Lessons of Hate in the Bible Belt

By Debra Taylor, former Grandfield Oklahoma high school Ethics teacher who was forced to resign for using The Laramie Project in her class

Teaching about intolerance in my high school ethics class in a small town in Oklahoma lead to a real life lesson for my students when I was forced to resign for insubordination. Conflicts had escalated between the superintendent of schools, my students and me over his biased decision to suspend my class because I was teaching The Laramie Project.

I had sought and received approval from the principal to teach the tragic story of Matthew Shepard, a gay young man brutally murdered in Laramie, Wyoming by two young men who "hated" gay people. I chose The Laramie Project because of its prevailing themes of intolerance and hate crimes. The students and I studied the criminal investigation and examined how different citizens of Laramie responded when they learned Matthew's murderers--Aaron "A.J." McKinney and Russell Henderson-- were life-long residents of the rural Wyoming community. One thing is for sure, I did not use The Laramie Project to teach about gay rights or to teach a unit on gay lifestyles, as the superintendent Mr. Turlington has alleged. It is not necessary to teach about gay lifestyles to my students' generation. Several students have gay family members; some of the family members have been in long-term, same-sex relationships.

In truth, I was challenging them to examine where and how the two young men--McKinney and Henderson-- learned to hate; because hate, like love, is learned behavior. I wanted them to understand where the lessons of hate and intolerance are typically learned: parents, teachers, members of the community, even in churches. I had hoped that by using The Laramie Project each student would examine their prejudices and form healthier practices of tolerance, compassion and advocacy.

The irony is that the students learned the lesson well, but not inside the walls of a Grandfield High School classroom. They had their classroom moved into the real world where they have experienced the real life lessons of intolerance; witnessed acts promoted by homophobic fears and ideology and yes, encountered hatred. Even in this small town of 1,100 people, it's not all black and white. As one local resident told Hunter Stuart, a video journalist, "We don't live in the fifties anymore." Another told him, "I know people who are gay. I don't like what they do, but I treat them with respect."

But as one thing led to another, I asked a member of the school board to get involved. I was accused of insubordination by Superintendent Turlington and felt I had no alternative but to accept the superintendent's agreement of resignation. As the editor of the local newspaper admonished in an editorial "it was wrong to question the decisions of your superiors."

I am humbled by the fact that people across the country find the story of my students and me important. The media has become our courtroom. The more people advocate for us against the injustices we have experienced, the better I feel about losing my job. No matter where we live or go to school we need to promote attitudes of compassion and tolerance for all students, all people-- gay or straight. I would be naïve to think what has happened to my students and me is an isolated incident. Unfortunately, those in charge of the school just don't get it. I know any gay student at Grandfield High School has been taught a dubious lesson. They have learned they better keep quiet until they are old enough to leave town.

Originally published on rhrealitycheck.org