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Gay rights struggle not new, but it's still news

I'm standing next to two strangers on an elevator when one of them holds up a copy of that day's tbt* newspaper.

The cover shows a girl in a rainbow flag T-shirt. Inside is the story of a high school principal in a Panhandle town whose crusade against gay students violated their First Amendment rights.

"Why," the woman asks her friend, with some measure of disgust, "is this news?"

Which is exactly why it is news, even in respectable-sized cities like ours, cities with skyscrapers and professional sports teams and sushi, for gosh sakes, not just in some little bitty burg called Ponce de Leon.

It is important to note that this did not start because students were determined to fly a rainbow flag alongside the Stars and Stripes in the schoolyard, or, heaven forbid, drum up a club to support their gay classmates. (See the Great Hillsborough Gay-Straight Alliance kerfuffle of 2006.)

It began last fall when a senior reported she was being taunted because she was a lesbian.

(Imagine it was because she was black, or from another country. Imagine it was your daughter.)

What followed did not exactly send a message of zero tolerance for bullying. The girl left the principal's office rebuked and in tears. As happens in high school, word got out. Students starting showing support on T-shirts. The principal responded by interrogating them and checking for illicit signs of gay pride.

Students got suspended.

T-shirts and stickers with slogans like "Equal, Not Special Rights," "I Support My Gay Friends," and "God Loves Me Just The Way I Am" were ruled disruptive and verboten. Ditto pink armbands, rainbows, or writing "GP" on one's wrist.

The principal opined that rainbow symbols and the like make kids immediately think of sexual acts. Which surely would be disruptive, if it were actually true.

"Disruptive" is an important word in school discipline. You want a climate where students can, well, learn. But a blanket ban on anything "disruptive" gets awfully convenient. Any disagreement, dissension or unpopular idea could be so deemed. An unpopular haircut, even.

Creepier was the intimation that those who expressed support for gay rights were in some sort of "secret society," also verboten.

You knew the American Civil Liberties Union was going to show up in this tale sooner or later. It sued on behalf of a girl whose gay cousin had been disciplined. She won.

Though the School Board was on the hook for $325,000 in attorney's fees and costs, the girl who sued was awarded a mere dollar. Perfect. There's your suggestive symbol, this being about right and wrong and nothing else.

In his recent ruling, U.S. District Judge Richard Smoak said the sentiments were supportive, not suggestive, and sounded doubtful about any meaningful "disruption."

He also noted the school missed out on a teachable moment on civil discourse, not to mention tolerance and diversity.

So why is this news, beyond kids who stood up for a principle against a principal?

Politicians like Ronda Storms.

Brian Blair.

Protestors who preach hate at a festival about Pride.

It's news because in towns big and small, it's a struggle, still.

Gay rights struggle not new, but it's still news 08/30/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 4, 2008 5:23pm]
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