(In)Tolerance Education

Until a few years ago, the gay-rights movement kept its distance from my life in suburban California. I followed the movement’s progress in the media and analyzed its claims in theology papers, but none of these matters directly intruded on my family’s life and thus did not prompt any direct response. Then one morning, as I read the online bulletin issued by my son’s Catholic high school, an item grabbed my attention: “We are announcing a new school club—The Gay, Straight…and anything in between…Alliance’ (GSA)!!” I read over the announcement several times, pondering the oddly jocular tone of the words, “and anything in between.” I spent the rest of the morning reviewing the GSA network’s significant Internet presence and crafting an e-mail to the club’s adviser. Additional e-mails, a meeting with the adviser, communication with the headmaster, and, finally, a letter to the local bishop led to the short-lived closing of the group on orders from the diocese.

The tug-of-war with the school over the GSA club led me to explore the increasing clout of the gay-rights movement in American schools and to grapple with the problems posed by “tolerance” education and affiliated support groups. Our society rightly seeks to end the harassment of homosexual students in schools that have witnessed a decline in civility and a rise in crude behavior. And as many parents and teachers will attest, the stigma of homosexuality remains strong in an adolescent population that struggles to project normalcy during a vulnerable time.

Nevertheless, we’re in real danger of broadly adopting an unjust solution to the stigmatization of gay students that will harm many more young people than it will help. Designed explicitly to protect marginalized students and implicitly to enforce acceptance of “sexual differences,” tolerance education and school-based clubs ignore the needs of heterosexual students, encourage questioning teens to embrace a gay identity, and violate the rights of teachers and parents who resist this current. Meanwhile, the appearance of these clubs in religious schools generates unnecessary confusion about Christian teaching on marriage and human sexuality.

Advocating the inclusion of gay and lesbian students as a civil rights matter, tolerance education and support groups such as the GSA club at my son’s school provide an empathetic forum for the concerns of sexual minorities. Once established, though, the agenda usually broadens considerably—particularly in liberal, urban schools on the East and West coasts. While addressing the genuine problem of anti-gay harassment, student and faculty activists also seek greater institutional accommodation within a stubbornly heterosexual school culture. Early on, GSAs made headlines when members successfully negotiated the right of same-sex couples to attend proms. Equity in public displays of affection followed. Gay pride events and a “Day of Silence”—an annual protest designed to underscore the emotional costs of gay self-censorship—have surfaced in more than a thousand schools nationwide. Now, advocates for “safe schools” are shifting their focus to “transgender students,” and groups have begun to lobby for separate bathrooms for cross-dressers.

Even 20 years ago, GSAs and other elements of tolerance education would have prompted more resistance in our schools. Today, while the movement still provokes controversy, its steadily increasing role in shaping American school culture reveals a growing level of confusion regarding the entire subject of human sexuality. Forty years after the onset of the sexual revolution, students and teachers are grappling with a breakdown in the transmission of practical, moral, and religious principles and rituals that once helped the young anticipate the achievement of adulthood through the gateway of marriage and family life. The transparent, sequenced steps of courtship are long gone, for example. No one still expects administrators, teachers, and parents to reach a consensus on proper teenage behavior. Tolerance education flourishes in the incoherence that remains.

This approach must be anchored in a rich, systematic teaching on the intrinsic dignity of each student, and an exploration of the deeper purpose of human sexual identity and expression. There also must be an engagement of individualistic, utilitarian values that lead the young both to resist any constraints imposed on their freedom and to fear the sacrifices real love requires. For this reason, it would be shortsighted to plan a response that simply targets the clubs for elimination. Any effective strategy must go to the heart of the matter: a recovery of fidelity to the truth about the human person, his intrinsic dignity, and the purpose of human sexuality.

A Quiet Infiltration

While the Golden State may well be a predictable beach-head for gay rights advocacy in schools, tolerance education, often in the form of GSA clubs allied with GLSEN (Gay Lesbian Straight Educational Network) chapters— and those with similar titles and missions can be found in public and elite private schools, religious and secular, throughout the country.

Since the first GSA clubs surfaced in the late 1980s, their central purpose has remained unchanged: to establish “safe schools” for gay and lesbian students and to combat “homophobia.” What continues to shift is just how activists define these goals. A sampling of GLSEN’s glossary of relevant terms hints at the movement’s evolving points of reference:

• Queer: Historically negative term used against people perceived to be LGBT, “queer” has more recently been reclaimed by some people as a positive term describing all those who do not conform to rigid notions of gender and sexuality. Queer is often used in political context and in academic settings to challenge traditional ideas about identity (“queer theory”).

• Heterosexism: Bias against non-heterosexuals based on a belief in the superiority of heterosexuality. Heterosexism does not imply the same fear and hatred as homophobia. It can describe seemingly innocent statements, such as “She’d drive any man wild,” based on the assumption that heterosexuality is the norm.

GLSEN chapters organize members for gay pride marches, produce curricula attacking “heterosexism,” oppose legislation banning gay marriage, and back civil suits that mandate GLSEN-sponsored sensitivity training for students and teachers. Some GLSEN training materials merely stress the need to protect gay and lesbian students, citing high dropout rates among victimized groups. But other curricula push harder: Teachers must not articulate preconceived notions regarding gender identity and sexual orientation in classroom discussions, lest they find themselves in the crosshairs of GLSEN and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

In recent years, the inclusion of sexual minorities in some state and local hate-crime statutes has provided a new window of opportunity for tolerance education. Four years ago, the California Student Safety and Violence Prevention Act incorporated sexual orientation as a protected category in its anti-discrimination statutes. The California Safe Schools Coalition, a gay-rights advocacy group, advises school districts in California to embrace GSA clubs, if only as a handy defense against potential lawsuits. “A Question and Answer Guide for California School Officials and Administrators dealing with ‘School Safety and Violence Prevention for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Students’ implicitly acknowledges that some wary school communities don’t want the clubs.

Refusal to allow a GSA to meet may also constitute discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, in violation of the anti-discrimination laws as well as free-speech protections. In addition to these legal requirements, having a GSA on campus is an important way to combat anti-LGBT harassment and may help a school fulfill its legal obligation to ensure a safe environment for all students.

Where do parental rights fit into this scenario? The California Safe Schools Coalition recognizes that some parents distrust the confusing message of tolerance education, which encourages acceptance of transgressive behavior yet shuns traditionalists’ positions—on gay marriage, for example—as bigotry. A separate “guide” produced by the coalition suggests that California not permit public school students to “opt out” out of tolerance education. Why? Because, they say, curricula that promote inclusion don’t contradict any religious belief system. In contrast, California students may opt out of sex education programs perceived as a violation of their parents’ beliefs.

The California Education Code encapsulates the dos and don’ts of tolerance education quite well. The code seeks to promote “appreciation of diversity [and] discourage discriminatory attitudes.” Simultaneously, teachers must avoid any direct engagement of religious or moral beliefs. Such guidelines make a robust discussion of the relevant issues virtually impossible.

GLSEN’s curriculum on the gay-marriage debate provides a template for this skewed approach. “Exploring the Debate over Marriage Rights for Same-Sex Couples” offers a startling picture of marriage shorn of traditional beliefs and expectations. GLSEN’s curriculum repositions marriage as a gender-free couples’ relationship propped up by economic benefits and justified as a platform for the pursuit of individual freedom. What is the meaning and purpose of marriage, as GLSEN sees it? “Marriage should be understood as a basic human right and an individual personal choice.” Though the curriculum promises a full range of perspectives, it mischaracterizes the core tenets of Christian and Jewish teaching on marriage as endlessly elastic and fatally tainted by cultural practices like polygamy and dowry negotiations. The critical role of marriage in the protection and education of children goes unmentioned. Not surprisingly, the authors of the curriculum advise students to evaluate gay marriage without moral preconceptions—an approach that encourages a beautifully utilitarian mindset. As a result, marriage emerges as a kind of bookkeeping arrangement.

Ignoring Parents

The overwhelming endorsement of traditional marriage in the past election confirms America’s resistance to the escalation of the gay-rights agenda. However, the advancement of the gay identity movement in an increasing number of American schools is less understood. For the moment, at least, protests seem to be confined to a swath of local school districts. For example, the “anti-hate” Dignity for All Students Act, recently passed in New York City over Mayor Bloomberg’s veto, met with resistance from some parent and conservative groups. Critics opposed such legislation as an attempt to suppress both freedom of expression within the school community and parents’ rights to direct the education and upbringing of their children. In Kentucky’s Ashland-Boyd County School District, required “anti-harassment workshops”—the fruit of an ACLU lawsuit that sought to establish GSA clubs in district schools over local resistance—prompted hundreds of students to stay home in protest. Reportedly, the ACLU may go back to court to require student participation.

In Maryland, hundreds protested the Montgomery County Board of Education’s recent approval of a pilot curriculum that presents “the importance of tolerance and acceptance of sexual variation” in order “to dispel stereotypes and bullying.” Opponents of the pilot program, including a former PTA president, voiced a variety of concerns. Some questioned the suitability of classroom discussions on homosexual behavior. Others critiqued the board’s approval of materials by gay advocacy groups, while “censuring other points of view.” In a letter to the editor published in the Washington Post, one critic noted that the “board-approved materials urges schools to refer students to select religious groups such as Lutherans Concerned, Dignity for Catholics, Rainbow Baptists and More Light Presbyterians.”

Parental opposition to the clubs centers on the threat they pose to traditional beliefs and expectations regarding sexual morality. But another element of tolerance education—in its latest, more aggressive manifestation—seems equally alarming. The tolerance mandate, whether enforced by the law or imposed by true believers, seems to encourage a kind of totalitarian fervor in its adherents. William Saletan, a writer for the online magazine Slate, describes this extremism in a generally positive article on gay marriage advocacy that appeared in the New York Times Book Review:

Equal treatment regardless of choice. Think about that. In such a country, you would be forbidden to treat others differently because of their behavior. You would be free to express anything but your morals. No privilege or honor could be withheld. Preferential treatment of married couples under family leave laws would be dismissed. …No permissible stigma, no permissible social advantage. This is the totalitarianism of the anti-totalitarian.

One small incident that took place at my child’s non-denominational elementary school underscores the zeal of the self-appointed tolerance missionary. A parent had the temerity to question whether speculation about Michelangelo’s homosexual inclinations should be included in reading materials for fourth graders. The parent received a tongue-lashing from the assistant head of the school who said the dissenting family might be better off elsewhere. This kind of tense exchange between enlightened faculty and wary parents has become quite common, now that the academy’s preoccupation with the policing of gay rights has filtered down into secondary and elementary schools.

In public education, resistance can provoke financial repercussions. Last year, when trustees of California’s Westminster School District refused to authorize an update of the school’s anti-discrimination policy to include transgender students, half of the district’s funding was put at risk. News accounts explained that the three trustees believed it was “immoral to define gender beyond biological terms and that accepting the policy would promote homosexuality and trans-sexuality.” Student safety was an additional issue: One trustee worried that the new code would encourage Peeping Toms. Gay-advocacy groups suggested a simple, if expensive solution that has been adopted by more enlightened districts: separate bathrooms for transgender students.

Mistaking Propaganda for Education

A review of similar disputes reveals a predicable pattern at work within the tolerance education mindset: an obsessive concern with the sensitivities of transgressive teens and a lack of regard for the adults who want to stop an imminent train wreck. The movement insists on full acceptance of its core position: Homosexuality is one among many acceptable options for human sexual expression. Teachers and parents who resist this insight must be reprimanded and even punished. The righteousness of the cause justifies the methods used: Gay-rights advocates equate their campaign for inclusion with the civil rights movement of an earlier time. Activists contend that the culture stigmatizes homosexuals because of the way God made them, just as whites persecuted racial minorities because of their skin color. For homosexuals, the stigma is felt not so much in their pocketbooks, but in social interactions shaped by moral distinctions and visceral impulses.

Most gay activists refuse to distinguish between homosexual persons and homosexual behavior. Thus, the culture is obliged not only to embrace homosexual persons but to affirm their choices and behavior. Television sitcoms and workplace etiquette have already moved in this direction. Tolerance education seeks to create a level playing field by suppressing moral distinctions in classroom presentations and discussions. But a value-neutral approach to personal behavior is a dangerous message for rebellious adolescents, particularly those in the throes of sexual confusion. In contrast, Christian teaching does make distinctions between persons and their actions, thus admonishing believers to love the sinner and hate the sin. In rejecting the received tradition, gay activists adopt a fatalistic view of human nature that denies the possibility of moral choice. Yet our capacity for moral choice confirms our human dignity and freedom.

Generally, the media have done little to clarify such matters. But a recent series of articles on gay teens published by the Washington Post suggests that the journey toward a full-fledged gay identity is hardly a value-free rite of passage uncomplicated by matters of conscience. The teenagers profiled in the series speak of their nagging doubts regarding the “choice” they have made. Their parents, relatives, and classmates also question the feasibility of their decision. Even in the heart of the inner city, where good men are hard to find, the friends of a poor lesbian teen, fearing for her soul as much as her future, wonder aloud if she should reconsider.

Publicly, tolerance proponents often articulate a “live and let live” philosophy. But the movement’s mindset is too intrusive to be confused with such a libertarian position. If we celebrate moral relativism as creative and valuable, then we must reject an adherence to moral norms as rigid and homophobic. If we applaud the courage of those who test sexual boundaries, then we must diminish those who don’t push the envelope.

An example of this dynamic is spelled out by my godson, who studies at an elite Episcopal boarding school in New England. His school doesn’t offer a single course on chastity education, but he is required to watch a film on gay, bisexual, and transgender people. After showing the film, his instructors demand not tolerance but affirmation from the assembled students. “In the discussions,” he writes me, with a touch of anger, “we were expected to agree with everything the movie said or be scorned by the faculty as ‘homophobic.’ We watched the movie as if the people in it were supposed to be our role models.”

Ham-handed advocacy masked as education antagonizes many adolescents like my godson. Ultimately, though, the aggressive exposure of sexual deviancy may do real harm, desensitizing teens and lowering their standards of behavior in heterosexual relationships. Further, no one is helping my godson with the critical task that lies ahead: the shift from adolescent preoccupations to a deeper understanding of his own sexuality. Will he learn to embrace masculinity as a gift that finds its true expression in the faithful, fruitful, and permanent bonds of married love?

Smoke in the Sanctuary

The rejection of gender as determinative summarizes the thrust of the gay-rights educational movement. The consequent suppression of traditional expectations regarding marriage and family life shortchanges all students. Further, the demand for unconditional acceptance of the movement’s precepts may soon threaten the freedom of religious institutions to oppose this juggernaut. Why, then, do Catholic schools permit it?

Unfortunately, the clubs’ presence in Catholic schools reveals the moral ambiguity with regard to homosexuality that has been permitted to fester in many Catholic educational institutions. Of course, many of these same schools provide abortion referrals for students and disdain chastity education. No surprise, then, that so many Catholic educators seem ill-prepared to think more deeply about the real needs of homosexual students or counteract the gay identity movement’s intrusion into schools under their care.

A case in point: When I broached the matter of the GSA club with my son’s school, the club adviser explained that the problem of high suicide rates among gay teenagers required a response. In conscience, the school had to provide a “safe space” for teens that received “hurtful remarks.” The adviser could not explain why the school’s guidelines for student behavior and disciplinary actions were insufficient for dealing with anti-gay harassment. Nor could he explain how a “club” offered an adequate response for teens actually contemplating suicide.

In contrast, the bishop, who acted to close the club, understood well the dangers it posed. However, he dismissed the club’s presence at my son’s Catholic school as an unfortunate anomaly—not a symptom of a broader problem. Nor did he change his position when I noted that three Catholic high schools in his diocese sponsored these same clubs. Reflecting on the good intentions of the GSA adviser at my son’s school, I proposed that the diocese might develop a more integrated response to the problem of anti-gay harassment. Perhaps it could provide school counselors with training and resources rooted in Catholic teaching. The bishop preached against gay marriage in the pulpit, but saw no value in engaging the schools on this issue. In the midst of the clerical sex-abuse crisis, he quickly moved on to put out bigger fires. A few months later, the GSA club resurfaced. This time, I didn’t bother calling the diocese.

My son’s school is no anomaly. Without thought or open debate, many school administrators seem to have adopted a view of human sexuality as both superficial and elastic—all paths lead to a happy ending.

In the September/October and November/December 2004 issues of Momentum, a publication of the National Catholic Education Association (NCEA), Rev. Robert Mattingly, S.J., the admissions director of Gonzaga College High School in Washington, D.C., wrote that the pathologies associated with homosexuality, such as the high rates of suicide and substance abuse, can be mitigated if Catholic educators accent the positive. “Self-destructive behaviors are not intrinsic to being homosexual but they flow from the external negative reaction to it, which then becomes internalized,” Mattingly contends. Schools should give witness to the Christian values of charity, social justice, and inclusion in their treatment of gay students. Teachers should present homosexuality in a positive light, possibly by noting the accomplishments of gay writers and scientists. Support groups should be established. Administrators should hire faculty “who are open to this inclusiveness,” and no one should assume that “all students are heterosexual.” Acknowledging the skepticism of some Catholic educators, Mattingly writes: “Fear that individuals may engage in sexual behavior if freed of their crippling self-hate should not derail helping someone learn to love himself or herself.”

But Mattingly notes some dark clouds on the horizon: “Religions that communicate negative messages about homosexuals are destructive and can contribute to the young gay listener’s self-hate.” Mattingly doesn’t explain what these “negative messages” might be, nor does he directly label Catholicism as a negative force. But his two-part article, which offers a dry account of Church teaching on homosexuality and summarizes the findings of secular researchers, offers no suggestions for an effective approach to chastity education. Natural law, the exercise of virtue, and the important work of Courage, a national support group that helps homosexuals embrace themselves and Church teaching, all go unmentioned. Nor does this Jesuit priest suggest that educators encourage the more frequent use of the sacraments. The reader’s inevitable conclusion is that Catholic schools should concern themselves with therapeutic goals: the elimination of self-hate and the promotion of self-acceptance. Yet the Catechism reminds us that Catholic teaching on sin is a “mercy” for all of us, calling each person to repentance and transformation in Christ. Do gay Catholics require an “opt out” clause to maintain their self-respect? Mattingly’s article does not directly address this question, but he will present his blueprint for tolerance education at next month’s annual NCEA convention, and participants can flesh out his views then.

In California, many Catholic educators seem to share Mattingly’s belief that school communities should foster gay students’ self-acceptance. At a diocesan high school, an assembly showcases a recent graduate “coming out” to the school community. The young man receives a standing ovation. This well-intentioned exercise has been repeated in many schools that provide large and small forums for the “coming-out story.”

And yet, it’s hard to understand the purpose of this new kind of school ritual. The ripple of affirmation for a confessional act perceived as heroic is a feel-good gesture on the part of the assembled crowd. It costs the applauding students and teachers nothing. Perhaps the young person, who finds relief in acknowledging a painful secret, will remember the celebratory moment all his life. But what happens offstage? Who will be present when the consequences of that choice push that young man to the edge of despair? Real compassion leads us to suffer with people, to help them carry their cross in the light of truth. Acts of real solidarity lead to the conversion of both the weak and the strong. A false compassion yields an ersatz act of solidarity: The cross is casually discarded, even when it must be borne.

Normalizing Disorder

Our family recently moved from California to the Washington, D.C., area. Nevertheless, we continue to confront the growing impact of the tolerance movement. My daughter’s family life teacher brightly informs the assembled eighth-grade girls, “Some of you will be attracted to men, and some of you will be attracted to women!” At another time in this convent school’s past, the reverend mother offered starkly different categories that shaped the students’ vision of the future: “Some of you will marry, and some of you will be called to the celibate life.” Our central identity as children of a loving God, made in His image, fuels the discernment of our earthly vocation. Yet, if we’re not careful, the gay identity movement will succeed in convincing its members—and the rest of us, too—that sexual orientation trumps everything. They would have us believe that homosexual and heterosexual persons operate in two distinct worlds, with God’s moral law, His redeeming love, and His saving grace only operative within the latter sphere.

Jason Evert, a Catholic speaker who works with teen groups, reminds his young audiences that Mother Teresa resisted all efforts to compartmentalize persons with same-sex attraction disorder. Disdaining the label “homosexual,” she offered a different term: “Friends of Jesus.” This phrase provides a necessary illumination from a woman who spent her life serving Christ in the “distressing disguise of the poorest of the poor.” I understand her remarks to mean that we must not permit the gay identity movement to capture the hearts and minds of young people who call themselves gay, lesbian, or anything else. We must offer them love and the truth, even if we’re punished for doing so.

The morphing of diversity education into gay-rights advocacy might be dismissed as yet another harmless educational fad if the potential for danger weren’t so great. A deception is being perpetrated. Vulnerable adolescents are offered “an entire package of new ideas and concepts about sex, gender, human relationships, anatomical relationships, and personal destiny,” psychotherapist and author Joseph Nicolosi observes. Christian leaders and educators—particularly the Catholic bishops—must engage the underlying misconceptions that fuel this movement’s growth. And they must stop it.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

With so much happening in the Church right now, we are hard at work drawing out the battle plans so we can keep the faithful informed—but we need to know who we have on our side. Do you stand with Crisis Magazine?

Support the Spring Crisis Campaign today to help us meet our crucial $100,000 goal. All monthly gifts count x 12!

Share to...