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Student journalist hears from religious right after story on gay teen

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Colorado, Colo.

She didn't see it coming: the storm clouds, the venting of opposition, being sucked into controversy.

But it came late last October when Mary Margaret Nussbaum, the 18-year-old editor of The Lever, the prizewinning student newspaper at Palmer High School, wrote a l,000 word front-page article on the lives and thoughts of gay and lesbian teenagers.

The story, headlined "Finding True Love: Gay Teens Search For a Place," came off as a balanced mix of quotes, information and reporting that included a visit to the Penthouse, a local gay dance club. The article was not an editorial advocating a stance but a news story reporting on an issue. It was in keeping with the journalistic excellence that has made The Lever a nationally honored newspaper.

Nussbaum, whose college choices this fall include Northwestern and Notre Dame, quoted a pseudonymous Palmer student who plans to move in soon with her girlfriend. "When I came out, it wasn't like I made an announcement," the student said. "I told one person and they told five and they told 10. The people who didn't like it stayed away and the people who didn't care just told me how much they loved me."

The young reporter revealed an ear for the telling anecdote. She wrote that the lesbian student's poise and confidence helped "get her through the times when she's walking down the street with her girlfriend, holding hands and a man yells 'You're the reason I can't get a date.' "

In the months since the article appeared, Nussbaum has been in the middle of controversy over her story and the issue of student sexuality.

Writing such an article might be viewed as a nervy undertaking for a high school senior anywhere. But the effort takes on added significance in Colorado Springs, a stronghold of fundamentalist Christian activism. This city was the site nearly three years ago of a secret meeting of religious right leaders from around the country to outline their anti-homosexual agenda.

One of the early and most aggressive critics of Nussbaum's article was Will Perkins, a Colorado Springs car dealer and chairman of the board of Colorado for Family Values, a conservative organization closely aligned with right-wing political and religious groups. As stated in the CFV Report, the monthly published by Perkins and his nonprofit organization, "The mission of Colorado for Family Values is to proactively lead and assist those opposing the militant homosexual attacks on traditional family values."

The mission is also "to preserve the right to disagree with and resist, in a civil and compassionate manner, the forced affirmation of the homosexual lifestyle."

In a statement of faith the group professes: "We are committed to the behavioral standards as enunciated in the Holy Scriptures, both Old and New Testaments, as encompassed in the Judeo-Christian ethic and demonstrated by the Life of Jesus Christ. We understand that there are other world views and faiths which incorporate these same standards. We welcome them as partners in this issue."

CFV's most visible activity has been spearheading opposition to any legislation in the state recognizing the rights of homosexuals.

Postcard campaign

The Perkins group, following Nussbaum's article, distributed an estimated 130,000 postcards via more than 100 churches. The postcards had the local school board's address on one side and a message on the other with a line for a signature.

Under the headline "PROTECT THE CHILDREN," the card read: "I strongly urge you to enact a policy for every aspect of school life which discourages experimentation with any kind of promiscuous sexual activity, promotes abstinence, and affirms traditional marriage." CFV claims that by mid-January more than 7,500 supporters "formally endorsed this position."

In addition to being a stronghold for conservative Christianity, Colorado Springs, population 350,000, has long been a fortress of conservative Republican politics. Its congressman, Rep. Joel Hefley, first elected in 1986, has one of the safest seats in Congress, winning by 72 percent in the last election. He routinely received high -- and often the highest -- ratings from the American Conservative Union and some of the lowest from the AFL-CIO and Americans for Democratic Action. Hefley is a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee.

One of the local political ironies is that the emergence in the past few years of such groups as Colorado for Family Values has made Colorado Springs less of a one-party town. Stephen Handen, a resident since the 1960s, a former Catholic priest and a longtime social worker with ministries to young people and low-income families, says that once-sleeping moderates and liberals have been energized of late by CFV and its larger and richer ideology-mate, Focus on the Family, run by broadcaster James Dobson. "Suddenly there are some alliances between Republicans and Democrats because of the way in which the newcomer conservative groups have colored the political complexion of this town," said Handen. "Colorado Springs has become much more politically alive because of the wishes of some people to create a theocracy."

Some of that liveliness was on display at school board meetings in recent months, including one in January attended by more than 600 people. A local reporter said that "general civility -- and a lot of security guards -- held their sway." A Baptist minister told the crowd that Colorado Springs was like the biblical Babylon, destroyed "because people kept quiet" about sinfulness. From the other side came the charge that "the CFV proposal is yet another thinly veiled, cloaked attempt at sweeping censorship."

Mary Margaret Nussbaum recently took a few moments to offer her reflections. She sat in a conference room at Colorado College, a premier liberal arts college where her mother serves as a Catholic religious counselor.

"I never had any interaction" with Colorado for Family Values before the article, Nussbaum said. "One of the things this dispute has shown me more than anything is just how divided this whole community is. ... It's really unfortunate. I admire that [CFV] has strongly held beliefs."

Many at the school board meetings, she said, "were people who had never had any interaction with Palmer High School or the students. A lot of them hadn't even read the article they were so upset about. They read the headlines or other people's reports. It wasn't that they actually knew what they were talking about."

If the issues are religion and protection of family values, Nussbaum might be considered by some an unlikely target. She is one of five children in a Catholic family that attends Mass faithfully. Her father, a University of Notre Dame graduate, is a lawyer whose clients include local churches and evangelical groups. Her mother, Melissa Musick Nussbaum, recently published I Will Lie Down This Night, a book about family life and spirituality. The prayerfulness of the Nussbaum family shines through in this mother's stories of her family's faith and their reliance on God's grace.

Throughout her ordeal, Mary Margaret Nussbaum has retained her calm. In addition to the support of her family, Nussbaum has had the support of her high school principal and newspaper faculty adviser.

As well as learning about the tactics of right-wing religionists, she has had a close-up glimpse of the media. "There have been lots of radio and TV news shows that have been pretty irresponsible. One of the more recent ones was talking -- they didn't mention my name specifically -- but they were talking about the type of person who would write an article like this, who must have been raised without any religious or moral foundation. On the one hand, it was kind of insulting. On the other, it was just funny. Anyone who knows my family knows that it's, like, all religion all the time!"

A national pattern

The Colorado Springs controversy about gay and lesbian teenagers is part of the national pattern. Rea Carey, executive director of the National Youth Advocacy Coalition, a four-year-old membership group based in Washington, believes that "as there is an increase in visibility of student gay and lesbian groups, there is often an increase in response -- a negative one. We have tracked a four- and fivefold increase in formal and informal youth groups that were started by gay and lesbian students themselves. They were not receiving the support they deserved and asked for from the staffs at their schools."

Not all the responses are negative. Carey reports that in such cities as Boston and Seattle and in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, safe school programs have been put in place. "The programs go from tracking anti-gay violence to training staff and administrators," she said. "Some even focus on policy changes in a school district. Programs that are comprehensive have been very successful -- success meaning that they have not seen the same kinds of attacks that other programs have experienced. They have done their political background work to ensure the survival of the programs."

In Colorado Springs, the Inside Out Youth Support Group holds weekly meetings for gay, lesbian and bisexual teenagers. Three certified therapists offer individual or group therapy. Between 20 and 30 teenagers rely on Inside Out, which offers a friendly place to socialize. Publicly funded through the El Paso County Health Department, Inside Out was begun six years ago by Regina Dipadova, a Flushing, N.Y., native with a Catholic background who came to college in Colorado and stayed. Three other health departments in the state have used Inside Out as a model.

National Catholic Reporter, May 30, 1997