The illustration for Alex Morris’ excellent and upsetting new Rolling Stone article, “The Hidden War Against Gay Teens,” is a perfect summary of the campaign against gay students in the private, Southern, Christian-affiliated schools that she exposes in the piece.* In the image, a rainbow-hued student approaches a blackboard with chalk in hand, but, before she can write anything, she’s already begun to be erased by the teacher. Given that many of the students Morris interviews are only just coming out to themselves (not to mention to generally hostile friends and family), the illustration’s gesture toward a kind of pre-emptive silencing—via the threat of expulsion or harassed voluntary dropouts, in this case—is terribly poignant.
Morris’ main preoccupation in the article is with so-called “neovoucher” public funding laws in states like Georgia, which allow millions of dollars of public funds to be redirected to explicitly homophobic Christian schools through dollar-for-dollar tax credits and privately run “Student Scholarship Organizations.” This increasingly exploited setup arguably blurs the line between church and state, but, as “school choice” proponents would maintain, also provides students in failing public districts with wider educational options via scholarships to private schools. The problem, of course, is that the particular Christian schools in question are not a viable option if you happen to be gay.
One might fairly ask why a gay student would choose to go to school in such a nasty environment in the first place, but as Morris’ subjects explain, the notion of a better “choice” is misleading. For one thing, due to sheltered lives and internal struggles with religion, many of them only begin to come to terms with their sexuality—mainly thanks to the information and support available on the Internet—after enrolling in these schools and are not yet prepared to advocate for themselves. (And to be clear, we are not talking about young activists trying to start a Gay-Straight Alliance in a Christian school; these are traumatized kids just trying to make it through enemy territory while figuring out what it all means.) But more to the point, asking to transfer to another institution—if that is even an option in these small Southern communities—would likely force them to come out to unsympathetic parents, raising the threat of being expelled from their homes in addition to their schools.
For those familiar with the less progressive parts of America (a label not limited to the South), the existence of this horrible situation won’t come as much of a surprise. But in addressing the issue of erasure that I mentioned before, Morris’ article does highlight a more insidious aspect of this kind of perfectly legal bigotry. Removing gay kids from school erases two things. For gay students, it often ruins the road (or at least a somewhat straightforward one) to an “It Gets Better” kind of future via college, since a high-school diploma is a required ticket out. And for the (presumably) straight kids left behind, any chance of learning acceptance through daily exposure to gay human beings is also precluded. As has been demonstrated time and time again, people’s attitudes on gayness change once the scary abstract alien concept of “HOMOSEXUALITY” collapses into the familiar, pain- and love-experiencing form of a family member, friend, or classmate. So you can see how kicking these kids to the curb—even when they express no interest in being “out” in any vocal way but, rather, would just like to be allowed to finish school in peace—is a tidy means of short-circuiting that whole process.
While it’s true that some of these schools are using textbooks produced by ignorance-mills like Bob Jones University, the pious people in charge are apparently no dummies when it comes to spiritually assaulting all their students, LGBT and straight alike.
*Correction, Oct. 16, 2013: This post originally misgendered Rolling Stone reporter Alex Morris.