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. In the book, I was interviewed about my LGBTQ advocacy work.

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.”