My friend Mark is waging war against our former school district. He isn’t asking much – just two little words – but the school board refuses to budge.
Mark is fighting to make sure gay students are protected by the district’s discrimination policy. Since June, when he graduated, Mark has been lobbying the Battle Creek Lakeview Board of Education to add the words “sexual orientation” to the district’s policy. He has sent letters, attended board meetings and gathered a group of supporters.
In late January, the board unanimously voted to approve a statement that said the current policy is sufficient and the district does not tolerate discrimination or harassment against anyone at any time. The statement also said adding “sexual orientation” to the policy would add more liability to the district because it would protect a class of people who are not protected at the state or federal level.
Now, I’m sure the board is not opposing Mark because he is gay, but in a way, that is the message it is sending. It is basically telling him it doesn’t care to protect him and others because they are gay. I know the board has its reasons, and yet, I don’t see how it forms enough of an argument against changing the policy. Maybe it would add more liability for the district, but that hasn’t stopped about a dozen school districts in the state from adding sexual orientation to their policies. By using liability as an excuse, the board is saying it doesn’t care to take a chance to protect the students in the district.
If the board does not tolerate any discrimination against anyone, what is the harm in adding two words to be sure the policy encompasses the entire student body? As it stands now, a discrimination complaint from a gay student can technically be brushed aside because it’s not explicitly covered in the policy. Does that sound like the board is truly against discrimination against anyone?
Despite what the board might say, it doesn’t. Its refusal to change the policy sends a message of intolerance. It tells students that because no one is willing to protect a certain group of people, it’s OK to discriminate against them because nothing will be done about it. What will stop students from suing the district in the future for not protecting them? What poses a greater liability, adding to the policy or refusing to amend it?
MSU includes sexual orientation in its Anti-Discrimination policy, which applies to both employees and students. While this gives me some hope, the whole situation still saddens and sickens me.
The fight for gay civil rights is our generation’s equivalent to our parents’ generation’s struggle for black civil rights, and it’s becoming clearer to me that we have a long, hard struggle ahead of us.
To fight against discrimination, we need to start early. We all know it’s there, even in the youngest children. How many times is the word “fag” spewed on school playgrounds? Until we send a clear message to children that behavior like that is not to be tolerated, the problem won’t stop.
It happens just as much in our high schools and junior highs – it’s probably even worse. Although Lakeview High School was fairly open-minded, it was still rampant with anti-gay sentiment. I saw and heard it every day from students and teachers alike.
The longer we let people get away with intolerance, the harder it will be to break them of the habit. Sure, it helps some to have policies in our universities and workplaces, but by then it’s too late.
Mark told our local newspaper the fight is not over until the policy is amended. Even then, he admits there’s more work to be done, such as adding gender identity to the policy.
But for now, Mark is going to keep up the fight, and I think he’s the perfect person for it. He’s well-liked by many people in the community, which only serves to help his case. He’s got the American Civil Liberties Union, Michigan Education Association, Amnesty International and other organizations on his side. And, I can personally guarantee you he’s not going to give up any time soon.
While I have the utmost respect for Mark because of his strong convictions, it saddens me that he has to fight at all. I hope with time, the struggle to gain rights and discrimination protection for gays will be looked at the same way we view the struggle for civil rights in the 1960s.
Until then, we have to continue to fight and to win battles, no matter how small or at what level. It has to start somewhere, and it needs to start now.
Michonne Omo, State News opinion writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her column appears weekly.