uno itinere non potest perveniri ad tam grande secretum -- Q. Aurelius Symmachus, 384 C.E.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Anoka-Hennepin's LGBT Problem: Neutrality and Objectivity Are Not the Same Thing

Anoka-Hennepin Superintendent Dennis Carlson has a response this morning to a Star-Tribune editorial calling his school district's policy on homosexuality "gutless," because it embraces a "neutrality" standpoint that some have connected with the dismal record it has on LGBT bullying and suicides. Six students have taken their own lives, and another two are filing suit against the district, alleging the bullying they experienced went unabated by the staff there, which even, according to the latest suit, punished the bullied student instead of the perpetrators.

Carlson laments the Star-Tribune editorial for a number of perceived sins, including confusing the school's bullying policy -- which supposedly bans bullying based on sexual orientation -- and the school's bizarre curriculum policy, clearly intended to placate religious conservatives.

First, it's strange that the superintendent is testy over this confusion, since the curriculum policy just mentioned notes its bullying policy as well, tacitly if not explicitly conceding that the two are of course linked. But regardless of the wording of the policy, it's outright disingenuous to suggest that a curriculum policy can have no effect on the culture of the schools and the bullying that might occur therein.

In a strange tangent, Carlson also chides the state and its leaders for taking an "oppositional" approach that is anathema to compromise, which he links to others' views on the district's policies. But the district clearly does not understand that "compromise" and "neutrality" are themselves anathema to a solid education based on the facts.

Facts purport to be important things in the district's curriculum policy. After urging that its staff "remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation," it directs teachers to engage in discussions on these matters in a "respectful manner that is age-appropriate, factual, and pertinent to the relevant curriculum." In a clarification sent to staff, the district points this out again, saying such discussions should be "fact-based."

But "fact-based" and "neutrality" are naturally at odds with each other if the facts are clearly on one side. Indeed, the word "neutral" itself implies just the sort of two-sided, oppositional approach to an issue that Carlson laments in the rest of society. Its root meaning, from the Latin, means "not either" (ne + uter), which presupposes that there are two, legitimate sides at issue here. Of course, there aren't: virtually all of America's professional and scholarly organizations that have studied the matter do not view homosexuality as some sort of disorder or disease, including the premiere medical, psychological, and psychiatric ones. These are organizations devoted to objectivity -- a dispassionate analysis of the facts, a far cry from the false equivalency that "neutrality" implies. Carlson himself at one point conceded this approach, telling the Star Tribune: '"I do take a middle-of-the-road approach, and I don't apologize for it. If I'm getting an equal amount of hate mail from the left and right, I feel like I'm on solid ground." Note that "solid ground" has nothing to do with the facts of the matter or the scholarly consensus concerning the issue, but rather whether Carlson's voice mails have stacked up evenly. 

Anoka-Hennepin can't at once urge its teachers to be "factual" and at the same time "neutral," but then that's not the true aim of the policy. Rather, it aims at placating the feelings of religious conservatives and others who maintain prejudice against homosexuality. This is made clear by the curriculum clarification cited above. In it, the district gives several examples of how to implement "neutrality," promising more to come. One of them addresses whether a teacher should be allowed to wear rainbows or pink triangles in support of gay rights, a right the district appears to begrudgingly permit to its employees, for immediately afterward comes the caveat: "There are students who may be uncomfortable or intimidated by their teacher wearing these symbols, and they too have a right to an education." Except, as stated above, no scholarly or professional organization accepts a view that homosexuality should be viewed with suspicion or contempt, so why are we worried about those students who think likewise? Would a teacher wearing an anti-racism T-shirt be admonished for possibly offending those adherents to 19th-century white supremacy? Is this different? How is it, when the arbiters of our knowledge, the scholars and professionals who study these matters, are in consensus about homosexuality in the same way they are about the equality of all peoples?

The guidelines go on to warn teachers about expressing their personal support for LGBT rights, noting that "this could intimidate students who have strong beliefs (religious or otherwise) about homosexuality and they have same (sic) rights to an education as every other student in your class." To be "neutral," the district then forbids teachers from stating their personal beliefs that homosexuality is wrong, noting that they might have gay students or students with gay relatives.

So everything's equal, right? Not really. There are such things as facts, those stubborn things that Anoka-Hennepin pays lip service to and which are supposedly the backbone of any education (can you imagine telling teachers not to refer to Pi as an irrational number, lest they offend some students?), and one side has the facts on its side, while the other has traditional or religiously inspired prejudice -- a prejudice that has already left too many bodies in its wake.

With a curriculum policy like that, it's no wonder Anoka-Hennepin's bullying policy -- no matter how divorced they would like it to be from their "neutral" stance toward prejudice -- is nonetheless giving rise to controversy, lawsuits, and suicides.

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