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.”