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Dispute over gays boils over in Oak Park (IL) schools

From today's Chicago Tribune:

This concerns a school district in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago that is considered diverse and socially progressive. I highlighted some excerpts that I found really disturbing.

By Noreen S. Ahmed-Ullah, Tribune reporter

February 7, 2010

In the diversity-embracing, socially progressive cocoon of Oak Park, RoiAnn Phillips and Kelly Fondow are raising Eva, a precocious 5-year-old.

Eva's school has other kids with gay parents. Her kindergarten classmates have never shied from asking Phillips or Fondow: "Eva has two moms, which one are you?"

But the couple got a quick reality check when an Oak Park elementary school came under criticism last month. What Beye Elementary saw as an effort to prevent anti-gay slurs in the classroom turned into a tug-of-war over whether teachers should discuss same-sex relationships with children as early as kindergarten.

"Beye hits a little close to home because I live here and because I want to raise my kids in a place where they can walk down the halls and other kids won't look at them strangely," said Fondow, whose daughter attends Irving School, another District 97 elementary school. "I expect my child to be supported by teachers and the school administration."

But for conservatives, including three families at Beye, it's not a matter of looking down on gay families. They agree no kids should feel unwelcome or bullied in school.

What they don't agree with is introducing the words "gay" or "lesbian" or "homosexual" at the elementary level.

"We do not want any sexuality, homosexuality or heterosexuality, discussed in the classroom for K to 5," said Margaret Brown, a parent at Beye, which has about 10 gay families. "It's inappropriate, and it's not (the school's) place to tell our children what is morally right or wrong on this controversial topic."

The discussion began after Beye's school improvement team set a priority of helping teachers and staff deal with kids making comments such as, "that's so gay" to their classmates. The school brought in gay rights advocate Shannon Sullivan, executive director of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, to conduct three training sessions with teachers and staff and talk with parents at a PTO meeting.

But the effort drew the attention of the Tinley Park-based Illinois Family Institute, and soon the school was subjected to an angry piece on the group's Web site and a subsequent e-mail blitz.

"This was not a new goal," said Principal Jonathan Ellwanger, who received more than 140 messages. "For our community, the notion that every family deserves respect should be a given."

He says the anti-gay language reflected a "broader lack of sensitivity" that the school decided to address.

But Illinois Family's Laurie Higgins said Oak Park educators could have addressed it with a statement as simple as: "Kids, we don't make fun of anyone."

"I understand there's a sizable homosexual community at Beye, and I completely understand why they would want to normalize this and rid people of disapproval," Higgins said. "But it's not appropriate to undermine the moral conviction of conservative parents and use taxpayers' resources for this."

After some letters appeared on the Illinois Family Institute Web site and in local weeklies, dozens of people showed up for a Beye PTO meeting last month. The meeting was largely cordial, but a letter voicing moral disapproval of gay families and of the issue being raised at the elementary level sent a gay high school student crying from the room.

Brown, who read the letter, said she felt terrible that her words upset the teen.

"I went home and cried," Brown said. "I cried about the high school student. I wish I had said to him, 'This might hurt you. You might like to leave.' I cried because Beye had a great family feel. I've had friendships with lesbians and gays. Now people will see us disagreeing as, 'You hate us.'"

Sarah Durbin, who is lesbian, attended the PTO meeting and was disturbed by the letter.

"You can't have your cake and eat it too," she said. "You can't say, 'I think you're immoral, but I like you, too.'"

She agreed, though, that "this is kind of new territory to open it up for discussion at the elementary level. It's scary for parents, especially those who don't understand homosexuality. But this is not talking to children about sexuality. We just need to be teaching them respect and that being lesbian is not a bad thing, and that being gay is not a bad thing."

Many parents were surprised and upset by the tone of the meeting.

"I'm heterosexual, but I feel personally attacked," said Kathy Stohr, a Beye parent. "We have a number of families at Beye headed by gay parents. Several of their kids are friends with my kids. We're being attacked for being a welcoming school."

Fondow, a real estate agent whose older daughter is now a college student, and Phillips, who works for a nonprofit company in Chicago, say the lesson they've learned is that they need to be more involved in the community and show others that they are like everyone else. They don't want teachers discussing sex with their kindergartner, either.

"This shows why starting an open dialogue is necessary," Phillips said. "If I thought this would be about sex, I would be with them. When adults talk about gay people, they sexualize it. When kids talk about families with two moms, it has nothing to do with sex. It has to do with the makeup of their classmate's family."
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