Kate Brodoff is just a freshman in high school, but lately she has found herself playing the teacher. The 15-year-old girl's lesbian parents were plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts and were among the first couples to get married this week, so Kate has been explaining her insider's perspective to classmates at Newton South High School. "Some make assumptions. They think that marriage and civil unions are the same," Kate said. "I try to tell them the actual facts of the case."
Across the state, as Massachusetts became the first to allow gay couples to wed, educators grappled with how to discuss the landmark development in the classroom. In many cases, students did not need much prompting.
Homosexuality has not been a taboo subject for years in Massachusetts schools. More than 15 years ago, Cambridge Rindge and Latin School became the first public high school in the Northeast to create a gay-straight student alliance. Today, there is one in nearly every district, and the state Education Department provides grants to teach acceptance of gay students. "Schools have been way ahead of everyone else," said Paul Schlichtman, president of the Massachusetts Association of School Committees.
But how kids discuss gay marriage in the classroom depends on who is teaching--and where. Outside liberal bastions like Newton and Cambridge, the discussion is decidedly different.
Michael Barth, a 30-year-old psychology and history teacher at Melrose High School north of Boston, said gay marriage comes up "all the time," but it is more common for his students to come down against gay marriage. One senior said he would shoot a gay couple if he saw them holding hands on the street. "He didn't literally mean it, but it's important not to use words like that," Barth said. "We spent an entire class period just talking about that."
Barth said he makes sure to present both sides of any issue. But without any directives on how to handle the issue, straitlaced teachers are "just not going to be talking about it."
The Education Department is staying out of it. "We don't tell schools what they can and can't teach," department spokeswoman Heidi Perlman said. "The only guidance we give is if it's going to be discussed, it needs to be done in an education setting, not in a way that teachers are lobbying one way or another."
In a history class at Newton South this week, teacher Michael Kozuch raised gay marriage as part of a discussion of cultural differences. "My father isn't against gays, but he says marriage is between a man and a woman," said one girl, who said she disagrees and has tried unsuccessfully to change her father's mind. "I got fed up." Part of her dad's reasoning is that same-sex couples cannot biologically have
Whether textbooks will change to reflect the events of the past week remains to be seen. Lawmakers have taken the first step toward letting voters decide in 2006 if they want to amend the constitution to ban gay marriages and allow gay couples to enter civil unions instead.
For Kate Brodoff, the controversy is old hat. Her parents, Ellen Wade, 55, and Maureen Brodoff, 52, were plaintiffs in the lawsuit that led to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts. They were wed Monday at City Hall. Kate is happy to offer her perspective during classroom debate but jokes that, believe it or not, there are other subjects being taught as well. "Every once in a while we have to get on with classwork," she said.