Archive for the ‘students’ Category

Virginia AG Dives Head-First into Culture Wars, Hits Cement

March 8th, 2010 1 comment

I might have been writing about William and Mary’s basketball team, which will play for the CAA championship this evening. But instead, I’m constrained to talk about something disturbing involving my alma mater, and the state’s schools more generally.

A few days ago, I reported on the rumor that Virginia’s new Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, had commanded the state’s universities to rescind their policies that prohibited discrimination against gays and lesbians. No one would talk.

Well, in an article that reminds us of the continuing vitality of and need for the mainstream media, the Washington Post obtained a copy of the letter and reported the story on Saturday. It does indeed “advise” the state’s schools to withdraw the policies, which he acknowledges are “benign.” This is one of the worst moves by a public official since — never mind, there are too many to choose from.

The letter never should have been written. The law isn’t as clear as Cuccinelli says it is. The cases in which the AG has found that such policies exceed the state’s authority involved municipalities or, in one infamous case, the Governor’s Office (when Gov. McDonnell was AG, he opined that Gov. Kaine had exceeded his authority with an Executive Order extending non-discrimination protection to gays and lesbians). None of them involved a university, and for good reason.

Although the state’s universities are of course “public institutions,” they’re not like municipalities, or state agencies, and everyone knows that. As even Cuccinelli recognizes in the letter, they enjoy a certain necessary amount of autonomy. But that autonomy isn’t only granted to allow the school to carry out its day-to-day functions; it’s also a recognition that universities need a certain freedom to act in order to flourish. Cuccinelli is right to say that they can’t contravene the General Assembly, but supplementing the state’s anti-discrimination policy isn’t the same thing as contravening it. In other words, he puts the burden in entirely the wrong place: If the Commonwealth of Virginia feels that it wants to put itself out there on the issue, it should be required to pass a law specifically stating that universities within the state system may not offer protection based on sexual orientation. (Update: A former governor and AG of Virginia, Gerald Baililes, agrees with me.) Presumably, even the newly red-again state isn’t stupid enough to do that. In the silence, the current list of protected classes should be regarded as a floor, not a ceiling — a floor on which the universities may build further protections, both to affirm their basic commitment to equality and — more practically — to attract the most qualified professors, administrators, staff, and students.

This will quickly turn into a PR nightmare for the state. Most of the members of the universities’ governing boards are staying mum for now, as they figure out what to do. But at least one member of George Mason’s Board of Visitors — a Republican, by the way — called the action “reprehensible.” Senator Mark Warner stated that Cuccinelli’s action will “damage the Commonwealth’s reputation for academic excellence and diversity.” A student at Old Dominion University opined that we’ll see “the gamut” of protests on this one. He’s right, I’d imagine — and hope.

None of this can penetrate the true believers’ thick skulls. One spokesman for the Family Foundation said: “I find it hard to believe that this would be the final straw in whether or not someone’s going to come to Virginia’s universities…They are some of the best universities in the country.”

Well, part of the reason for their excellence is their refusal to accede to paleolithic principles, even if the Commonwealth lags behind. And here’s a counterexample on the “final straw” argument: Me.

When I was down to the final, difficult decision about whether to attend William and Mary or Brown University — a close and difficult call — had this issue come to my attention, I would have chosen Brown. And if William and Mary and the other state universities (where “state university” is defined as a school that gets 14% of its operating budget, and none of its endowment from the state) continues to get slapped around by the state in this way, the entire state will be off my daughters’ list of college possibilities. So, there.

Even McDonnell wisely avoided addressing this issue directly when he was AG. Cuccinelli should have done the same, but apparently he’s determined to take down his own party and to make the state a place of last choice for anyone who cares about basic equality. The opinion isn’t self-executing, though. Let’s see whether the universities’ boards have the cojones to resist.

Equality Forum Day 6 (2): All About Me

May 2nd, 2009 1 comment

OK, I’ll ‘fess up: I attended the program From PTA to GSA mostly because, as the parent of four-year-old twins, I wanted to hear strategies for navigating what I assumed to be the dark waters of the school experience for my kids. As soon as I walked in, I knew I’d made a good decision; in typically academic fashion, the organizers of the panel had strewn a table with a wealth of useful materials for LGBT parents of school kids. These materials addressed the tough questions I suppose I’ll have to face once my kids are old enough to realize, as my partner David says, that “some people are mean to their parents.”

Mountain Meadow is a summer camp that has also worked with GLSEN (The Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network) to produce research documenting what we all know: Kids from same-gender families have it tougher in school than their classmates from other homes (whether “traditional” or single-parent). The fruits of that collaboration are in a research paper called Involved, Invisible, Ignored: The Experiences of Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Parents and Their Children in Our Nation’s K-12 Schools.

That paper demonstrates just what you’d think it would: Kids of LGBT parents have it tough, and of course it gets worse as the kids get older. But the anecdotal  information has more punch: For example, one kid was told he could only make one Mother’s Day gift, even though his teacher knew he had two moms. (Who on earth was this teacher, btw? Nice job.)

After Stephen Duffy, the Executive Director of Mountain Meadow, presented this case, the panel turned to two kids for their stories. One was a thirteen-year-old boy named Nicholas, who admitted to being kind of a bookworm. He had told only a few of his friends that he had two moms, for fear of reprisal  (not his word — he’s a bookworm but only 13, for heaven’s sake!). Nicole Reyna, a local high school junior who lives with her  mother most of the time, but sometimes with her dad and his partner, represented Nicholas’s story at a later point; in middle school, she, too, had  been “out” about  her parents to only a few of her closest friends, but now she’s a true activist, having traveled to San Francisco to march in the Gay Pride Parade there. In her words: “Equality should just be there. We shouldn’t have to fight for it.”

I was surprised to learn that often schools’ Gay-Straight Alliances are less than welcoming to these kids, because they’re not gay. But what about the “straight alliance” part of GSA? To the extent this exclusionary impulse is a reality, it cements the point that a great deal of work remains to be done.

Some of that work is being done by people like Erika T. Garnett-Wootson, a teacher and GSA Advisor for Philadelphia’s Martin Luther King High School, who might with  accuracy be called “The Reluctant Activist.” For reasons she didn’t articulate fully, Garnett-Wootson served for a while as a sort of “underground advisor” for LGBT students with sufficiently developed gaydar (when’s the last time you saw that word, incidentally?) to have sussed her out. Then she just jumped in and formed a GSA, serving as its advisor. This began about four years ago.

Her story stands as a kind of universal lesson about the risks and joy of taking a tough stand. At first ridiculed or ignored, her school’s GSA is now a part of the furniture. Conditions are better for everyone at the MLK school, and students  and Garnett-Wootson can thank each other for that.

Do I need to start worrying about this stuff now? To an extent, yes, but the Garnet-Wootsons and steadfast students in GSAs throughout the country allow me the fantasy that perhaps my concern will amount to little.