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Right-wing school tactics = death

Jim Nickoff, my best friend of more than 20 years, came out at age 15 in 1978, a time when very few teenagers came out and even fewer services were available for LGBT youth. The pain he suffered after being rejected by his family, his faith, and community was overwhelming. Jim was determined to heal the wounds, but they never healed no matter how hard he worked at it. The realization that the pain would not end became unbearable. On December 16, 2007, he committed suicide at the age of 44.

Jim not only worked hard to overcome the harm he suffered as a youth, but he also worked hard to prevent other youth from going through what he did. He devoted his life to the fight for equality and created opportunities for LGBT youth through his work at Equality California and many other LGBT and HIV/AIDS organizations.

Creating a safe, accepting environment for LGBT youth is just as crucial today as it was when Jim came out. In fact, although the battles for equality being waged at the ballot box, in the courts, and in legislatures throughout the nation are most often in the spotlight, it is the battle for acceptance in schools that may very well be the most important fight of all.

We know how anti-LGBT forces preyed on parents' fears about what will be taught in schools to strip away marriage rights at the ballot box in Maine and California. But the fight extends far beyond the issue of marriage and has been going on for decades.

Anti-LGBT organizations fought us every step of the way to prevent the passage of Harvey Milk Day legislation and, having lost, they are now working to keep schools from teaching about Harvey Milk, even urging parents to take their children out of public schools altogether on May 22, Harvey Milk Day, in protest.

Just last week, those leading the effort to repeal LGBT inclusive anti-bullying curriculum adopted by the Board of Education in Alameda, claiming it created "special rights," reiterated their opposition even after the school board's recent vote that not only reaffirmed its commitment to teaching respect for LGBT people but also expanded the curriculum to include respect for racial, ethnic, and religious minorities and others who are subject to discrimination-based bullying.

This change did nothing to appease opponents since the special rights argument is really just an excuse. Their true goal: preventing any positive mention of LGBT people in school curriculum.

These are just the latest fights in the many decades of school-related battles we have fought against those opposed to LGBT equality, which started long ago with attempts to prohibit LGBT individuals from being teachers, and they continue today.

Right-wing groups fight safe schools legislation, anti-bullying curriculum, and the establishment of gay-straight alliances because they believe that if straight students are taught to respect LGBT people and get to know LGBT students as friends and classmates, it will counter the bigotry these youth hear from right wing religious leaders, family members, and others, and we will gain greater acceptance.

They are threatening to boycott Harvey Milk Day because they worry that if students learn about the history of discrimination against, and achievements of, LGBT individuals, they will be less likely to hate us and more likely to support equality and acceptance. And they are right.

If students learn the truth, we will help stem the damage that bigotry and bullying cause. That is why Equality California has worked so hard to pass strong, inclusive safe schools legislation – legislation prohibiting negative portrayals of LGBT people in curriculum, and the bill creating Harvey Milk Day in California. It is why we will fight for inclusive curriculum and anti-bullying policies until they are the law in every school district in the state. It is why we need to make sure every California student knows why we are celebrating Harvey Milk Day on May 22, 2010, and every year thereafter.

We need to make it clear to the broader public – and parents in particular – that the danger isn't in students learning about LGBT people in school, but rather the danger is in students not learning about LGBT people in school. We need to take on our opponents and call out these adult bullies for the very real harm they cause to LGBT youth – harm that lasts a lifetime. It is only by speaking out strongly about how youth are hurt by anti-LGBT prejudice that we have the opportunity to reduce the growing number of hate crimes against LGBT people and the higher rates of substance abuse, drop outs, and suicides among LGBT youth and adults that are a direct result of anti-gay bias.

We owe it to every LGBT youth and the children of LGBT parents, to fight for safe schools and inclusive curriculum. We owe it to Jim and to every LGBT person whose lives have been lost to suicide or a senseless hate crime. In fact, we owe it to every youth, LGBT or not, so that when they grow up and have kids of their own they can pass on the lessons of tolerance and acceptance. In so doing, we will be taking a major step toward ending the bigotry that damages so many lives and toward achieving our goal of true equality and acceptance.