Parents of a student who attended a taxpayer-funded summer educational institute are upset that the program included, without their prior knowledge, a seminar that promoted homosexuality.
Jim and Beverly Burrows say their son returned home from last year’s Governor’s School “confused” about homosexuality as a result of the seminar, and that they have had to seek family counseling.
“We feel that this was totally inappropriate for the students who were 15, 16, and 17 years old,” the Burrowses wrote to officials at the State Departament of Public Instruction. “We feel that our rights as parents have been violated by this program.”
In addition to complaining to DPI officials, the Burrowses wrote to editors at several newspapers in North Carolina. DPI officials have defended the seminar, saying it was optional for students to attend, as is the Governor’s School itself.
The seminar, “The New Gay Teenager,” was based on a book with the same name, written by homosexual Cornell University professor Ritch Savin-Williams. The book and the Governor’s School seminar discussed whether homosexual teen-agers benefit, or are harmed, by embracing labels based on their sexual orientation. The co-leaders of the seminar identified themselves as gay, Mrs. Burrows said — which is supported by documentation obtained by Carolina Journal.
“We trusted their reputation,” Mrs. Burrows said. “It’s supposed to be one of the highest honors in the school system, to go to the Governor’s School.”
The six-week Governor’s School is held every summer, with 400 students each at two locations: Salem College in Winston-Salem (West) and Meredith College in Raleigh (East). The “Gay Teenager” seminar was conducted at the West school.
The residential program draws public high school students who are approaching their senior years, and who are nominated by their high schools’ teachers and administrators. Students are identified as “intellectually gifted,” and the program “integrat(es) academic disciplines, the arts, and unique courses….” Students explore “recent ideas and concepts in each discipline,” but are not tested or graded. No academic credit is given for participation.
The Department of Public Instruction’s Exceptional Children Division oversees the Governor’s School. The state budget fully funds the program, with $1.3 million set aside for it this fiscal year. Students are nominated based on specific areas of academic or performing-arts excellence, and pay nothing to attend, other than the cost to travel to the schools.
Classes and seminars are categorized into three tiers: Areas I, II, and III. Area I instructs in the students’ specialties, for which they’ve been nominated to the school. Area II “explores connections between and among the Area I disciplines.” Area III “grounds the learning from Areas I and II in students’ own personal experience(s), and applies that understanding to their social worlds.”“The New Gay Teenager” was categorized as an Area III seminar.
The Burrowses’ complaint
In a letter to State Superintendent of Public Instruction June Atkinson, the Burrowses alleged, based on a conversation with their son, that the seminar was “pro-homosexual.”
The Burrowses said that they should have been informed about what the students would be taught and that they were not given the opportunity to decline the seminar on behalf of their son. They also alleged that the staff leading the seminar had “a pro-homosexual agenda.”
The Governor’s School Internet Web site lists 88 optional seminars presented “recently” at the West school, but none indicates homosexuality or any other controversial subject matter. Some seem of limited interest, but the Web site says seminars “are very well-attended by students and faculty.” Titles of other optional seminars include “Famine Relief for Mauritania,” “Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy,” and “Meet Your Meat, Part I” and “Part II.”
Lucy Milner, on-site director of the Governor’s School West last year, estimated that about half the students and faculty attended “The New Gay Teenager” seminar.
The Burrowses also complained that the seminar was the last optional one conducted at the school, two days before the closing ceremonies. It also was the only seminar scheduled for its time slot, whereas in most other cases students had more than one to choose from. The Burrowses suspect the scheduling was intentional, meant to leave a lasting impression on the students.
The seminar was not placed on the schedule until the end of the fifth week, after Milner said she was approached by faculty who said students had been discussing the issue. Seminars are regularly scheduled during the school session based upon topics that arise in class discussions.
The Burrowses also said the two staff members who led the seminar were both homosexuals who encouraged the students to remain active in promoting the issue. They said both instructors encouraged students to start gay and lesbian clubs at their schools after the students returned to their homes. The Burrowses also alleged that students were “taught in their classes to question and not believe what they had been taught by their parents all these years.” They said their son was told that the Bible was not true, was filled with inconsistencies, and did not apply to society today.
“After finding out what this program was really about,” the Burrowses wrote to Atkinson, “we totally regret sending our son to [the Governor’s School]. However, the damage…has been done.”
‘The New Gay Teenager’
Savin-Williams’s book is the most recent in a series based on a similar theme: homosexual youth. Other titles include …And Then I Became Gay: Young Men’s Stories; Lives of Lesbians, Gays, and Bisexuals: Children to Adults; Mom, Dad, I’m Gay: How Families Negotiate Coming Out; and Gay and Lesbian Youth: Expressions of Identity.
The New Gay Teenager focuses on the categorization of human identities based on sexual orientation. Savin-Williams concludes that teen-agers are increasingly disregarding labels such as “gay,” because they find it too limiting to describe their sexual attractions. He favors broader, more ambiguous terms in which teens can feel normal.
“Regardless of gender of person and partner, if an early sexual contact is not abusive or coercive, then it likely has a positive impact on adolescent and adult sexual arousal, pleasure, satisfaction, and acceptance of various sexual behaviors for self and others,” Savin-Williams wrote.
He says teens with same-sex attractions are shedding the image that they are traumatized.
“The standard image of gay youth presented by mental health researchers — as depressed, isolated, drug-dependent, even suicidal — may have been exaggerated even 20 years ago, and is far from accurate today,” says a Harvard University Press promotion for the book.
“The New Gay Teenager gives us a refreshing and frequently controversial introduction to confident, competent, upbeat teenagers with same-sex desires, who worry more about the chemistry test or their curfew than they do about their sexuality.”
“At last I can hope that contemporary teenagers are bringing the sexual identity era to a close,” Savin-Williams wrote in the book’s preface. “I celebrate this development, because my lifetime professional dream — that homosexuality will be eliminated as a defining characteristic of adolescents, a way of cutting and isolating, of separating and discriminating — is within reach.”
The Governor’s School seminar inspired at least one of the students — the Burrowses’ son — to purchase the book, which his parents promptly returned.
Governor’s School defends
Atkinson promised the Burrowses, in a letter dated Sept. 23, 2005, that the Exceptional Children Division would examine the courses and instructional practices of the Governor’s School. On Nov. 3 the Burrowses were sent a letter from Mary Watson, director of the division, who defended the school’s decision to conduct the seminar. Her letter contained a lengthy memo from on-site Director Lucy Milner, addressing the Burrowses’ concerns and explaining her decision to allow the seminar.
Milner declined to be interviewed by CJ, citing time constraints. Watson, according to a spokeswoman for the Department of Public Instruction, did not want to be interviewed.
After reviewing Milner’s explanation, Watson said the decision to allow the seminar “was not made lightly and certainly was not made with the aim of proselytizing students….”
But Watson did imply that such decisions would be considered more carefully in the future.
“Your sharing of concerns has produced a heightened awareness among the faculty and staff at the school,” Watson wrote to the Burrowses.
Milner wrote in her explanation that the “Gay Teenager” seminar was one of 91 optional choices, “about four each day, six days a week.”
“These seminars allow students to encounter new ideas in fields outside their Area I disciplines…,” Milner wrote. “We believe this program has brought great intellectual energy and breadth to students….”
Milner said that when seminars are proposed, she is “especially aware of sensitive issues” and tries “to be particularly thorough in vetting them.”
“Because the seminars’ subject matter — which ranges from the microbiology of cells to the physics of dance to the surprising sounds of serious new music — is at the forefront of knowledge, the presenters are exploring new ideas along with the students,” Milner wrote.
She said she explained to Mrs. Burrows in a phone conversation that the “Gay Teenager” seminar combined “the analytical with the personal — the quality that often makes this part of the total [Governor’s School] program memorable.”
Milner explained that the seminar discussed “an approach to the issue of homosexuality that was based on research and reasoned extrapolation,” which through presenters gave “an opportunity to refract that knowledge through personal lens and then, in reverse, to refract the personal through the objective.” She said faculty who attended the seminar were “encouraged” about the session, and “were emphatic that no one attending could have thought the seminar was attempting to proselytize or to brainwash students or to promote a gay rights agenda on impressionable young people….”
“It responded to a need for additional factual, neutral information about this highly sensitive issue,” Milner wrote.
She said the focus of the Governor’s School is to address contemporary ideas “at the forefront of 21st century academic and cultural life.”
“An experienced faculty member who has been at the [Governor’s School] …for all but four of its 43 years, has observed that this issue’s sudden importance to students now is similar to what racial integration was to the generation of our school’s founding in 1963 or issues of war and peace and civil disobedience were ten years later,” Milner wrote.
While she regretted the turmoil that the seminar caused for the Burrows family, Milner said avoiding certain issues could hinder the mission of the Governor’s School.
“Many topics and discussions would have to be avoided or curtailed…if potential personal distress becomes the standard by which we approve the curriculum,” Milner wrote. “I want us always to be sensitive to families and their children and responsive to their concerns, but this sensitivity cannot paralyze us.”
Milner also denied that the seminar undermined any religious beliefs, and suggested that such ideas may have been discussed among students — not in classes. As for correspondence between the Burrowses’ son and the faculty members who led the “Gay Teenager” seminar, Milner said the teachers responded to inquiries made by the student. She said one staff member, a 19-year-old male office assistant, who led the seminar “did not initiate the correspondence” and, after reviewing e-mails, Milner found that “this young staff member acted appropriately, responsibly, maturely, and without self-interest.”
Milner, addressing the Burrowses’ complaint about the failure to provide prior notification to parents about the seminar, said informing parents about the Governor’s School’s activities “is a challenge we have addressed over the years.”
She cited informational efforts that included: the school’s Web site; visits by staff to schools throughout the state, explaining the Governor’s School; expansion of the Student Handbook; invitations to Parents’ Day during the session; opening classes, performances and seminars for parental observation; requiring parental permission for students to attend the school’s film series; addresses by Milner at the beginning and end of the session; and a mid-session letter sent to parents explaining the progress of the school. However, none of those efforts apparently indicated that discussions of homosexuality issues were going on at the school, a factor which ultimately triggered the “Gay Teenager” seminar.
“It is critical to remember, however, that the troubling seminar was optional within the Governor’s School which is itself optional,” Milner wrote . Nevertheless, she added that the school resolved to better describe the program to parents in advance.
“I genuinely feel for this family and have wrestled with the [Governor’s School]’s role in their distress,” Milner wrote, “but I cannot say that I and my faculty were wrong in our belief that the seminar was appropriate to the purposes and aims of the school as a whole.”
Milner said she knew the issue of sexual orientation had become a growing part of discussions at the school as well, prior to the seminar.
“I feel deep compassion for the Burrows family and what they are presently enduring,” Milner wrote. “But my allegiance to the Governor’s School as a whole — what it stands for, what it has been in the lives of so many, and what it continues to aspire to be — remains paramount.”
The teachers and an ‘agenda’
One instructor of “The New Gay Teenager” seminar was Wesley Nemenz — the 19-year-old “office assistant” for the Governor’s School. The Burrowses said Nemenz had contact with their son, “trying to convince him to start a ‘Gay & Lesbian’ club at his high school.”
The other instructor, Susan Wiseman, is a Winston-Salem educator in social sciences. She is listed as a youth coordinator for the Parents, Families, and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG)-Winston-Salem.
Nemenz declined to be interviewed when reached by CJ. Wiseman’s phone number had been disconnected.
A handout for the seminar explained how “gay adolescence” progressed from the 1970s until now. It defined sexual orientation as “the preponderance of erotic feelings, thoughts, and fantasies one has for members of a particular sex, both sexes, or neither sex.” Sexual identity was defined as “a socially recognized label that names sexual feelings, attraction, and behavior.”
The handout, based on Savin-Williams’s book, said although there is a way to identify people, it is impossible to quantify them.
While Milner and Watson denied any agenda at the Governor’s School, Nemenz expressed a different view.
“To lump every distinct, individual faculty member together and say that they had a collective ‘agenda’ is absolutely ridiculous,” Nemenz wrote in a Governor’s School message board on the MySpace Internet Web site. But he said as individuals, “we all have agendas. It is my personal belief that [the Governor’s School] is only an enabler for you to create your own agenda.
“In doing the New Gay Teenager seminar, my ‘agenda’ was to shed light on an interesting way of looking at sexuality and to talk about my personal experience. … I believe my agenda succeeded. And I believe that people are better off for it. I could be wrong … but it’s my agenda and I’ll tout it if I want to. We all have our agendas.”
In many postings on MySpace, both on the Governor’s School board and Nemenz’s personal Web site, several students vigorously supported the program and were taken aback by the criticism of the “Gay Teenager” seminar.
But some students’ postings revealed that parents other than the Burrowses were unhappy with the influence on their children. One Knightdale teen-ager said she told her mother about the controversy, expecting her to agree with her. Instead, the mother agreed with the Burrowses.
“Never before has she expressed this kind of hostility towards the changes I went through this summer,” the teen wrote. “I thought she was happy for me, but obviously not.”
Another teenager, from Cary, also revealed her parents’ dissatisfaction. “My mom actually told me a while ago that she doesn’t want me talking to those Governor’s School kids because ‘they’re not a good influence’ and she doesn’t approve,” she wrote.
“My dad once took away my phone because he thought I had been talking to ya’ll too much.”
Paul Chesser ([email protected] is associate editor of Carolina Journal.