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Sunday, February 6, 2011

Neutrality Not Enough to Stop Anti-Gay Bigotry

By Richard Cohen, President Southern Poverty Law Center
Recently, Minnesota’s largest school district was beset by tragedy.
A string of student suicides – some likely related to anti-gay bullying, according to community advocates – had rocked the Anoka-Hennepin School District. When several other student suicides made headlines across the country in September, it only underscored the urgent need to address the rampant anti-gay bullying and prejudice in our schools.
Inaction or denial would only invite more tragedy.
That’s why the Southern Poverty Law Center traveled to Minnesota last fall. We met with community members about the situation. And when we hosted a screening of our new documentary, Bullied, more than 2,000 people gathered for the event in Minneapolis.
People are deeply worried about what is happening in the school district – and for good reason. School officials have not been realistically addressing anti-gay bigotry and harassment.
The district’s curriculum policy instructs teachers to remain “neutral” on matters regarding sexual orientation, but that’s not what’s been happening. In reality, the fear of being at odds with this policy has prevented teachers from standing firm against bullying, regardless of the anti-bullying policies in place.
Teachers are silenced.
Students are targeted.
And we shouldn’t be surprised by the devastation that follows.
Quite simply, this “neutrality” policy is neutral in theory, one-sided in fact and dangerous in practice. You need only to look at recent events at Champlin Park High School to understand the point.
Sarah Lindstrom and Desiree 'Dez' SheltonDesiree Shelton and Sarah Lindstrom were elected by their classmates to serve on the school’s “Snow Days” royalty court. Traditionally, the chosen students walk as couples during a processional. Desiree and Sarah wanted to participate as a same-sex couple, but school officials made changes to the event to prevent them from walking together.
It was a stunning display of hypocrisy for a school district that’s supposedly “neutral” in matters regarding sexual orientation. Officials had plenty of hollow excuses and empty reasons for their decision. But the real reason was obvious: They were bowing to bigotry.
Rather than stand up to it – and support the decision of the students – they surrendered.
When any form of bigotry gains a foothold in a community, we must act. That’s why the SPLC – along with the National Center for Lesbian Rights and the law firm Faegre & Benson – filed a lawsuit on behalf of the young women. Less than 24 hours later, we had reached a settlement agreement with school officials.
As a result, Desiree and Sarah walked hand-in-hand as a couple to the cheers of their classmates.
The school and the district deserve a lot of credit for doing the right thing in the end. But possibly the most encouraging aspect of this incident – and for the future of this community – was the response of the student body. At a high school in a district that has seen so much tragedy, students overwhelmingly supported the rights of their lesbian classmates. They looked at these two young women and saw fellow students they wanted to honor as school “royalty.” They saw two people deserving dignity, respect and, yes, even the right to walk together into an assembly as a couple.
And when it looked as if their classmates would be denied, the students didn’t follow the example of school officials and bow to the pressure of prejudice. They banded together, carried posters and took a stand for their classmates.
As one student told a reporter: “We’re a pretty respectful school. Our rule is just let people be who they are.”
And that’s hope for the future.



  1. Mr. Cohen,

    The Boy Scouts of America have stated publicly for decades that gay men "are not moral enough" to be Scoutmasters and refuses to hire openly gay men as such.

    Despite this blatant discrimination, by a group that receives public funds AND whose sole purpose is to mold the minds and characters of millions of American boys, the SPLC has never taken legal action against the BSA.

    Why not?

    The SPLC's latest IRS Form 990 indicates that you now have more than $216 MILLION dollars in your war chest, and this is more than mere anti-gay bigotry, this is outright illegal discrimination.

    Why is the SPLC so discriminating in deciding which anti-gay groups to sue?

    For that matter, why is the SPLC so discriminating in its own hiring practices?

    2011 marks the SPLC's 40th anniversary and in all those 40 years the SPLC has NEVER hired a person of color to a highly paid position of power. Why is that?

    The SPLC's multimillion dollar headquarters is located LITERALLY in the back yard of Dr. Martin Luther King's home church. No doubt, Mr. Cohen, you can see it from your penthouse office.

    If the SPLC won't practice what it preaches, at the very least it can practice what Dr. King preached so eloquently.

  2. sounds like someone has an ax to grind. there are people of color all over SPLC boards and lists of supporters. Not sure what your angle is but they have a very long track record of fighting the good fight and winning, which is good enough in my book. And I resent your insinuation that Julian Bond would just willy-nilly allow his name and reputation to be a selling point for a racist organization, that is bullshit and smacks a bit of racism in itself