When Neutrality Hurts: The Sexual Orientation Curriculum Policy in Minnesota
Can remaining neutral be harmful?
Posted October 8, 2011
An educational curriculum policy in the suburban Anoka-Hennepin School District north of Minneapolis has spurred controversy and discussion about how sexual orientation issues should be discussed in schools ( see the full policy ). The policy in essence mandates that teachers and school officials "shall remain neutral on matters regarding sexual orientation." The proponents of this policy argue that discussions about sexual orientation are inappropriate for the school environment and are best left to the family. However, opponents of the policy assert that this type of neutral policy fosters a hostile environment for sexual minority students, for which the ramifications include lower academic performance, bullying, social isolation and even suicide. Given that the policy is rather ambiguous, especially concerning the definition of "neutral," many are left to wonder: what exactly does remaining "neutral" look like?
Let's begin with the definition of "neutral." Dictionary.com defines neutral as "not taking part or giving assistance in a dispute or war between others." To many this evokes the image of Switzerland and the neutral stance this country takes in times of war. But how does neutrality look when it comes to approaching sexual orientation in an educational context? First, let's start with the imposition of a policy requiring school officials to be neutral on the topic of sexual orientation. This policy can be construed as either implying that sexual orientation issues should not be discussed in schools or that there are limits to how sexual orientation issues should be discussed in schools. In either case, mandating the exclusion of or placing limitations on discussions about sexual orientation is indeed instructing people how to address sexual orientation. This does not seem to fall within in the definitional bounds of neutrality. Furthermore, the policy is implicitly targeting the issue of non-heterosexuality. So, remaining neutral on the issue of sexual orientation is by default supporting heterosexism, the notion that heterosexuality is the gold standard. Mandating such a policy is in essence taking a side, which is not remaining neutral.
Second, let's consider the reality of sexual orientation issues in the social context of a school. Many agree that in most schools across the country, including those located in the Anoka-Hennepin School District, there exist hostile climates for sexual minority youth, and even youth who are assumed to be sexual minorities. These hostile climates can include overt acts of discrimination, such as verbal taunting and physical altercations. They also include microaggressions, such as social ostracization and overlooking or minimizing incidents of bullying. Research on microaggressions indicates that these incidents are likely to occur more frequently than overt types of oppression, and are quite possibly more damaging given their insidious nature. All in all, the ramifications of these overt and covert acts of discrimination include lower mental health wellbeing, self-harm, and even suicide.
In an environment where there is hostility directed towards sexual minority youth, taking a neutral stance on issues of sexual orientation allows the hostile environment to flourish. In this instance, taking a neutral stance does not foster an overall environment of neutrality towards sexual orientation within the school. On the contrary, it appears that the school district is invoking neutrality as a way to allow complacency and even complicity in the creation and maintenance of a hostile climate towards sexual minority youth. Doesn't this seem a bit at odds with a basic responsibility of school officials? I think most parents, if not all parents, would expect the very adults that they entrust with the care of their children to take active steps in addressing hostility in schools. Being neutral in the presence of harm is not appropriate, nor should it be tolerated, especially in schools. In essence, there is a war going on in schools across America. And, taking a neutral stance on sexual orientation issues when countless youth are being bullied specifically because of their presumed sexual orientation is unacceptable and flat out abhorrent.