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Sexual Orientation: When conflict rules the school

Chad Thompson & Warren Throckmorton, PhD

For over a decade, parents have warred with gay advocacy groups who want to infuse school curriculum with messages about homosexuality. Groups like the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN) say that society must address the abuse and ridicule that gay and lesbian kids face in school in order to create a safe environment for learning. However, many parents believe instruction that teaches respect for gay-identified youth is actually a Trojan Horse that advocacy groups like GLSEN use to indoctrinate kids with favorable messages about homosexuality.

To address the rancor that attends these debates, representatives from the Christian Educators Association International (CEAI) recently sat down with members of GLSEN to hammer out ways to discuss sexual orientation in schools. These groups were brought to the table by the First Amendment Center and another group called Bridgebuilders. The First Amendment Center seeks to apply principles of free speech to resolve problems and Bridebuilders has had success in resolving disputes in the public schools. If there was ever an issue where conflict is the rule, it is sexual orientation and how to present it in school.

Recently, these organizations crafted a framework that could provide school districts and parents with principles of dialogue when conflicting groups square off over sexual orientation. The paper is called Public Schools and Sexual Orientation: A First Amendment Framework for Finding Common Ground (“The Framework”) and has aroused significant conflict from both sides of the ideological spectrum.

The level of emotion and conviction that people feel about the things which influence the morals and beliefs of their children make it difficult to find consensus on matters of conscience. Thus, the framers of the Framework did not attempt to form common ground on matters of ideology. The Framework states: “No ideological or religious consensus is possible – or perhaps even desirable – in our diverse society.” Rather, based on the First Amendment, the writers of the Framework attempt to develop what could be considered rules of engagement in the culture war.

Thus far, the guidelines have built very few bridges. Groups on the political right and left have found fault with them. One recent headline from a conservative source said: “Christian education group caves to homosexuals.” Conversely, liberal Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG) said the Framework was designed to foster discussion of gay issues in schools and that the views of ex-gays should not be considered. We believe critics are missing the central aim of the guidelines: “Educators can and should require that all viewpoints be expressed in a respectful manner, but they may not exclude some views merely because they don’t agree with them.”

We believe agreement on First Amendment principles will address concerns of people on all sides of the debate. While agreement on substance may never occur, promoting free speech principles could address two issues which concern both the right and the left: ideological coercion and personal safety.

The Framework says that parents should be given information about any and all resources, books, video's, and curricula that are introduced to their students. As the most infamous scandals of homosexual propagandizing have historically taken place behind closed doors, schools promoting common ground communication should take steps to prevent teachers from introducing controversial classroom materials without due process.
Conservatives have often pointed out that much of the curricula designed to foster discussions about sexual orientation in public schools are biased against traditional views of sexuality. For instance, we know of only one curriculum that contains any mention of homosexuals who have re-directed their sexual orientation to conform with traditional religious beliefs. When mentioned in school, the lives of former homosexuals are often either discredited or ridiculed.

Where discussed in school, we believe a comprehensive perspective on the nature of sexual orientation should be offered. And that is exactly what the Framework suggests: “School officials should address the controversy fairly and openly by including all of the stakeholders in an effort to develop policies that promote fairness for all…" (emphasis ours).
We believe that the public school system has become a social climate where conservative and Christian views are frequently bullied into silence. This Framework supports the right of social conservatives to freely express these perspectives in schools by sending a clear statement to educators that if they introduce a gay advocacy perspective, they should also allow a countering voice.

In contrast, it appears to us that social conservatives and others who oppose the introduction of programs which teach respect for gay and lesbian students often minimize the legitimate struggles faced by students who identify as gay or are perceived to be gay. Everything from name-calling to vandalism is aimed at young men whose demeanor is even slightly feminine, or young women who come across as “butch” or masculine. Yet conservative commentator, Linda Harvey, responded to the Framework’s release with these words: "While no one doubts that some bullying of students who believe they are homosexual does occur, these are sad, yet isolated incidents with no uniform characteristics. They are not the fault of Christian values."

We while agree that harassment of gay and gender nonconforming students is not the fault of “Christian values,” we are not persuaded that such bullying is isolated. One of us (Thompson) has experienced such harassment first hand as an ex-gay and the other (Throckmorton) is a counselor who deals with the fallout of such harassment on a daily basis.

If we want Christian values to be taken seriously, we must start by acknowledging the true suffering experienced by young men and women who are perceived to be or do identify as gay. And we must take a stand against their mistreatment even if we disagree with homosexuality on religious or moral grounds. Any other approach only increases the likelihood that impressionable and confused kids will join up with these gay advocacy groups. Conservatives who fail to compassionately address this issue further alienate the very kids we need to help, while the open arms of gay advocacy groups appear to be a place where these kids can be understood.

The Framework is helpful here as well, in that it suggests that schools dealing with controversy over this issue begin deliberations where agreement is most likely to be achieved: Teaching respect for all. Some social conservatives may think it’s dangerous to even talk with gay-affirming parents. However, we believe it’s possible to dialogue in such a way that maintains principle and respects human dignity.

Finally, critics of the Framework on both sides should recognize that embracing free speech rights does no violence to other rights. After all sides are heard and a school determines a course of action, parents who disagree are still free to exercise their right to go to court, vote school board members out of office or remove their children from the public school.

Social conservatives and homosexual advocacy groups will probably never agree on ideology; the chasm is just too deep. Nonetheless, all those involved in crafting the Framework should be commended, not for finding consensus on one of the most politically divisive issues of our time, but for finding means to disagree agreeably and, where applied, model civil discourse to our children.

Chad Thompson is the founder of Inqueery and author of the book Loving Homosexuals as Jesus Would. View his archive here.

Warren Throckmorton, PhD is Associate Professor of Psychology and Fellow for Psychology and Public Policy at Grove City College. He produced the documentary, I Do Exist and authored anti-bullying and sexual orientation curriculum available for free download at

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