Hey, Kuehl Aid!

OC Board of Education torpedoes protection of gay students

The California Education Code-law for the state's 999 public school districts serving nearly 6 million students-was designed to ensure equal access to quality education for all: black, Hispanic, white, rich, poor, male, female, straight, gay, Muslim, Zoroastrian-everyone. Of course it sounds great, and it's all true.

Except the gay part.

And that's exactly how it's going to stay, if the Orange County Board of Education's trustees get their way. During an April meeting, the board adopted a resolution penned by trustee Ken Williams attacking a proposal to add the words "sexual orientation" to the non-discrimination language of California's education code.

Existing state law protects students from discrimination on the basis of "race, creed, color, national origin, sex, economic status, and mental or physical disability." Sexual orientation is excluded.

The Orange County board's resolution was approved by arch conservative Republicans Williams, Eric Woolery and Felix Rocha, who outvoted colleagues Elizabeth Parker and Sheila Meyers. Educators as well as officials from LA and OC gay groups asked trustees to reconsider the resolution, which was hastily passed without discussion following public comments.

"We did our best, but the forces of ignorance and intolerance won out," wrote Eleanor Roosevelt Democratic Committee co-chairman Richard Leyva.

Williams' Orange County resolution was a symbolic shot at state legislation known as the "Dignity for All Students Act," which was drafted by Assembly member Sheila Kuehl (D-Santa Monica). The bill-which has the support of the PTA and the California Teachers Association-aims to increase protection of gay and lesbian students against violence and bigotry. The assembly education committee recently voted 10-7 to approve Kuehl's proposal in the wake of the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student in Wyoming. Governor Gray Davis has offered anemic support, saying he will sign Kuehl's bill-if it reaches his desk.

There is, however, no question that conservative Republicans see homosexuality as their latest electoral wedge issue. Williams is doing his part in the all-out effort to sabotage Kuehl's measure. He's doing that by following two conventions of right-wing anti-gay strategy: linking homosexuality to criminal behavior, and claiming that protecting gay and lesbian students would afford them "special rights."

Williams' colleague Woolery agreed that only heterosexual students should be protected in California. Demonstrating his cavalier attitude toward the harassment and physical abuse regularly heaped on gay and lesbian students, Woolery mocked Kuehl's proposal. Her bill "was a bit restricted," he said contemptuously. "Just to single out one group for that is not necessarily right. If we would broaden the measure to include fat children and nearsighted children, we'd have something a little better. But just to pick out sexual orientation as a protected thing I don't think is really necessary."

Having staked out his lack of concern for gay students, Woolery tried to appear compassionate: "It's already wrong to call kids names and beat them up. I didn't see a real purpose. It was just adding a law to a law."

Tell that to 17-year-old Kaeti Humphrey, president of Fountain Valley High School's Gay/Straight Alliance. "Kids have harassed me in class, and the teacher has heard and not said anything," Humphrey said. "A lot of friends of mine have gone through more than that: physical threats, being chased off campus, having things thrown at them at lunch, along those lines. It makes it really hard to concentrate when you know you are not safe or not welcome."

In 1997, the Weekly profiled the case of a Huntington Beach high school student who was severely beaten -including a fractured jaw-because a member of the school's football team thought (incorrectly) that his victim was gay.

But who needs precision when there's bigotry to sell? Enter the Reverend Lou Sheldon of the Anaheim-based Traditonal Values Coalition. Turning the bill on its head, Sheldon argued that Kuehl's bill would create a new class of victims. If Kuehl is successful, Sheldon warned, Christian students might "be called homophobes. . . . This is harassment."

R. Scott Moxley contributed to this story.

 
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