Minnesota's embattled Anoka-Hennepin School Board voted on Monday to repeal a long-held policy that prohibits discussion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the classroom and replaced it with a policy that directs district staff to "affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students," including those who are LGBT. Anti-discrimination groups hailed the move, while conservative Christian parents warned that the district would be overrun with "homosexual indoctrination."
The district, whose schools mostly fall in Rep. Michele Bachmann's congressional district, has been at the center of a raging controversy, with some parents attributing anti-gay bullying and more than a half-dozen suicides in two years to Anoka-Hennepin's policy on LGBT issues.
Dubbed the "neutrality policy" and the "sexual orientation curriculum policy," it had its roots in a 1995 program colloquially called "no promo homo," which was created by conservative Christian parents with ties to the Minnesota Family Council.
This policy plainly stated:
[H]omosexuality [will] not be taught/addressed as a normal, valid lifestyle and that the district staff and their resources not advocate the homosexual lifestyle.
Barb Anderson, a Minnesota Family Council researcher, helped form the Parent Action League, the vehicle through which those parents urged the school board to maintain this policy and demand that the school board add "ex-gay therapy" and other curriculum that disparaged LGBT students.
Before the board voted Monday night, the two sides tussled over the policy, as they have for the last two years.
Lori Thompson, a frequent testifier at the board meetings and a member of the Parents Action League, complained of a "relentless campaign by homosexual activists" over the last 18 months. She said that the idea that the policy aided and abetted anti-LGBT bullying was false.
"Only the gullible and oblivious believe that line," Thompson said.
She said repealing the policy would lead to "indoctrinating the porous young minds with the homosexual propaganda" and that "homosexual activists" had created a controversy where none exists.
"I blame these same adults for creating an unsafe environment for students who believe in traditional values," she said, adding that that environment was perpetuated by "liberal sassy teachers who don't know how to behave."
The meeting came a week after Rolling Stone magazine took an in-depth look at this district and its anti-LGBT policy.
Thompson called the article a "vicious and brutal attack on our community by Rolling Stone."
"Do not let the liberal media or gay activists define who you are," she said, addressing the students in the audience.
A grandmother named Susan appeared before the board to testify against the more inclusive policy.
"As a grandmother, I could not be quiet anymore," she said. "The classroom is no place to push the homosexual agenda. We have people trying to shove this lifestyle down our throat trying to teach our children what it is all about. I am a believer in Jesus Christ and I have a humble heart. I say this not with any hate in our heart because I am concerned for our children."
Mackie Barnett, a student in the district, said the policy needed to be changed, citing friends she's lost to suicide.
"How can we not acknowledge that something in this system is wrong?" she asked the board. "[Students] need to be taught the true facts that being gay and lesbian is not a lifestyle choice. You are born that way. There's no gay agenda. What do gay people want that is so different from straight people?"
Rachel Holly, another student, said that though she identifies as straight, she is constantly called a "gay activist" because she supports her LGBT peers.
"I'm just trying to help those who need a voice," she said."Learning about gay issues has never impacted me. How is learning about gay people been a negative for me?"
The Rev. Sharon James Fazel of the First Congregation United Church of Christ also took issue with the term "homosexual activists."
"What exactly is this all about where 'activist' is used as a dirty word?" she asked. "We would have slavery and no women voting if it weren't for activists, and I wouldn't have a church if there wasn't an activist named Jesus Christ."
Before the vote, board member Scott Wenzel gave his support for the new policy.
"I truly hope [the new policy] will move this district and our community forward," he said. "We are removing a policy that has singled out one minority group in this district."
Board Chair Tom Heidemann, who has in the past opposed efforts to repeal the policy, said now is the right time to repeal it.
"We are elected officials, we represent the community, and we put in place curriculum that reflects the community in which we serve," he said. "I'm going to support the new policy because I believe this is the best thing for Anoka-Hennepin and the best thing for students."
The vote passed the six-member board by a voice vote with one member voting "no."
Anti-discrimination groups cautiously praised the vote.
"While some have legitimately asked whether this policy will change much, the fact is that policies matter," OutFront Minnesota said in a statement. "They reflect priorities and values, they send messages of inclusion ... or the opposite. For the first time in 17 years Minnesota's largest district will not have a policy designed to stigmatize its LGBT students."
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which had sued the district on behalf of five students who had been bullied in Anoka schools, did not comment on the lawsuit but praised the vote.
"Today is the first day in nearly 18 years that Minnesota’s Anoka-Hennepin School District no longer has a harmful policy that singles out lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender students," the group said in a statement. "Although we would have preferred for the District to have repealed this stigmatizing policy without replacing it, we are pleased that the new policy expressly requires district staff to affirm the dignity and self-worth of all students, including LGBT students."
Photo: Students in Anoka-Hennepin at a 2011 board meeting (AMERICAN INDEPENDENT/Andy Birkey)