From the December 17, 2000 issue of the Chicago Tribune
By Tracy Dell'Angela
As leader of the nation's largest teachers union for the past five years, Bob Chase doesn't shy away from contentious issues. But his decision to be the keynote speaker at the national convention of Gay, Lesbian and Straight Educators Network elicited a new bounty of hate mail, with members denouncing him for promoting "a radical pro-homosexual" agenda. "This is not a matter of promoting an `unsafe and abhorrent lifestyle,' as one of our members put it, but a matter of protecting one of the most vulnerable populations from unsafe and abhorrent behavior," he said to educators and students at the convention in Arlington Heights. A former teacher in Danbury, Conn., Chase talked in the interview below about his decision to appear and how gay issues play out in the nation's schools, as a safety issue for students and a labor issue for teachers.
Q: As the e-mails you refer to in your speech indicate, the issue of gay rights is clearly a powerful divide in this country. As the leader of an organization that represents 2.5 million teachers, who no doubt have very strong and wildly divergent opinions on this issue, how comfortable are you advocating what some teachers have labeled a "gay agenda"?
A: We as an organization have clear policies on this issue. They were adopted by our annual convention, which is made up of close to 10,000 delegates who vote on these issues and are representative of our membership across the country. They have voted on policies that call for an end to discrimination based on sexual orientation, so I'm very comfortable speaking on this issue. If we didn't have clear calls for non-discrimination it might be a different story.
Q: The gay educators have said your appearance at their national convention was a turning point for them, a recognition that anti-gay bias is no longer considered a fringe issue for educators. Were you hoping to send that message? Any reservations about speaking on this issue?
A: I don't see it as being any different from going to another organization that fights discrimination and tries to end bias in schools for kids and employees. We have strong policies within the NEA that are supportive of this kind of action. We have to be true to our belief that one of the things we have to ensure is a safe place for all kids.
Q: Were you surprised at the tenor of the comments you received in anticipation of your appearance?
A: No. They were generated as a result of misrepresentation of what the conference was about and what my comments would be, by right-wing groups such as Focus on the Family and Family Research Council. They portray this as promoting homosexuality when no one is promoting homosexuality. This is about human and civil rights, about people being protected. I saw something on their Web site where they say part of my speech was delivered "breathlessly." I mean, what kind of foolishness is that? It's not about asking for any special rights or special anything. They should be given the same rights as everyone else. It's the very principle upon which this country is based.
Q: Some gay educators have suggested that teaching is second only to the military in being the most closeted of professions, with its own "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Do you agree?
A: I think it depends on where you are. There are certainly many gay and lesbian educators who don't hide their sexuality, and they are protected by law in several states. For those not protected by law, it's obviously more difficult. Sometimes it depends on the culture of the community in which they teach. There are some places where it would be particularly hard to be out of the closet. But I think things are changing, and all will be better off for it.
Q: In the Chicago area, only a handful of school districts have language protecting staff specifically on the basis of sexual orientation, and only one has domestic partnership benefits. Union officials suggest this type of language, when it is on the table, is the first to be bargained away during contract negotiations. Does this contract issue play out differently in other parts of the country?
A: I think it does. And I think it's unfortunate when contract issues that will bar discrimination are taken off the table quickly. It's also unfortunate that there aren't more state laws, policies that call for supportive legislation. If such laws were enacted, especially at a national level, it would go a long way in resolving the issue. It wouldn't have to be something that was dealt with during contract negotiations.
Q: How do you personally feel about homosexuality?
A: It's important for my personal statements to be statements from the president of the NEA, not from Bob Chase. The only comment I would make is I feel personally very comfortable advocating the positions of the organization. I think the positions are right, and I think the organization did the right thing.
Q: What about your personal experience as a teacher in Connecticut, how this issue played out with students and colleagues?
A: I certainly have known students and staff members who have wrestled with the issue. And I know it's very, very difficult. If in fact we have in place a safe learning or safe working environment, then it becomes less difficult. They don't having to worry about their work status and their safety.
Q: Research shows that gay students are now identifying as such between the ages of 13 and 16, whereas a decade ago coming out was something perceived as an adult process. How are schools adjusting to this change?
A: Again, it's something that really varies all over the place. And there are lots and lots of school districts wrestling with the issue. I think it's very important to have in place opportunities for young people who need help to get that kind of help. Some schools seem to be more advanced in recognizing this. But there is a growing awareness, states that are passing laws or school districts that are adding sexual orientation into their non-discrimination language. I think that helps enormously.
For the complete interview, go to the Tribune's web site: