, changing perceptions of women’s roles different types of teacher training about discrimination and harassment. Now we’re taking it one step further.”

Among Jeff’s biggest challenges is “letting schools know exactly what this means for them. That’s a huge educational task, just letting them know that this exists. The anti-discrimination statutes have been on the books since 1971, but some schools still don’t have a contact person for compliance. So we’ll be doing lots of interpreting for schools helping them revise their regulations.”

Obstacles exist. One relates to the overall nature of school change and how new programs are presented and institutionalized. “Anything that’s new straddles the fine line between what’s needed because it’s not being done, and what’s not really new or is deemed unnecessary,” Mr. Perrotti explained. “If something is presented as too new, it may be seen as faddish or peripheral. But if it’s presented another way, it can be diluted or simply not happen.” The bureaucrats and educators assigned to the program at the Department of Education and in school district offices are keys to its success, he said, but they must have the support of insiders in each building. “If people pushing the program are seen as too ‘outside,’ they won’t have the clout to get something going and then institutionalized,” he continued. “On the other hand, if you involve too many ‘tried and true’ people, you run the risk that it never happens in a new and exciting way.”

The challenge for Mr. Perrotti and his colleagues, then, is to bring in excited, energized people who have sensitivity to schools, which are cultures of their own filled with rigid barriers against being told what to do. That is not easy; few people feel comfortable in both the Department of Education and school worlds, he said. And both are incredible bureaucracies.

Any program’s success, Mr. Perrotti noted, turns on “empowering people at the lowest level. That’s where the work really goes on – but it can be incredibly frustrating. Bureaucracies are antithetical to empowering people.”

However, he added one important caveat: “Students and parents have incredible power in schools. If they want something to happen, they can make it. We’ve come to realize how important parents are in this whole issue. Without a doubt, the most moving speakers we heard in the debate over amending the bill were the parents talking about accepting their gay and lesbian kids. PFLAG (Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) is often on the outskirts of the gay community, but they’ve been integral on this issue and to this program.”

Another obstacle to act’s success is one that’s seldom talked about, Mr. Perrotti said: “This involves teachers who don’t feel safe coming out, and others in our community who find it too painful or fearful to be around kids. There are a lot of internalized worries to overcome.”

Yet the Department of Education director sees that as an exciting challenge, too. “To let gays know they can take care of their kids – to talk about youth suicide, and overcome the four taboos of death, suicide, youth sexuality, and homosexuality – it takes a lot, but we’re doing it. We’re sensitizing and educating the gay and lesbian community that these are issues, that they’re important issues, and that they should be talked about. And once we do it, we’ve found the gay community to be very, very generous with time, energy, expertise, and resources. It’s an issue that involves everyone, not just kids in high school and their teachers, and the response has stared to be very, very gratifying.”

The amendment to the anti-discrimination bill did not take effect until March 10, 1994, ninety days after its passage. According to commission chair David LaFontaine, school administrators got the word early that the statute was on the books and ready to be enforced. “I’d bet you a million dollars, if I had it, that every principal in Massachusetts knows that this law passed, and is already rethinking the way the school deals with anti-gay violence and harassment.” In that way, he said, even before the first case was litigated, “we’ve already won a victory.”

Though he would like to think of Massachusetts as a model for the rest of the nation, Mr. LaFontaine acknowledged that his state is not a typical one. “We’ve had over 100,000 people in our pride marches every year,” he said. “We’ve got a proliferation of colleges and universities, which gives us an enlightened base of citizens, and Governor Weld is an unusual figure. His unique political configuration – a socially liberal Republican governor in a Democratic state – combined with the courage of gay, lesbian, and straight kids and teachers, all came together at the right time.”

However, Massachusetts is not nirvana. “I’m generally disappointed by the fact that gay and lesbian adults still do not make gay and lesbian youth a priority,” he noted. “Many still seem afraid to work openly in schools for gay and lesbian youth rights, though I think that fear is misplaced. The vast majority of gay and lesbian teachers are still in the closet – even though since 1989 we’ve had a gay rights law on the books protecting teachers in their place of employment. The number of gay and lesbian teens coming out is really outpacing the number of adults.”

Much of the teaachers’ fear, he claimed, is irrational. “People who had good reason to be closeted on the job for fifteen or twenty years ago are now stuck in unhealthy patterns. It’s not easy to re-evaluate a position taken fifteen or twenty years ago, and realize the atmosphere is more tolerant now than it was in the past. But that’s just one more reason to continue working on gay and lesbian youth issues: so gay teenagers won’t go into the closet, and spend years being fearful for their jobs, themselves, or their lives.”

Mr. LaFontain recognizes that his commission’s work has unleashed a phenomenal reaction. “We’ve distributed over 10,000 copies of the report, all around the country,” he said. “Several of us have spoken all over the place. I’d like to believe the work we’re doing here – proving we can take a proactive stance regarding gay and lesbian school issues, and rally public support for them – is an inspiration for other states. I believe our Massachusetts model – and at the heart it means giving voice to gay and lesbian, teenagers, helping them be leaders – can work all over the country. We’ve found that when people hear these stories, they’re moved by them. They realize these students can be their own sons or daughters. Then it becomes no longer an issue of gays and lesbians pushing a particular agenda, but a simple issue of the human rights of young people.”

Still, he is not ready to mark Massachusetts a success and move on. The commission’s work is ongoing, he observed. “We’ve had impressive media visibility, but what we’ve done so far is just a beginning. The real work lies now in creating programs for every high school in the state. We want to translate the governor’s mandate, and the huge public awareness, into school-based action.

“We know we’ve got years of work ahead of us,” he concluded. “The liberal communities are light-years ahead of the rural and conservative ones. And we won’t stop until support services are in place for every student, in every school, in Massachusetts.”