HELENA, Mont. — Alarmed by evidence that gay and lesbian students are common victims of schoolyard bullies, many school districts are bolstering their anti-harassment rules with early lessons in tolerance, explaining that some children have “two moms” or will grow up to love members of the same sex.
But such efforts to teach acceptance of homosexuality, which have gained urgency after several well-publicized suicides by gay teenagers, are provoking new culture wars in some communities.
Many educators and rights advocates say that official prohibitions of slurs and taunts are most effective when combined with frank discussions, from kindergarten on, about diverse families and sexuality.
Angry parents and religious critics, while agreeing that schoolyard harassment should be stopped, charge that liberals and gay rights groups are using the anti-bullying banner to pursue a hidden “homosexual agenda,” implicitly endorsing, for example, same-sex marriage.
Last summer, school officials here in Montana’s capital unveiled new guidelines for teaching about sexuality and tolerance. They proposed teaching first graders that “human beings can love people of the same gender,” and fifth graders that sexual intercourse can involve “vaginal, oral or anal penetration.”
A local pastor, Rick DeMato, carried his shock straight to the pulpit.
“We do not want the minds of our children to be polluted with the things of a carnal-minded society,” DeMato, 69, told his flock at Liberty Baptist Church.
In tense community hearings, some parents made familiar arguments that innocent youngsters were not ready for explicit language. Other parents and pastors, along with leaders of the Big Sky Tea Party, saw a darker purpose.
“Anyone who reads this document can see that it promotes acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle,” one mother said at a six-hour school board meeting in late September.
Barely heard was the plea of Harlan Reidmohr, 18, who graduated last spring and said he was relentlessly tormented and slammed against lockers after coming out during his freshman year.