St. Andrew's Defends the Cowboy Way

A big donor withdraws funding over 'pornographic' book and stirs up an online storm

'Tis a virtue to be patient, generous, tolerant, kind to animals and other living things. And, if the Web site VirtueOnline.org is any indication, the list of approved virtues – in at least one wing of unofficial Episcopalianism – now also includes name-calling, threats of damnation, and foaming-at-the-mouth homophobia.

Other than its inherent religious or entertainment value, Austinites have reason to visit VirtueOnline.org, the "Global Voice for Conservative Anglicanism," because of a posted article by "David W. Virtue," dated Aug. 30, titled "Episcopal High School Promotes Gay Sex Book: Parents threaten to withhold $3 million if book not pulled." That high school is St. Andrew's Episcopal, the prestigious private high school on Southwest Parkway. The article lends considerable credence to local rumors sputtering for weeks about the school standing up to a big contributor with equally big – or at least imposing – ideas about the St. Andrew's curriculum.

The article quotes large sections of a letter that it says "irate contributor" Cary McNair (son of Houston Texans owner Bob McNair) sent the St. Andrew's board of trustees in August. In the letter, McNair explained the events that led to St. Andrew's rejecting a large contribution his family had pledged toward new classrooms. (The letter does not specifically refer to an amount, but in January the school announced the McNairs had committed $3 million toward a new McNair Hall at the Upper School.) At specific issue for McNair was "Brokeback Mountain," the Annie Proulx story about Wyoming cowboys in love. For five years, "Brokeback Mountain" (recently made into an Ang Lee film) had been on the optional reading list for St. Andrew's English students without incident. When the McNairs learned of its availability, however, they were baffled. "Why would SAS [St. Andrew's school] promote classroom discussion on pornographic material concerning deviant behavior?" the letter asked. When it became clear that the school wouldn't axe the book, the family decided it didn't feel comfortable having their name on a building that was home to such deviance, and told the board as much. "Then SAS, by its own action … removed the McNair funds from the campaign effort, and accepted the potential risk for other support departures," the letter said.

McNair could not be reached for comment. However, St. Andrew's spokesman Bill Miller confirmed that the board had received such a letter, and explained that the school has a longstanding policy against accepting contributions with any sort of strings attached.

Many would consider it virtuous for a school not to allow its curriculum to be shaped by a battle of the fattest wallets. But such virtue didn't fly at VirtueOnline, where headmistress Lucy Nazro is likened to Satan amidst a vigorous and wide-ranging – and occasionally scatological – e-mail debate.

"I just have to ask," wrote one "Essodalori," "Where are the men at this school? Real men don't stand around while homoanal sodomy is made a 'value' to be promoted to their sons and daughters." Another writer kicked off a vigorous discussion under the title, "The McNairs are tax evading cheats" by posting "verbatim" an article detailing the McNairs' use of banned tax shelters (the family insists they didn't know the shelters were illegal at the time). That didn't prove popular: "Was that quoted VERBATIM from the Sodomite Daily News or from the Sore Ass Chronicle?" shot back "Damascus." (The tax article was actually from The New York Times; it was not quoted in full.) The vitriolic fun proceeds for several hundred posts, although many of the most eloquent were submitted by self-described St. Andrew's students (online identities can't be verified), who explain where tolerance fits into their religious values. "The school does not endorse homosexuality, but in true Christian faith, we do not reject homosexuals from the community," wrote one. "Christ dined and washed the feet of the people no one would even touch or look at, and in this way, St. Andrew's practices true keeping with the tolerance and love preached." Eventually, the debate fizzled – online and in real life. According to Miller, the construction of the Something-Other-Than-McNair Hall will go on as planned, and the school has moved on to more pressing matters. "Now it's 'Who's going to win the football game this week?'" he said.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

homophobia, St. Andrew's, virtueonline.org, Cary McNair, Bill Miller, Brokeback Mountain, Annie Proulx, Lucy Nazro

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