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"...Is That You?" A Personal Experience

by Jane Plamondon, NCSP

Gazing into the flame of the candle as melted wax occasionally dripped on my fingers, I recalled his words spoken earlier this evening, "Why do you want to go?" "To show my support for their cause," I replied at the time, having little idea as to how deeply I would be moved by the event. It was a warm, summer evening outside the Merrimack, New Hampshire, High School and I was one of many who had gathered to attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of gay/lesbian suicide. The vigil was also organized to protest action that the Merrimack School Board ultimately took that evening. On the agenda was a proposal from the chairman which stated, "The Merrimack School District shall neither implement nor carry out any program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of encouraging or supporting homosexuality as a positive lifestyle alternative. A program or activity, for purposes of this item, includes the distribution of instructional materials, instruction, counseling or other services on school grounds, or referral of a pupil to an organization that affirms a homosexual lifestyle."

The first sentence clearly prohibits the promotion of homosexuality in school, although I don't understand why they felt the need to add this language. School board members admitted that "no parent or citizen has brought this before the board as a concern." The second statement frightens and angers me. Sounds to me like this would prohibit school personnel from counseling students who are homosexual and/or who are distressed by issues of sexual identity and who are at a high risk for suicide. Such a policy would even prohibit a counselor or teacher from referring the student to counseling services, and be in direct opposition to moral and ethical principles in our profession. It also rings of discrimination, offering counseling to certain students, but not all, or at least curtailing the type of counseling offered to these students. The wording could also be interpreted to mean that the school has the authority to censor books in the school whose author or main characters were homosexual.

When the gathering at the vigil learned that the chairman's proposal passed after only 15 minutes of public discussion (that is all that is allowed), a heaviness fell over the group. I soon learned that one of the school board members who opposed the chairman's proposal had offered two amendments to tighten up the language, but both were rejected by the chairman and the majority of the board. The first amendment specified policy against obscenity or programs or activities that promote homosexuality; the second stated that the school district wouldn't allow a program or activity whose purpose is to promote homosexuality. With those amendments having been rejected, I couldn't help but question the intent behind the chairman's proposal. My thoughts wandered to the students and faculty of Merrimack, and how they would handle and respond to this change in school policy. If I were a student who thought I was gay or was even questioning my sexual identity, I suspect I would become increasingly withdrawn and reluctant to share my true inner feelings and fears, if indeed I had any confidence at all. If I were counseling such a student, I hope I would have the courage and moral fiber to continue to provide supportive counseling to all my clients, regardless of their sexual orientation, even if it meant threat of unemployment. But I am not employed by the Merrimack School District, nor do I live in Merrimack (although it is only a quarter mile down the road), so why should I care? And even if such a policy were passed in my district, for several years now my role has been primarily one of evaluating students under the age of 12 years. So why should I care?

"Jane, is that you?" I was jolted out of my reverie and came face to face with the answer. Before me stood a student I'd counseled over ten years ago who'd struggled with identity issues, not unlike others that age. We embraced and reminisced for several minutes, an unexpected pleasure on so somber an evening. And so I must care because the actions of the Merrimack School Board have profound implications and consequences for us all. Maybe new elections in the Spring will result in a different board and a change in this policy, but maybe not...or maybe not soon enough. Not before some young men or young women realize that their school perceives them as a subclass of citizen and in a negative light; not before some young person gives up hope for a more tolerant society and a rewarding life. I am reminded of the prophetic words of Reverend Martin Niemoller:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade-unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade-unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.

At the time this article was written, Jane Plamondon was a school psychologist in Bedford, NH, a former NASP state delegate, Cochair of NASP Assistance to States Committee, President-elect of the New Hampshire School Psychologists' Association and a member of the NASP Task Force on Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Issues.

From Communique, 1996, vol.24 (5)