Fanning the Flames
Did TV News Reports Jeopardize Out Youth Austin's Partnership With AISD?
It was an unseasonably warm Wednesday evening in late February when a shy and embarrassed high school student nervously walked into a house north of Hyde Park. His dour-faced mother stood a few steps away and watched. She had learned, just days earlier, that her son is gay -- Hispanic, Catholic, and gay. The house they had entered was the home of Out Youth Austin, a 10-year-old, nonprofit organization that provides support, education, and counseling to gay teens. Just two weeks earlier, Out Youth had gotten some not-so-encouraging publicity on local ABC affiliate KVUE-24 and the most recent addition to Austin TV news, News 8 Austin. The gist of the two stories was that the Austin Independent School District was going to make Out Youth materials available to the school district's counselors -- and by extension to the district's teens.
The material consists of a videotape and brochure for the students, and a pamphlet for the counselors entitled Just the Facts About Sexual Orientation & Youth, A Primer for Principals, Educators & School Personnel. The pamphlet was endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Association of School Administrators, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Psychological Association, the Interfaith Alliance Foundation, the National Education Association, and others.
But the February sweeps-month TV reports didn't mention the endorsements. Instead, KVUE teased its viewers with a pre-show promo. "Are you teaching your children about homosexuality? Soon they can pick up a video on [it at] the Austin school district," said anchor Walt Maciborski.
Moments later, he teased and titillated again. "Is it okay to be gay? This video," and a bit of the Out Youth video silently aired, "says yes. And like it or not, your kids may get to see it if they're in the Austin school district." The split-second of silent Out Youth video featured a young lesbian named Angel.
Finally, backed by an image of joined same-sex symbols, Maciborski introduced KVUE's top story for the 10 o'clock news. "Guidance counselors at every Austin high school will soon hand out information on a gay and lesbian support group to any student who asks for it. It could even be available at middle schools." Maciborski's voice sounded alarmed. And if his voice didn't drive his point home, his final words did: "Some parents are alarmed."
More Out Youth videotape rolled and two hugging females filled the screen. Reporter Jay Carter said a few voiceover words and cut to Out Youth Executive Director Gail Goodman, who said one sentence, before Dr. Kathy Synatschk, AISD director of guidance and counseling, spoke. "Gay, lesbian, and transgendered youth are at extremely high risk for depression, dropping out of school, and suicide," she explained. "And our goal is for our counselors to be available and responsive to every kid."
"So if I hear you correctly," responded AISD mother Vicki Parsons, "you're saying I want to let you be around others to lean on who are also at risk for drug abuse and those kinds of problems. It just doesn't make sense to me."
Reporter Carter continued, "Parents like Vicki Parsons say material like this has no place in a public school." And as her teenage son sat at her elbow, Parsons warned, "The morals in our country are bad enough without our school district coming in and encouraging further breakdown."
While the story noted that the Out Youth information would be available if, and only if, a student specifically asked for it, it failed to mention that the Out Youth materials are being considered for use by AISD, and are not currently available to students.
News 8 Austin also aired a clip from the Out Youth video, including a shot of a young man jokingly sticking his tongue out at the camera. It then cut to Out Youth's Goodman, who again was allotted a single sentence, followed by a voiceover by News 8 education reporter Phil Kahn. "Now," said Kahn, as a video of students at school rolled, "Out Youth wants their brochures and support materials in high schools so counselors can make them available to students. It's a plan that's caused some disagreement."
In the next shot, Bob Schoolfield, a Republican candidate for the State Board of Education, is shown watching the Out Youth video and reading and highlighting the pamphlet. "He's seen Out Youth's literature and wants to make sure it doesn't promote unhealthy behavior," Kahn's voiceover said.
"I'm concerned about homosexual behavior just from the aspect that it is medically dangerous," Schoolfield said solemnly. "It's been well established that it's associated with AIDS and with various other sexually transmitted diseases."
No one noted that AIDS is spreading at a faster pace among heterosexuals than homosexuals, and that heterosexual sex is, and always has been, associated with "various other sexually transmitted diseases." But the report did air a comment from AISD's Synatschk. "The main thing," she said, "is that our kids feel they have support and they're able to connect to other supports in the community. We're all here to provide a safe campus for every kid."
At that, the story cut to Goodman hugging an Out Youth client. Perhaps unintentionally, the clip may have promoted the myth that adult homosexuals recruit kids into being gay.
Kahn, the News 8 reporter, says he had long wanted to do a story on Out Youth, but video was a problem -- young gay people tended to be afraid to go on camera. The new Out Youth video solved that problem."If anything, I have only positive thoughts about Out Youth," Kahn says.
At both stations, each TV newsperson notes that they simply wanted to provide the public with information and provide two sides of the story in a fair and responsible way. Indeed, KVUE reporter Carter, who broke the story, learned about the possible AISD/Out Youth alliance from Goodman herself. Carter says he phoned Goodman, as he does regularly as part of his "beat check," and she told him about the story. He later spent an hour to an hour and a half at Out Youth, taping and interviewing. He talked to Goodman, a gay youth, and the mother of a young lesbian.
The Making of a TV News Story
With deadline time ticking near, he drove to Great Hills Baptist Church to get the opposing point of view. There, Carter talked to various parents whose children attended AISD schools. All were against Out Youth materials being made available to students. Carter seated Vicki Parsons and her son in front of the camera, initially believing Parsons had children enrolled in AISD schools. Then, he says, he learned she didn't. But he had to be back at the station in less than 30 minutes to edit his piece for that night's 10 o'clock news. Since Parsons' viewpoint was representative of AISD parents he'd talked with at Great Hills, Carter figured it was okay to proceed with Parsons speaking for the opposing view.
Soon he had an 80-second lead story on Out Youth. "I would have preferred to have gone longer," he says, and he would have preferred to have included the gay youth and the young lesbian's mother. But since the mother's opinions were similar to Goodman's, Carter explains, she was left out of the story. "It came down to me making the decision," he says. "We wanted to illuminate what was going on." And, as TV reporters know all too well, it wasn't in Carter's power to go over a minute-twenty. Nor did he have control over the promotional teasers that preceded the Out Youth report.
While he realized the story was a "potentially controversial issue," Carter says, "our intent was not to stir up problems." He adds, "Did we cover the story fairly? I believe so."
Fair or not, the two TV reports generated a wave of complaints that could ultimately jeopardize the distribution of the Out Youth support materials, an effort that has been in the works for a year. Last spring, just after the Columbine High School shooting tragedy in Colorado, Out Youth's Goodman penned a letter to AISD school staff asking the educators to recall their teen years and the painful teasing of bullies. The letter noted that such teasing or bullying is now called "harassment" and "policies exist to protect students." The letter went on to emphasize "that the City of Austin has civil rights ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. In addition, Title IX protects students from sexual harassment, and this includes being harassed for being gay, lesbian, or being perceived as gay or lesbian."
Out Youth Reaches Out
The letter drew attention to what Out Youth calls some "alarming statistics:"
The letter was attached to nine pages of information about homosexuality, including 10 tips on addressing sexual orientation in the classroom and 12 questions to consider before coming out. Out Youth intern Shelli Kozberg, who was at the time an M.A. working toward her license in professional counseling -- and who is, incidentally, straight -- then met with staff at about half of the high schools in AISD. Goodman admits that some of the educators may have met with Kozberg only to be politically correct. Still, Out Youth seemed on track to meet its goal of making diversity and sensitivity information and resources available to every middle and high school student in the Austin area.
But suddenly, Goodman says, she and her staff got wind one day last summer that AISD was considering cuts to its diversity-training budget. The hearing for the budget cut, in fact, was that very night. She, Kozberg, some parents of gay youth, and several Out Youth clients, including Angel from the video, showed up at the board meeting and spoke. As Goodman relays the story, the AISD board members sat on the edges of their chairs, listening intently, as young gay individuals like Angel told the board that if funds were slashed, they "wouldn't be protected."
In the end, the budget stayed intact.
In late August of that same summer, Out Youth forged an alliance with AISD's Synatschk. Out Youth was invited to participate in a back-to-school meeting for counselors, which resulted in 22 AISD counselors visiting the Out Youth home. Goodman recalls that some of the educators approached the open Out Youth door with that "deer in the headlights look," but she doesn't dwell on that. "I like to forge alliances, so I don't like to put others down," she says. Soon she began getting phone calls from different schools. Some of the counselors asked her to visit their campuses. Twelve- and 13-year-olds were asking questions, Goodman says, and the counselors were afraid to answer them, fearing they'd get in trouble. Gay and lesbian teachers, she explains, have no legal protection and can be fired for their homosexuality.
Other counselors wanted Out Youth's help in starting gay-straight alliances. But Out Youth has the equivalent of two and a half full-time staffers, working within a $130,000 annual budget, and servicing 350 teens a year. The nonprofit didn't have the staff to share, so Goodman directed the educators to other resources.
Now, Out Youth is positioning itself to meet the growing needs of the community. This month, as it prepares for its upcoming 10-year anniversary celebration on April 2, the organization has kicked off its first capital fundraising campaign. Its goal is to raise $120,000 in two years. Additionally, Out Youth is buying its Central Austin house, which once served as the offices of The Texas Triangle. The two-story house currently functions as a counseling center, a 2,000-volume library, and a drop-in-center from 5:30-9:30pm, Wednesday through Sunday. The atmosphere is more clean-cut than most high school Friday night football celebrations. Instead of drugs and alcohol, there are chocolate cupcakes with puffs of thick white icing. On Wednesday and Sunday nights, a support group meets with the help of more trained volunteers and counseling interns.
"The language of damnation is also the language of sexuality," says Bob Breihan, a Methodist minister and executive director of New Life Institute, a counseling program of The United Methodist Church. Breihan doesn't necessarily see any danger in making Out Youth materials available to local students. He knows that some parents fear that such material could lead kids into homosexuality, but he's convinced that it can't. "Fundamentally, it's not a choice," he says. Breihan says that "many parents would say that you certainly don't want to open that doorway. But we deal with sex all the time. Not just homosexuality, but with sexuality."
The Clergy's Role
Breihan is not alone among clergy in his attitude of tolerance. "What kind of world do we live in that would deny a child struggling with the most basic issues of life?" asks Ragan Courtney, senior pastor at Tarrytown Baptist Church. "Of course we should help."
Not all churches provide that kind of help, however. Call Hyde Park Baptist Church Counseling Center and ask for a counselor dealing with gay and lesbian issues and you will be referred to Gene Kummerer. Talk to Kummerer and he says he doesn't do such counseling but Kyle Miller at Professional Christian Counseling Services does. Call Kyle Miller and he too says he doesn't do such counseling. Instead, he will refer you to a Christian counselor in Georgetown.
It would be difficult, clearly, for a professional, accredited, fundamentalist counselor to say he does do gay and lesbian counseling, because homosexuality runs counter to their beliefs. On the other hand, the American Psychological Association states it's unethical for a therapist to try to convert or "transform" a homosexual to heterosexuality, explains Linda Eldredge, a counselor with Austin Psychotherapy Associates. Eldredge is one of only two therapists listed in the Austin Yellow Pages as a counselor who deals with homosexual issues. She stresses that all AISD is trying to do is promote safety in its schools for all students. "Fear and ignorance put people in danger," she says.
Gail Goodman knows that. She recalls a young man who arrived at Out Youth with holes in his shirt after being attacked with acid in his classroom, while his teacher did nothing. She also knows that if fearful educators and parents can meet her youth face to face, just as the AISD board did last summer, they'll have a change of attitude. "When the faces become real faces and we have a real conversation ... and they can't hold it at arm's length any more, it changes things."
She just hopes it doesn't change things too late. Angel, who spoke to the AISD board and who appeared in the KVUE report, talked in the Out Youth video about her father, saying that he had disappeared for two and a half weeks after she came out. Last year, 18-year-old Angel dove off an I-35 bridge and killed herself.
"It doesn't have to be that way," says Goodman, who has watched many parents come to accept a child's homosexuality -- after the youth has committed suicide. Goodman knows that the pain and rejection of being gay creates loneliness that some teens can't handle. One in three attempts suicide, says Dr. Eldredge.
Every time a young person walks through the doors of Out Youth, Goodman says, "I'm secretly hoping they're straight because life would be a lot easier for them." In fact, many straight young people frequent Out Youth because they discover there the unconditional love and acceptance that churches preach but don't always practice.
Goodman also expressed her wish for the easier straight life for teens while appearing recently on KJFK-FM's The Shannon Burke Show. Burke phoned Goodman and KVUE soon after the TV station's Out Youth story aired because he "found it a little odd that anyone found Out Youth materials objectionable." Students are given information at school about alcohol, drugs, domestic violence, and sex, Burke notes. "I don't know why they'd want to leave out information about being gay." Still, about half of the listeners who phoned in the day Goodman was on Burke's show disagreed with the host.
That's more response than the other reports garnered. At KVUE, Burke and a few wire services were all that called in response to the Out Youth piece. At News 8 Austin, no one called. And no one phoned Out Youth, either. They rarely do, says Goodman.
But Synatschk and AISD got calls. How many? Synatschk isn't saying. Were there many complaints about the Out Youth materials prior to the airing of the TV stories? "Of course not," she answers. Was the media creating the controversy? "Yes," she says.
According to Nicole Wright of AISD's Communications Services Office, the complaints were mostly verbal and involved a lack of understanding -- the callers thought the materials were AISD-produced, not Out Youth-produced. Callers were told that AISD had long used Out Youth materials and the only thing that had changed was the addition of video, Wright says.
But there are indications that AISD may be rethinking its policies on the matter. News 8 reporter Phil Kahn felt that Synatschk had "danced around" his question about whether AISD was thinking about placing the Out Youth video and training materials in the schools to avoid lawsuits, and the question didn't air in his story. "It seems like they pulled back on this a little bit," he says.
In a faxed statement, Andy Welch, director of communications for AISD, commented on the controversy: "For many years, Austin school counselors have used Out Youth as a resource for students when appropriate. Counselors understand that students who experience emotional problems of any sort are less focused on academics, and it is counselors' intent to help students resolve emotional issues so their full attention can again be directed toward their studies.
"We anticipate that a review of Out Youth's new materials will occur later this spring," the statement continued. "With careful deliberation, we will make a recommendation to the high school principals regarding these materials and the format for their use."
But such a reply is puzzling to AISD Board of Trustees President Kathy Rider. "Of course materials from Out Youth would be available to students," she says. "We've had a comprehensive sex-ed program and counseling program in the district for some time. And ... counselors make those materials available to students. So I don't really know what the issue is."
Rider, a psychotherapist, was on the school board when the current sex education policy was passed on March 1, 1993. As the policy stands, she says, counselors distribute upon request any information that might help a student; that includes information on colleges, on Planned Parenthood, on Al-Ateen, on SafePlace, and, yes, on Out Youth.
Those materials, Rider says, do not go before a review board. The only materials that go before a review board are curriculum materials. So why must Out Youth's materials be reviewed, as Welch had indicated? Calls to AISD for clarification were referred to Synatschk. Messages left for Synatschk, requesting clarification, were not returned.
Out Youth's Gail Goodman doesn't know the answer either. She hypothesizes that it might be because the materials would be part of educator diversity training, just like materials about race relations and racial harassment. (Currently, educator diversity training does not include gay and lesbian issues, she says.) Indeed, diversity training seems to be the core issue, although the materials in the schools are what's drawing the media attention.
Last month, Synatschk explained that her reluctance to speak has nothing to do with a wish to avoid any issues. "If you bring us into it," she says, "all it's going to do is bring further backlash to the kids" -- i.e., more angry phone calls that could jeopardize the implementation of the program. "Our kids are suffering," she says. "I don't want to add to the controversy." All she wants, she says, is for helpful materials to be in the hands of the kids.
Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil
Synatschk might be surprised, though, by the support she could get for the Out Youth materials. Debbie Hanna, president of the Austin High School PTSA, says she has no objection to information being made available to the students. In fact, Hanna wonders what the controversy is all about, because she remembers seeing information about homosexuality in the Austin High counselor's office as far back as five years ago. And that material, she says, was in full view.
"There is nothing novel about talking about sex with teenagers, and sexuality is part of that," Hanna says. And, she points out, "there's a difference between advocating and exploiting, and simply providing information. ... The goal is to help students understand what is going on in their hearts and minds without damaging them."
Hanna says that the students aren't threatened by information about growing up gay, specifically about the common problems of suicide and alienation -- only their parents are.
She does have one concern, though, and that's whether already overworked counselors have enough time to counsel students about sexual preference. She hopes Out Youth, not school staff, will do the counseling once the materials are made available.
Kathleen Niendorff, mother of Austin High student council president Davis Niendorff, sees a different problem. "No one wants to talk about the great big middle where most of us are," she says, referring to how the opinions of the moderate majority are dismissed by the media. "A moderate stance cannot be explained in a sound bite."
The Moderate Majority
So just as Niendorff gets "livid" when she hears homophobic remarks, particularly from the pulpit, she gets equally livid when she hears raging sound bites. "Too often the effects are to polarize when it's a time to harmonize."
Niendorff admits that she doesn't understand homosexuality, but she also says, "Kids are so fragile in adolescence that you don't want to do anything to scar them in any way." She's in favor of the distribution of the Out Youth materials. Her heterosexual son has a friend who just recently "came out."
At Out Youth that too-hot night last February, the mother of the gay Hispanic teen did not know that her son had been physically attacked by a sibling simply because he was homosexual. She did not know that a straight female friend of her son, who had encouraged them to go to Out Youth, was upstairs at that very moment, trying to convince herself that her friend was not suicidal.
For an hour, the gay and straight Out Youth staffers worked at building bridges of understanding between the scared youth and his even more frightened mother. And even as they talked, the memory of Angel's suicide dive into I-35 lingered in the staffers' minds.