Published in Washington, D.C.
By Carol Innerst
As the video camera captured the lively classroom discussion, a third-grade teacher at New York City's P.S. 87 asks her charges to decide if it's OK to let "gays" marry.
"How would you feel if homosexuals were the majority and the law said you had to be homosexual to get married?" argues one child, her mind already made up.
Blame it on AIDS and an official push for acceptance of diverse lifestyles, but notions of what even young children need to know have been radically altered. Kindergartners are learning about "homophobia" as lessons about alternative lifestyles and homosexuality appear in America's elementary schools -- often without parental knowledge.
Nearly a decade ago, state-mandated AIDS instruction opened the door to teaching about homosexuality in schools, as teachers found it impossible to talk about how AIDS is transmitted without discussing homosexual practices. At first, discussions of the topic were largely confined to high school, but that is changing.
The Clinton administration recently endorsed grade-school "diversity" training to encourage students to be tolerant of minorities, homosexuals and the disabled.
The National Education Association, the nation's largest teachers union and a powerful voice in American education, adopted a resolution urging schools to develop activities and programs that "increase acceptance of and sensitivity to" diverse groups, including homosexuals.
"Teachers need more opportunity dealing with these issues," said Richard W. Riley, the administration's secretary of education.
But to Florida mother Jodi Hoffman, the results at the classroom level have been disastrous.
"Ninety-eight percent of parents out there have no idea what's going on in their schools," she says. "We know we've got a problem when they prosecute you if talk about God anywhere near a school, but it's OK to teach students that anal sex is an acceptable method of birth control."
Mrs. Hoffman and her husband, Paul, have pulled their three children out of Broward County public schools and filed a class-action suit against the school board to stop what they call the board's promotion of homosexuality in sex education courses.
"I am furious and outraged that tax dollars are being spent to promote a lifestyle that if embraced will cut our son's life in half," says Mrs. Hoffman.
Among the Hoffmans' complaints: At one middle school, the school board allowed officials from a community organization to tell the children they would be lucky to be on the receiving end of oral sex and not to worry if their "cut-free" leg happened to be splashed with HIV-positive blood.
"I'm not a nut, I'm not a foaming religious right-winger or a fanatical bigot," Mrs. Hoffman says. "What I am is pro-parent and pro-family. I'm for my children.
"Schools make the kids think about sex," she says. "When my daughter was 10, we opted her out of a sex education class and they put her in anyway."
The Provincetown, Mass., school board voted in August to begin teaching preschoolers about homosexual lifestyles and backed hiring preferences for "sexual minorities."
Provincetown's move will include having the group Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays speak in kindergarten classes.
"We are on a trailblazing path," said Susan Fleming, superintendent of Provincetown schools. Miss Fleming and Jeannine Cristina, the homosexual mother who first pushed the initiative, said they hope to persuade other school systems to adopt their "anti-bias" proposal.
A similar plan met with a hostile reaction in New York City in 1993. A Queens school board rebelled when Chancellor Joseph Fernandez attempted to introduce the "Rainbow Curriculum" into elementary schools, complete with the controversial books "Heather Has Two Mommies" and "Daddy's Roommate." He lost his job in the ensuing uproar.
And many parents take issue with the Clinton administration's diversity push.
"I have respect for the presidency, but it really grieves me," says Barbara Baughman, a Newberry, S.C., grandmother with eight grandchildren in schools in South Carolina and Pennsylvania. "It's heavy on my heart and mind that President Clinton gave his OK that anything goes."
Mr. Clinton "distorts the concepts of 'tolerance' and 'diversity' ... when he seeks to equate sexual conduct with benign characteristics like race, handicap or gender," says Family Research Council President Gary Bauer.
Adds Carmen Pate, vice president for Concerned Women for America: "Parents need to beware, to ask their children what they learned in school today and to make sure they tell them the other side of the story. Parents also need to ask schools if they received a copy of 'It's Elementary.'"
"It's Elementary" is a 1996 video made by Debra Chasnoff and Helen S. Cohen for the Women's Educational Media. Mrs. Pate calls it "a training tool for breaking down a child's natural resistance to homosexuality." The P.S. 87 classroom discussion on gay marriages is on the video.
One episode in the film shows a black child asking if homosexuality meant a racially mixed marriage. Later, that child states that gay people are born that way.
"How did he get to that point?" asks Mrs. Pate. "Our kids are being inundated with this propaganda. There's no discussion in the video about AIDS or sexually transmitted disease, yet we know a large percentage of the homosexual community has AIDS and STDs. Where's the other half of the discussion?"
A Seattle school board member and official with the National School Boards' Association thinks third-graders are too young for a discussion of the pros and cons of homosexual marriage.
"Third-graders should not be asked to contemplate something that deep and complex," says Michael Preston, chairman of the NSBA's Council of Urban Boards of Education. "I'm sure they should be allowed to marry, but I've come to that conclusion as an adult and it's not something I'd even care to think about as a third-grader."
With such lessons becoming prevalent, school boards need policies to make sure parents can let children opt out of these discussions, he says.
"At the same time, boards shouldn't get into the position of censoring or banning anything," he adds. "But you have to consider the age appropriateness of the subject matter. Young minds are sometimes like clay. We need to allow children to be children and not overly influence what they end up thinking about something."
In Montpelier, Vt., Joel and Felicity Bachman became upset when their daughter's high school sociology class was given materials that encouraged kids lacking in self-confidence to have sex with someone of the opposite gender to "build up their pleasure-giving abilities."
"She also read that 'two lesbians make a more nurturing relationship than a heterosexual couple' because women are naturally more nurturing," the Bachmans say. At an unannounced school assembly, students were presented with a panel of all gays, lesbians and bisexuals who talked about how happy, healthy and productive they are.
"Our daughter tells us that the 'in' thing at her high school now, if you're a girl, is to 'be' a lesbian," the Bachmans report in an e-mail posting. "If you show any sign of feeling anything but joy at the sight, you're homophobic."
One of the teachers videotaped in "It's Elementary" says that "even if you are against the lifestyle, it still needs to be addressed." Another teacher says she "has a problem" with parents who opt to take their children out of discussions of homosexuality.
"You hear so many different things, the school needs to give us the facts so we can decide on our own," one eighth-grade girl concludes on the video.
The prevalence of such lessons is difficulty to determine.
"Generally speaking, it's coming from special-interest groups," says Chris Pipho, spokesman for the Education Commission of the States, a clearinghouse on state activities in education.
"There's been no rush on the part of states in this area because ... it's difficult to put a program together because it falls into the clutches of one group or the other," Mr. Pipho said. "That creates a hole and you have to dig yourself out of it."
4 May 1999