Forster novel costs a teacher her job

20th October 1995 at 01:00
Jon Marcus on a campaign by right-wing moral lobbyists against positive homosexual images.

A New Hampshire teacher has been sacked by her school board for asking her pupils to read E M Forster's novel Maurice.

Penny Culliton said she asked her students to read the book so they could see a relatively positive depiction of a homosexual character. But she soon found herself a victim of America's moral right-wing lobby.

Parents in the small New Hampshire towns served by the high school where she taught complained, and Ms Culliton was fired last month by the school board.

"What you have is sort of an irrational fear of homosexuals, and it is being played out in the schools," said Dennis Murphy, spokesman for the National Education Association, the teachers' union that is helping Ms Culliton appeal against her dismissal.

He said her sacking is symbolic of the national political shift to the right, and voiced his concern about conservative religious organisations that are fielding candidates for local school boards, working one town at a time to curb sex education and return school prayer.

In Merrimack, New Hampshire, not far from the town where Ms Culliton was fired, members of the Christian Coalition were elected to the school board and decreed that teachers "neither implement nor carry out any program or activity that has either the purpose or effect of supporting homosexuality as a positive alternative lifestyle".

Mr Murphy said: "I think these people are sincere in their belief that they are saving their children from this alleged evil, but I don't think that most people want this national social agenda to be played out in their schools. "

Ms Culliton, 34, was fired after she defied the Mascenic Regional School Board in rural New Ipswich, New Hampshire, and used books with positive representations of homosexuals to counter what she said were negative depictions in some other works.

"I've seen what it's like for gay youth who see only a negative portrayal of themselves in society and what we read, and there's just a wall of silence there for them," she said.

But Steven Lizotte, the chairman of the school board, said the issue was clear-cut: "The administration and the school board set curriculum, and if the school board says not to do something and a teacher goes and does it anyway, that's insubordination. The parents own the schools. They have a right to make those decisions."

Ruth Somero is one such parent. She believes that Ms Culliton has a one-sided idea of teaching tolerance:"Tolerance for whom? What about the community? What about the parents? We do have to have some foundation for our lives, and if we're not going to base it on Christianity, what are we going to base it on?" But many students backed their teacher. When Ms Culliton was first suspended, more than 80 walked out of school in protest. Forty were disciplined themselves.

"If the parents want to teach their children that homosexuality is wrong, that's their choice," said one, Matt Goldsmith, 19, now a student at Brandeis University near Boston, Massachusetts.

"But in a public school, which could have students from any number of backgrounds in it, you can't teach that it's wrong any more than you can teach that it's right."

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