The following post is a guest post from David Fishback, Advocacy Chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, with opening comments from HRC’s Family Project Director, Ellen Kahn:
As voters across the U.S. prepare to vote in primary elections next week, and coverage of the critically important November mid-term elections permeates every news channel, a reminder about the importance of school board elections to our community is timely. LGBT voters and our allies have a vested interest in the outcomes of school board elections, whether or not you are parents or have any connection to you local public schools. Why? Through state legislative enactment, school boards give local citizens the authority to develop school policy, rules and regulations, to hire school superintendents and to make decisions about curriculum and extracurricular activities for elementary, middle and high schools in their district. School boards serve an important purpose and ensure that schools are meeting the needs of the students in their local communities, but when school board members are guided by ideology, they can block implementation of LGBT-inclusive anti-bullying programs, sexuality education and STI/HIV prevention programs. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition once said that he would rather see his candidates win 100 school board elections than the White House. This four-part series by David Fishback provides deeper insight into the role of school boards and the ways in which we can all advocate effectively for positive change in our schools.
Back to School: How to make progress in your local school system – Part Four of Four
By David S. Fishback
What lessons can we learn from the Montgomery County experience? I suggest the following:
1. As more LGBT people come out, more straight people are willing to talk about their LGBT relatives, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. Once you begin real conversations about the challenges that society poses for gay people – whether with school officials, reporters or members of the general public – more people will begin to talk about their LGBT relatives, friends, co-workers, and acquaintances. As this happens, more LGBT people may be more likely to come out. Always be ready to tell your stories. Personal stories of real people, real pain and real struggle often do as much or more than abstract academic conclusions to help people understand the importance of action. This openness breaks down the walls that have kept people from confronting the issues. Once those walls break down, progress can be swifter.
2. School officials – both elected and non-elected – need information, not just conclusions. This is important because when being asked to take steps in directions previously not taken, and where there may be pushback from others living in the school district, officials need to know not just the general conclusions about sexual orientation, but also the fact that those conclusions are supported by the mainstream medical and mental health care community. This will bolster the ability to act for those who already agree with us, and can bring along those who may not have thought about the issue enough to be ready to take the needed steps.
3. The media needs to be well informed. In the Montgomery County situation, advocates educated reporters on the beat about the reality of where the mainstream health care professional associations stood, and why they held those positions. We did this not at the time of the onset of a big story, but in advance of such events. By sufficiently educating reporters in advance – just like we did for school officials and the public at large – the reporters were more able to present balanced articles, rather than simply responding to the creaky wheel.
4. Find forums in which to present your views and your evidence. Letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, and presentations on broadcast media are important. Find those outlets and use them. Always be prepared to make the best case for your position.
5. Personal relationships matter. As in any community, personal relationships developed over the years are very useful. In this instance, the author – who was the chair of the Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development from 2003 to 2005 and later played a role as a member of the Metro DC PFLAG Board and as Advocacy Chair of Metro DC PFLAG – had worked for years as a PTA volunteer, as a local PTA president, and as a member of a number of other advisory committees and community school advocacy committees. In those activities, he developed relationships and credibility that made it easier to be an advocate for potentially controversial issues, like this one.
6. Never underestimate the depths to which the opposition will go to impose their views. This may seem harsh, but sadly it is a reflection of reality. The opposition does not simply reach conclusions by seeing the world through a different side of the prism. Rather – perhaps because their views are ideologically and theologically based – they often seem to take the view that the ends justify the means. We always need to be prepared for that, and to be prepared for the most outrageous attacks imaginable.
7. Be ready for wolves in sheep’s clothing. More skillful members of the opposition may couch their arguments in terms of respect for all without condoning or encouraging what they view as immoral behavior, all the while focusing on the respect angle. We must always remember that generalized statements of civility are nice, but they do little good if they are coupled with policies that marginalize our LGBT children. Also, keep in mind that people may run for school boards without revealing that they have an anti-gay agenda. For example, this autumn a member of the board of directors of the Family Leader Network – which brought suit against the Montgomery County Board of Education in 2007 –whose husband is chair of the FLN board, is running as a fiscal conservative, but is omitting any mention of her role in the litigation. Be prepared to “out” such candidates.
8. Always be civil and dignified. It will be tempting to lash out in public against outrageous attacks on ourselves and/or our children. But it is always more important to channel that passion into effective public presentations. Anger may create a good news story on some televisions stations, but it does not advance the ball. Over time, people of good will come to recognize the humanity of everyone, regardless of sexual orientation.
9. Efforts to reform our public schools take hard work and dedication. Activists who care about educating children about the realities of sexual orientation must be prepared to do the hard work of educating both school officials and the community-at-large about these issues. Progress in our society in the last decade has been enormous. Montgomery County is not the rule, but the exception, so far.
The author is Advocacy Chair for the Metro DC Chapter of PFLAG, and served as Chair of the Montgomery County, Maryland, Board of Education’s Citizens Advisory Committee on Family Life and Human Development in 2003-05. He can be reached at FishbackPFLAG@gmail.com