My Censorship and Ours

The Nation
MARCH 20, 1995


            On January 11, 1994, a reporter from The Washington Post called. "Are you aware that a group of parents in Fairfax County, Virginia, is demanding that your book Families be removed from the first-grade Family Life Education curriculum?" he asked. "Is it true that there's a lesbian couple in the book?"

            Of course I knew that censorship and political fundamentalism were global phenomena; I'd been working on the case of Taslima Nasrin, the persecuted Bangladeshi feminist, for International PEN all year. But me? They were going after me?

       I wrote Families in 1980 as the single mother of a first grader whose father lived in another city. Big readers, we searched in vain for books with people like us; all the kids in picture books seemed to have two parents and a backyard. And despite the number of kids whose parents were separated, divorced or other, early childhood books that mentioned divorce were, like books about cancer and toilet training, segregated in a separate section of the bookstore labeled Problems.

            It is important for children to see their own reality reflected in books. It is especially important for those who feel a little isolated or weird; otherwise they may come to think that there is something wrong with them and they must hide who they are. So I decided to write a kids' book about families. I based it on people in my daughter's first-grade class, and made it funny because we liked funny books. I even threw in some animals--ants, chickens, lions, dogs--to make sure we covered varieties of family structure rare in the neighborhood.

            Since the Fairfax County schools had been using my book for eight years with no complaint, I thought the fuss would soon blow over. But it escalated. The story made The Washington Post, the local Fairfax paper, the TV news in D.C. and Virginia. PEN American Center, the National Coalition Against Censorship and I wrote letters to the school authorities and the newspapers; the A.C.L.U. considered bringing a case. In Fairfax itself, an elaborate review procedure swung into gear: Two separate advisory committees considered Families; both voted by large majorities to retain it as part of the required first-grade curriculum.

             None of this did any good. In August, the Fairfax school board, dominated by conservative politica1 appointees, took Families out of the required curriculum, substituting a book that has no jokes and contains no one who might be a lesbian.

            By then I had gotten interested in Fairfax County. What kind of people would get bent out of shape about the imagined sex lives of characters in a picture book? I decided to go and take a look at my censors, as writers do in Eastern Europe.

            Fairfax County, a dormitory suburb of Washington, D.C., and home of the C.I.A., is among the richest counties per capita in the United States, filled with beltway bandits, lobbyists and the military. Drive through the subdivisions and you see grass, trees and big houses set back from the main roads. But Fairfax, like the rest of the world, is changing. In 1970, its minority population was 2 percent; in 1990 it was 18 percent.

            "The people opposed to sex education are really acting out of fear," says Jerald Newberry, coordinator of the school district's Family Life Education program. "They think society has changed so much and so fast that social adjustment can't keep up. You have this kind of political climate everywhere now, except in a few big cities. Fairfax is just a little bit ahead of the rest of the country."

            Fairfax County was certainly ahead of its time on sex education; it already had a curriculum in place when, in 1987, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law mandating that all its school districts create a comprehensive Family Life Education program going from kindergarten through the tenth grade, to cover ten topics: (1) family living and community relations, (2) the value of postponing sexual activity until marriage, (3) human sexuality, (4) human reproduction and contraception, (5) sexually transmitted diseases, (6) stress management and resistance to peer pressure, (7) development of self-esteem and tolerance for others, (8) parenting skills, (9) substance-abuse prevention and (10) child-abuse prevention.

            Partly because Fairfax started early, partly because it has Newberry, a dedicated and gifted coordinator, the county's curricular materials are exemplary. Last year the National Educational Association gave its Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights to Newberry in recognition of his work with diverse cultures. He is a real bridge figure, a man who can explain what Christian conservatives feel better than they explain it themselves.

            "I understand the conservatives because I come from people like them," he told me. "I grew up on a mountain in Appalachia. It was a completely homogeneous society; everyone you knew was kin and shared your same world view. There were thirty-eight kids in my high school graduating class and only four went to college. I went to a liberal Methodist school. My first three months there I thought I'd have a nervous breakdown; I didn't sleep more than two hours a night. I was being asked to think for the first time in my life."

            When Virginia mandated Family Life Education, it decreed that community boards, called Family Life Education Curriculum Advisory Committees be set up and that each district have an opt-out provision for parents who didn't want their children to have sex education. Despite loud minority opposition to Family Life Education, only 2.4 percent of Fairfax parents opt their children out of that or any other part of the school curriculum, including phys ed; by high school, it's down to less than 1 percent. But even if the majority of parents want sex education for their kids, in the past few years it has come under increasing attack from the religious right, both in Fairfax and nationally.

            Virginia's Governor, George Allen, whose main claim to fame is that his father was the Redskins' coach, made education a central issue in his 1993 campaign, pledging to abolish the Family Life Education program or put it on an opt-in basis, thus sinking its staff under paperwork; he also hoped to push through a program of charter schools, a disguised school voucher program. The idea was that the local Baptist school could take the pictures of Christ off the walls, change its name, put an ad in the paper that says it would not discriminate on the basis of race, gender or religion, admit one Jew, two blacks and 593 white Protestants and go on teaching as before, only supported by tax money. Both of Allen's proposals were killed in legislative committee in January, but his supporters have vowed to fight on.

            The United States these days seems to be caught in a time warp; people can live next door to each other and still inhabit different centuries. What sex-ed curriculum could possibly satisfy parents who want schools to do specific, detailed public health instruction geared to AIDS prevention, and also parents who don't even want their kids to sit next to kids who have had such instruction, for fear they will be contaminated by "the homosexual lifestyle"?

            Homosexuality has become the new anathema of the religious right, replacing abortion. The right has, after all, been organizing around abortion for years; the movement against it has gotten as big as it's going to get. The hatred of women and fear of sex that fuel the antiabortion movement are easily refocused on another non-procreative group, more marginalized and drawing less public sympathy than the army of women who have had abortions. The religious right sees gays who have come out as choosing sin, flaunting sin and wilfully spreading AIDS, and they have no patience with the idea that people may be born gay.

            The furor over homosexuality in Fairfax began early in 1994 with a one-woman campaign, waged by Christian housewife Karen Jo Gounoud, to get the Blade, a Washington gay paper, removed from the Fairfax public library system. Gounoud also checked out all the gay books she could identify in the Fairfax system, invited the press to take pictures of the pile, refused to return the books and campaigned for an adults-only section of the library. Although the Board of Supervisors eventually voted against her adults-only proposal, the library bought $1,100 worth of antigay books to match those termed "pro-gay." Prominent among the new books is Steps Out of Homosexuality, for conversion of homosexuals is one of the religious right's strategies for preventing AIDS. Another is abstinence until marriage. The Christian right views condoms as a snare and a delusion and cites a study "proving" that condoms are unreliable 40 percent of the time.

            On December 4, 1994, the Fairfax County Family Life Education Curriculum Advisory Committee held a special meeting to discuss homosexuality in the curriculum and prepare recommendations on materials challenged by conservatives—virtually all the materials being used. The FLECAC has thirty-seven members—parents, teachers, students, clerics and representatives of the community at large; twelve are appointed by the school board, the rest by district staff. The twelve board appointees make up an organized lobby for the religious right. As chairman of the committee, Jerry Newberry had done his best to make the December 4 meeting an educational event rather than a confrontation, but the stakes were high and were not reduced by the presence of an NPR reporter and a camera crew from Connie Chung's "Eye to Eye," preparing a documentary to be aired after the curriculum vote. The room was crowded and the air full of electrolytes produced by the anticipation of political struggle. The two rows reserved for observers were occupied largely by men who looked like they were on furlough from the local V.F.W. "We got mentioned in the A.C.L.U. newsletter as a radical right group; pretty good, huh?" whispered one sitting behind me.

            Using recommendations from committee members, Newberry had put together a panel of nine experts, mostly people any reasonable educator would consult on gay curriculum issues: a gay teen; a lesbian teen; a speaker from the American Psychological Association; a therapist; a high school guidance counselor; a mother; and Chris Camp, an AIDS counselor who is also a born-again Christian. The religious right had recommended Peter LaBarbera, a former reporter for the Moonie-owned Washington Times now working for Concerned Women of America, and Anthony Falzarano of Exodus International, a homosexual-conversion network of ministries. According to him, Exodus comprises 125 ministries, with a membership of 6,000 former homosexuals who have been "saved."

            The teens' personal stories—tales of harassment, self-hatred, confusion and fear told by two courageous local kids—were the centerpiece of the evening, virtually demanding a humane response from FLECAC members. The conservatives clearly felt they stood at Armageddon and were battling for the Lord—particularly Falzarano, who testified, in the style of The 700 Club, that he had lived a gay lifestyle for nine years because of erroneous counseling from an atheist who said whatever feels good is O.K. "I became an addict of pornography, masturbation and promiscuous behavior until I was scared out of it by the AIDS virus. Sixty-two percent of U.S. cases of HIV are gay men who have lived a homosexual lifestyle. In the age of AIDS, does anyone have the right or authority to promote sexual promiscuity to children against the will of their parents?"

            There was no rhetorical common ground between the concerned, descriptive statements of the panel psychologists and the confessional outbursts of Falzarano; testimony can only be countered by testimony. Chris Camp rose to the occasion:

            "I was raised in a conservative household, but knew I was a homosexual as early as third grade." Intensely religious, he joined the Campus Crusade for Christ his freshman year in college. Everything was going well until he fell in love with his best friend and they slept together. His pastor referred him to Exodus International. He followed their program of Bible study, entered Dallas Theological Seminary as a World Mission student, became a missionary and then had a revelation: "Despite seven years of the most intense study and agony, I was still a homosexual; my desires had not changed." His experience was in direct conflict with what he had been taught.

            "I had friends who remained in Exodus," Camp concluded. "Some killed themselves. Some lead double lives; they are married and even preachers, with secret lives as homosexuals. But I don't have to hide anymore and I have more faith than ever before."

            When could the meeting go after this? The rhetorical strategy of the conservatives had been pre-empted and they were in a rage. After a few questions, a FLECAC member, Father Kevin Gallagher, raised his hand. Instead of following the meeting's guidelines and asking a question, he attacked the two teenagers, saying their stories were too personal and had made him feel uncomfortable.

            Newberry, chairing, said he would come back to Gallagher when he had formulated a question. Falzarano exploded. "Silencing a priest!" he shouted. "This whole meeting is a setup! It's being chaired by a known homosexual! This man has steered your whole program in a pro-homosexual direction. Seven out of nine people on this panel are pro-homosexual! I'm leaving; I won't listen to any more of this!" He went outside, where he kept ranting beneath the window. After such theatrics, the rest of the meeting was bound to be anticlimactic.
            I was sobered by the fact that an expert panel could degenerate so quickly. They'd better get some training on nonviolent conflict resolution down here, I thought; Falzarano is the kind of loose cannon you can imagine popping up on the 8 o'clock news. I was also a little worried by the way most panelists argued that homosexuals should be treated humanely because it's not their fault; the poor unfortunate creatures are just born that way. Considerable scientific opinion holds that homosexuality and bisexuality are "caused" by a combination of nature, nurture and choice; the way these variables intersect differs greatly from person to person and culture to culture. And if there did turn out to be a "gay gene," I fear that the military types who sat behind me at the Fairfax County meeting would be all too ready to sanction infanticide for those who carry it.

            Falzarano made it obvious that the conservatives were going after the coordinator of the Family Life Education program. They started putting calls in to school board members the next day and, at a subsequent meeting, publicly attacked him as "biased." Gay-baiting is the new McCarthyism; how do you prove you're not gay? And what decent person would try? Newberry, a man of principle, will say only that his private life is his own business. And Virginia has no anti-discrimination statutes that cover sexual orientation.