The XX Factor

Why “Neutrality” on Controversial Issues in the Classroom Doesn’t Work

Under threat of two lawsuits and intense public scrutiny, the Anoka-Hennepin School Board—which governs Minnesota’s largest district and the area from which anti-LGBT politician Michele Bachmann hails—decided on Monday to revise its prior policy of teacher “neutrality” on controversial social issues (namely, sexual orientation) to a slightly more open ethos. The Associated Press explains:

“The new policy says when contentious political, religious, social matters or economic issues come up — it does not specifically cite sexuality issues — teachers shouldn’t try to persuade students to adopt a particular viewpoint. It calls for teachers to foster respectful exchanges of views. It also says in such discussions, staff should affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation.”

While the new position stops short of encouraging teachers to actually fight homophobia directly, it is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, especially in a district that has learned through tragedy the grave costs of so-called “neutral” silence. Over the course of less than two years, six students have committed suicide in cases where anti-LGBT bullying (whether the victim identified as gay or not) was almost certainly a factor. Earlier this month, Rolling Stone published a heart-wrenching account by Sabrina Erdely of the suicide epidemic, in which the writer shows how the area’s considerable evangelical presence resists even acknowledging the existence of gay students, much less the establishment of support programs like gay-straight alliances. Caught in the cross-fire between homophobes and grieving parents, the school board chose neutrality.

But of course, saying nothing conveys a message of its own—one that is, unfortunately, open to a wide array of interpretations. To the besieged gay or perceived-to-be-gay student, the teacher’s uncomfortable silence signals at best cowardice and, at worst, complicity with the bully. Meanwhile, the aggressor receives no punishment, so why stop? Silent condemnation teeters perilously close to tacit approval. As Erdely shows in her piece, teachers subject to the yoke of neutrality can’t do any good and actually end up fomenting a kind of self-reinforcing feedback loop that, at least in this case, proved disastrous.*

Perhaps the basic ability to discuss homosexuality and other controversial issues will help defuse some of the tension in Minnesota; but let’s be clear, this is not a fair debate between equally matched adults. LGBT youth—especially in such a conservative environment—cannot be expected to go toe to toe against homophobes with nothing more than a supposedly “balanced” framework in place. Teachers should not be activists, but they must be advocates, because one side desperately needs the support—if only to make it out of high school alive.

*Clarification, Feb. 16, 2012:This post previously used the term “negative feedback loop,” which, as a reader rightly pointed out, has a specific technical meaning different from what the writer intended.