Mary Bonauto analyses "local or state educational policies which restrict or eliminate any school-based instriction or activity that could be interpreted as positive about homosexuality."
What Are "No Promo Homo" Policies?
These are local or state educational policies which restrict or eliminate any school based instruction or activity that could be interpreted as positive about homosexuality. For example, a policy enacted by the Merrimack, New Hampshire School Board and later repealed stated:
The Merrimack School District shall neither implement nor carry out any program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative. A program or activity, for purposes of this item, includes the distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling, or other services on school grounds, or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle.
Sometimes the policies are phrased more bluntly, and simply forbid any discussion of homosexuality at all - be it positive or negative.
Where Did These Policies Originate?
Attempts to restrict the curriculum and other school based activities are as time-honored as public schooling. In addition, in recent years, the U.S. Congress has voted on proposals to eliminate federal aid to schools which promote homosexuality. Although such measures normally pass by large majorities, their effect is neutralized by amendments providing that schools should not be involved in promoting any sexuality or sexual activity, whether heterosexual or homosexual. These amendments, while a proposed solution to an imagined problem, allow homosexuality to be mentioned in educationally appropriate contexts and clarify that it is not the role of the schools to encourage sexual activity of any kind.
What Can I Do?
The best plan is to keep these policies from being enacted in the first place. Get involved! Apply your political and organizing skills to the community in which you live. Accept the mantle of responsible citizenship. Be prepared to confront the common myths and stereotypes about AIDS, recruiting and molestation.
When you attend school board meetings, or call the Superintendent, or write letters to the editor, remind people that public schools are our hallowed "marketplace of ideas" marked by a spirit of free inquiry and a robust exchange of ideas. As the United States Supreme Court observed, "Teachers and students must always remain free . . . to study and evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die." Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967).
Are These Policies Legal?
Probably not. In a related case at the college level decided this year, a federal judge in Alabama struck down a state law which forbade any college or university from using public money or facilities to "promote a lifestyle or actions prohibited by the sodomy or sexual misconduct laws" as a first amendment violation. While we have no definitive ruling from the courts on a curriculum oriented policy is issue at a high school level, there are obvious legal problems with no promo homo policies.
Teachers' And Students' Rights To Expression Without Viewpoint Discrimination
It has long been recognized that "[t]he vigilant protection of constitutional freedoms is nowhere more vital than in the community of American schools." By attempting to establish heterosexuality as the only acceptable "lifestyle alternative" and squelching all discussion of gay people, a no promo homo policy contradicts the belief that:
Our Nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment, which does not tolerate laws that case a pall of orthodoxy over the classroom.
No promo homo policies require that any discussion, instruction or counseling which could conceivably be interpreted as addressing homosexuality do so in a way that is negative. Positive or even neutral discussions of gay people or gay issues could violate such a policy. While discussion of heterosexuality is permissible, whether positive or negative, only discussion of homosexuality must be negative.
The First Amendment free speech clause forbids government indoctrination of this sort, and is often referred to as forbidding "viewpoint discrimination." Although school officials have wide latitude to determine the content of curriculum, their policies must have a valid education purpose and cannot go so far as to cast a "pall of orthodoxy" over the classroom. These policies create such a pall of orthodoxy by conditioning the rights of students, teachers and counselors to express themselves upon their concurrence with this ideology.
Students' Rights To Receive Information And Ideas
There is also ample case law that students have a right to receive information and ideas. For instance, in one Supreme Court case, the Court ruled that a school board's removal of books from the school libraries may have violated the first amendment because the school board wanted to suppress what they thought were dangerous ideas (they claimed the books were "anti-American, anti-Christian, anti Semitic, and just plain filthy.").
The free speech issues are easy to illustrate because these policies result in drastic self-censorship. Educators become so fearful of violating the policies that they abandon discussion of any topic which might implicate the policy. For example, in Merrimack High School, one English teacher decided not to teach Shakespeare's Twelfth Night because it involves a female character who disguises herself as a man, and another English teacher decided against using a video about poet Walt Whitman which mentioned that he loved men.
Educators' Rights Not to Be Subjected to Punishment for Violating an Unconstitutionally Vague Policy
In order to be enforceable, a policy must accurately warn people about what is permitted and forbidden. With the Merrimack policy, for example, what does it mean to "encourag[e] or support homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative"? What is a "lifestyle" anyway? The last time we checked, gay people had all different kinds of lifestyles. Vague policies are wrong in part because they create fear and self-censorship in those who are supposed to follow the policy. Can a history teacher conduct a lesson on ancient Greek cultures or will this be viewed as supporting or encouraging homosexuality because those societies celebrated love between men. Must a current events teacher avoid all discussion of the Merrimack policy for fear that a student will disagree with the policy? The list goes on and on.
Policy Inconsistent With Other State or Local Educational Policies
Often, state and local policies require an education to provide a student to the broadest possible curriculum in order to prepare them for the realities of modern life. No promo homo policies conflict with such educational mandates and in some states may be challenged through administrative procedures.
Why Do Schools Need To Provide Gay-Sensitive Counseling To Students?
In 1989, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a report on youth suicide which indicated that over 30% of all completed youth suicides each year are by gay and lesbian youth, and that gay youth are two to three times more likely to have attempted or seriously considered suicide than their heterosexual peers. Gay and lesbian youth, as well as students who are questioning their identities, often need counseling that is only available in the schools and these policies ignore their interests.
© Mary L. Bonauto Gay & Lesbian Advocates & Defenders P. O. Box 218 Boston, MA 02112