Is 'gay policy' what we need?

Monday, March 18, 2002

Imagine it took some courage for several young gay and lesbian people to speak out at the Storm Lake school board meeting this week, especially when they know there is a lot of moral sentiment stacked against them in the community.

They spoke of what it feels like to be called "queers," "fags" and worse. Some are now college students, and said they wished there had been a nondiscrimination policy to protect them from such abuse when they were in high school in the area.

Such a proposed policy - coming out of a routine and usually ignored process of reviewing the district's policy language every so often - has created an unexpected storm of public opinion.

Maybe Storm Lake has grown tired of debating the ethnic diversity and environmental issues that have naturally consumed us for so long.

Whatever the reason, everyone seems to have an opinion on "the gay issue." Letters to the editor are being written, coffee shops filled with discussion, and we've got more people crowding into the school board meeting room than on any issue in years.

We aren't alone, either. The Gilbert School District is being asked to add a policy against harassment of gays, after openly homosexual student Jerryn Johnson's car was vandalized five times in the high school lot.

Schools in Des Moines, Ames, Iowa City and Decorah have extended "sexual orientation" language in their policies, while Storm Lake, Lamoni and West Des Moines have discussed but rejected the same idea.

I wonder if a change in policy language is really what anyone needs here.

Do the students who have been taunted as "queer" really think that a new phrase on some piece of paper will stop all hateful actions?

Will words on paper prevent violence, alienation, loneliness?

Ask the kid who doesn't quite look, think or act like everyone else. Does policy prevent name calling against a teen who is overweight or awkward at the sports that seem to come easy to everyone else? Does it prevent sadness for those from families that can't afford the "right" clothes?

Several of the gay and lesbian students who are speaking out note that they "came out" during those high school years, or chose to make those around them aware of their sexuality.

A lot of the other teens who may not be made to feel they belong didn't have that choice.

I like what the current high school kids had to say in signing an impressive petition in support of a policy to protect gay students and staff from discrimination - that they don't have to agree with the gay lifestyle to believe they have human rights, and to oppose abuse of those people.

Some of the adults might benefit from such a level of maturity.

Personally, I can't say I understand homosexuality, nor would I endorse it as "right" based on my beliefs.

But like the 206 students and staff who signed the petition, I don't believe this is about judging people.

So, what do we really want out of this debate?

A policy? Really?

A policy is a piece of paper. Change - real change - is not nearly so easy to achieve as a quick vote in a board room.

Would a policy have been much comfort to those gay students when they were being abused? Doubt it.

A policy on a piece of paper wouldn't get 80 people out on a cold winter night to sit through a board meeting, or inspire them to spirited debate on the steps of the school administration building.

The sound and the fury aside, it sounds to me like everyone wants about the same thing, really, and it isn't a policy.

We want schools where everyone has an equal opportunity to learn and laugh. Where everyone can feel safe, and experience a sense of belonging. Where everyone gives and gets dignity and respect from those around them.

Schools that don't try to teach sexuality, but health and introspection and good decision making skills.

Schools where students and staff who are troubled for any reason have a place to turn to be heard and helped.

When we have this, "coming out" isn't much of an issue, is it?

Perhaps we should quit worrying so much about the wording of a piece of paper stuck in a spiral binder on an administrator's shelf somewhere.

Policy doesn't make a school a good place, people do. I suspect that if understanding is what we want, we will need to encourage it and develop it in those people, not in policy.

The gay debate is in full swing in Storm Lake, but if you ask me, it isn't about homosexuality at all.

The real people who are "coming out" are the ones who come out to show that they care about people around them, even when they don't accept their lifestyles.

Isn't that progress?