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The march of homophobia 

Now hear this. The military does not --- I repeat, for those of you daydreaming in the ranks, does not --- discriminate against gays and lesbians.

            I have this on the word of Danny Francis, education specialist with the regional US Army recruiter command, based in Syracuse. Francis says the "Don't ask, don't tell" policy works fine. Problems arise, he says, only when gays in uniform engage in sexual activity or "go bragging" about their orientation.

            Sure, everything's cool. You can tell just how cool from the latest military witch hunt: the purge of gay servicemembers who were training as Arabic-language specialists.

            It's amazing how the "security" establishment quakes at the thought of people loving each other. But maybe they're right. Maybe we need a "Don't brag, don't shag" policy. Open affection does set a bad example for an America now committed more than ever to brute force.

Sadly, Francis and his ilk have won a round.

            On October 17, bowing to pressure from the federal government, the Rochester school board threw out a longstanding policy that has kept military recruiters out of school buildings. The vote to axe the policy was 6-0. (Board member Dwight Cook was absent.) The new resolution is spare. It says merely that the Parent Involvement Policy has been "revised to comply" with the new federal No Child Left Behind act. Among other things, the new law says federal funds will be withheld from schools that exclude military recruiters.

            The district's old policy actually covered more than the military. It said no outside group that practiced discrimination against various protected classes --- including sexual minorities --- could operate within the schools. In any case, it was the work of many hands. I was involved from the beginning, in my former job with the Peace and Justice Education Center. But the Gay Alliance of the Genesee Valley was the coalition's most powerful member.

            Though pacifists took a leading role, the coalition wasn't anti-military. People united around the simple idea that the Rochester schools shouldn't be helping any group or individual teach homophobia by example. It was an idea that gave substance to the district's anti-discrimination guidelines. Of course, the district soon monkeywrenched itself by allowing Junior ROTC programs to operate in several high schools. When my son was at East, I was chronically depressed at seeing JROTC dug in near the band room. Talk about mixed cues: the deep humanism of music next to the violence-prone regimentation of militarism.

            JROTC is a stealth recruitment program, of course. So now two sets of recruiters will be marching the halls. Students are well advised to avoid them.

            But here's an intriguing hypothetical. I asked Danny Francis what will happen when an out gay youngster tries to enlist, in school or elsewhere. No problem, according to Francis. "The conversation stops," he says, at the moment of disclosure.

Money is calling cadence here.

            "It would be criminally irresponsible of us to blow away $40 million" in federal funds, says school board member Rob Brown. "The fact is, we're a mendicant district," he says. OK, we're all sympathetic, considering the district's financial woes. But let's not downplay the moral issues, especially as the country slumps toward war.

            First, how does militarism fit with education? I think it fits like a garage-sale suit. But some people see no contradiction. Rob Brown calls military service an "honorable profession" and says the recruiters offer "a viable opportunity" to students looking for training or careers. He's no fan of "Don't ask, don't tell," however. "I think it's entirely inappropriate for the military to be homophobic," he says, "and the military should reform its act --- but I don't think that single factor is enough to keep the recruiters out of our schools."

            Board members and school officials haven't made this a big public issue. Sure, they have big fish to fry, like the next filleted budget. But everybody should be complaining loudly about the injustice of the federal mandate --- the raw insult to gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and to common decency.

            Note to parents and students: There is a little something you can do to protest the military incursion. Under federal rules, recruiters can obtain students' names and other contact information. But the school district will withhold your information on request. Check the district website, www.rcsd-k12.org, for updates.

            It's too late for this year, though; the recruiters, says Danny Francis, already obtained the lists they need. (District spokesperson Barbara Jarzyniecki says the annual school calendar, mailed out in late summer, informs parents of the disclosures and opt-outs.)

The level of collective outrage needs to be cranked up, too.

            In this connection: Thank the gods for Gay Alliance board president Bill Kelly. "We cannot help but wonder what happened to equal rights for all in our schools," he wrote in the November Empty Closet. Then he got down on the whole establishment for another slight: the fact that the school district does not provide domestic partners benefits --- as do city government (apart from the schools) and some local private-sector employers.

            "We want to make the schools a better place for LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered] students and staff," Kelly says. But even after the military recruiters' successful assault, it's not all doom and gloom. "The positive side," says Kelly, "is that we're starting to engage the school board about our concerns." He says a "wider dialogue" is opening up with some board members. And another group --- the local chapter of GLSEN (Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network) --- is taking a role, too, he says.

            Kelly weighs the national significance of local efforts. Before the law was changed, he says, some 600 school districts nationwide were excluding military recruiters. That could have meant strength in numbers in mounting a challenge to the federal law. Rochester, says Kelly, should have waited until the No Child Left Behind provisions were tested in court. And that may come: The Boston Globe reported November 21 that the San Francisco school board is reviewing the legalities, as are peace groups like the American Friends Service Committee.

            Rob Brown, an attorney in civilian life, is not convinced. "What if we were the test case and we lost?" he asks.

            School board vice president Shirley Thompson says she may convene a public committee to watchdog the recruiters. She's ambivalent, though. "As I've grown older," she says, "I've grown to appreciate that people have fought to preserve our rights." But she deplores how "people of color and others without the means to pursue less dangerous options end up serving on the front lines."

            Some peace activists are in the trenches. My old PJEC colleague Dennis Lehmann says a committee called Students Deserve Military-Free Schools, originally formed to oppose JROTC, will be staffing information tables in the schools. District officials, he says, have agreed to notify outside groups of recruiters' presence at career days, etc., so "counter-recruiters" can be on hand, too.

            The next Students Deserve Military-Free Schools meeting is Monday, December 9, 7 p.m., at 1592 Highland Avenue; call 235-4534 for information.

            And now hear this from your Uncle Jack: I want you to enlist in countering the military.

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