‘And Don’t Call Us Straight!’

Well, of course the notoriously conservative, seven-member Orange Unified School District (OUSD) Board of Trustees unanimously voted on Dec. 7 to deny students at El Modena High the right to create a gay-straight student alliance club. Considering the board's smelly recent history (its removal, and eventual reinstatement, of on-campus guidance counselors; its refusal, under the guise of not wanting to be “controlled” by the federal government, to accept a $25,000 grant intended for poor students; its attempt to privatize the district's food-services department, one that operated in the black and was cited for excellence by the U.S. Department of Agriculture; its attempts to play down evolution in the curriculum) and its sordid cast of characters both past and present (former member Max Reissmueller started home-schooling his daughter after learning her class had a “pagan” Halloween party, which offended his religious beliefs; he also supported corporal punishment; Martin Jacobson campaigned for his seat in 1993 wearing an electronic surveillance bracelet, a reward he earned for blocking an abortion-clinic entrance; members Maureen Aschoff and Bill Lewis have taken campaign money from the sex-obsessed Reverend Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition), the decision was certainly no big shocker. More startling —and fun!—was the huge media turnout the vote produced, a slew of typically shrieky local TV crews (KABC and KNBC led off their 11 p.m. newscasts with the story, complete with live standup remotes; KCBS, meanwhile, led with an obviously more worthwhile high-speed police chase), including two Spanish-language stations, and some generally good print reportage (except for that stupid, stupid Dec. 9 Register headline “Campus Is Calm Despite Rejection of Gay School Club”—what were they expecting, another WTO riot?).

Largely lost amidst the clamor, though, were the kind of casual observations that would have helped give both sides some greater context. Was the anti-alliance guy in the audience who wore a Stars and Stripes bandanna around his head (Flag desecration! Flag desecration!) basically saying that gays and lesbians are somehow un-American? Does Sheldon purposely sit in the front row at these things merely to get his pasty mug on TV? Where did all those cars in the lot with “GARY BAUER FOR PRESIDENT” stickers on them come from? Was anyone paying attention when Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) organizer Anthony Colin looked right into the cameras and said that “the majority of the El Modena students have become supportive”?—a statement that in a better world would have rendered the board's vote moot? And what of trustee Kathy Ward, who, in her motion to veto the club, dragged out the tired illogic that any discussion of homosexuality leads to actual, hard, moist, throbbing, thrusting, moanin'-and-groanin' sex acts? Ward and the trustees are paranoid that students in the El Modena GSA would only talk about sex (um, no—for the record, I've sat in on GSA meetings at several OC high schools over the past few years, and sex has never been discussed; what is discussed, though, are ways to deal with the exact kind of oppression the OUSD displayed in its handling of the issue). Instead, they talk about sex in the same locales as all teens do, gay or straight—which is everyplace but in an on-campus meeting. But we'll give Ward credit for her hilarious comedic talent: her most asinine complaint was that the club's “Gay-Straight Alliance” name really bothered her, remarking that “many people find the word 'straight' offensive,” which got a laugh from the pro-alliance forces in attendance. (Somehow, Ward wasn't equally concerned when, before the vote was on the table, a group of students from Villa Park High spoke of their newly formed “Tailgate Club”—doesn't that name imply underage drinking? Huh? Huh?) Whatever.

State laws and inevitability are against the board, which will now have to pony up large sums of district cash (i.e., our tax money!) to defend themselves against lawsuits filed by the Lambda Legal Defense and Education Fund and People For the American Way (PFAW)—money that would be better spent on myriad other things in the OUSD. Salaries, for example, if you believed the placards and fliers that Orange Unified teachers were carrying around and handing out during the meeting, including one that read, “THE ORANGE SCHOOL BOARD: PLAYING POLITICS WITH EDUCATION, TAXES AND THE FUTURE OF OUR CHILDREN.” Seems the board has had this revolving-door policy of spending money on training new teachers but is too cheap to pay these same teachers decent wages to keep them in the district once their training is over, all but encouraging them to go elsewhere. The Orange Unified Education Association, the district's teacher's union, also says that the trustees voted themselves a sweet pay raise, even though OUSD teachers are among the lowest-paid in SoCal; that some 100 teachers have resigned this year alone; and that the trustees are sitting on a $14 million surplus, which some have said they're retaining solely to help fight lawsuits—like the one Lambda and PFAW will bring against them.

No one's happy, basically—not the trustees, not the students, not the teachers. The atmosphere in this seemingly placid corner of OC—placid, at least, until 1993, when people first started electing Right-wing doofuses to the board—was best summed up in something else the teachers were handing out: bumper stickers with big, black lettering that reads, “OUSD—IT'S A JOKE.” Too bad it's not a very funny one. But there's a kind of humor in this: several high school students stood before an Orange County school board to declare themselves gay. Chalk it up to personal courage and a changed world that they were able to do so: 20 years ago, such a public declaration would likely have ended with an equally public beating. Something has clearly changed in America, something no mere 7-0 vote can alter. The war is over, and the Orange Unified School District's board of trustees—no matter how it votes in the future—has lost.

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