Homosexuality will become more acceptable to students, especially elementary ones, if a conference sponsored recently by the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) fulfills its goals.
More than 700 teachers, administrators, high school and college students, and homosexual activists attended GLSEN's third annual conference, "Teaching Respect for All '99," in Atlanta, according to Conservative News Service. They heard from speakers such as Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., and attended strategy sessions on such topics as addressing homosexuality in elementary and middle schools, affirming "transgender youth," and responding to the religious right, according to reports in CNS and CultureFacts, a publication of Family Research Council.
GLSEN Executive Director Kevin Jennings said at the three-day meeting his organization would be "shameless" in promoting pro-homosexual programs to all 15,000 schools in the country, CultureFacts reported. "We are at a new moment in our history," he said, according to CNS.
"Perhaps the most startling aspect of the [conference] was the increasingly bold programs to teach elementary school students to accept homosexual relationships and 'gay families,'" Peter LaBarbera said in his report for CultureFacts. LaBarbera, a FRC policy analyst, attended the meeting.
The "coming-out" age, the time when people publicly declare their homosexuality, is falling, said lesbian activist Mona Mendoza of the Washington Education Association. "Eighth-graders are coming out; sixth-graders are coming out," she said, according to CultureFacts. "Let's talk about it and deal with it."
An advertisement in the conference program was for the academic book Queering Elementary Education: Advancing the Dialogue About Sexualities and Schooling, CultureFacts reported.
"If we do our jobs right, we're going to raise a generation of kids who don't believe [the claims of] the religious right," GLSEN director of communications James Anderson said at a workshop, according to CNS.
Deanna Duby of the National Education Association said at a workshop, according to CNS, "The fear of the religious right is that the schools of today are the governments of tomorrow. And you know what? They're right."
More than 100 teenagers attended the conference, including twenty high school students who were there courtesy of scholarships from Levi Strauss, according to CultureFacts. Other corporate sponsors included American Airlines, Eastman Kodak, and IBM, the newsletter reported.
In his keynote address, Lewis, a participant in the civil rights movement of the 1960s, promised the support of that community for homosexual rights.
"We have one more bridge to cross to reach that time when no one is left behind because of race, color, or sexual orientation," Lewis said, according to CNS.
"We have a moral obligation and a mandate to speak out. If we fail to speak out, then we become less than human."
The strategy sessions were led by such organizations as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, as well as homosexual rights organizations such as the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation and the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund, CNS reported.
While GLSEN's stated purpose for the workshops was to create "harassment-free, respectful learning environments for all," some of the leaders offered criticism of religiously based opponents of homosexual rights.
The religious right "is not about to admit that they just want to bash gays if they can. … You have to remember, Sunday after Sunday millions of people come to church to hear the diatribes," said Steven Green, general counsel of Americans United, according to CNS.
"The right would love to have prayer in schools and religion classes, but they would accept a neutral curriculum that only taught the 'three R's,'" Green said. "You've got to watch for that sort of watering down of sex-ed in your community."
Green called parental rights amendments "extremely pernicious," according to CNS. "They allow parents to interject their religious feelings and philosophies into school curriculum," he said.
According to CNS, Green and other speakers used strong rhetoric to criticize such pro-family leaders as James Dobson, Jay Sekulow, Phyllis Schlafly, talk-show host Laura Schlessinger, and organizations such as Concerned Women for America.
The strategy sessions also included discussions on how to present religious conservatives as extremist and homosexual activists as mainstream.
"We are now in the position of being able to say, 'We have the high ground; we have the facts, and we don't have to go one on one with these people,'" said GLAAD's Cathy Renna, according to CNS. "We've come such a long way – we're the mainstream now."
Renna described at a workshop how to approach reporters covering homosexual issues.
"One of the most important things you can do is have those tough conversations with journalists about when it is completely inappropriate to run to some radical group like the Family Research Council because of misguided notions of 'balance,'" she said, CNS reported. "We have to offer them some more moderate voices or convince them that there is no other side to these issues."
One participant in the session said, according to CNS, "If [journalists] do a feature on 'gay pride,' they invite the American Family Association to comment. If you did a story on Hanukkah, you wouldn't get the Aryan Nation to comment, would you?"
The Aryan Nation is a white supremacy group. AFA, which is headed by former Methodist pastor Don Wildmon, is a pro-family organization that deals in particular with television decency.
GLSEN, which became a national organization in 1994, works to "end the damaging effects of anti-gay bias in America's K-12 schools," according to a news release.