I've just returned from a truly wonderful conference today in Oklahoma City titled, "Stop the Hate in the Hallways." This bullying prevention conference was sponsored by the Cimarron Alliance Foundation along with a long list of community partners, including Planned Parenthood of Central Oklahoma. Nearly 300 people were in attendance.
The keynote speaker for the conference was Kevin Jennings, the founder and executive director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN). Jennings spoke with insight and passion about the need for adults to ensure safe environments for all young people. He cited several studies that showed how inclusive school policies, programming and practices successfully create these safe environments and increase academic performance.
I found it particularly meaningful when Jennings shared with us survey findings that the vast majority of parents of school-age children -- 83 percent of them -- supported anti-harassment and nondiscrimination school policies that included lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students. A very small number, only 12 percent of the parents surveyed, opposed inclusive policies.
Then why don't all schools have inclusive policies?
Jennings told an insightful story about his mother's pet chihuahua that I will remember for the rest of my life. He said, "When someone knocks on my mom's front door, the chihuahua goes nuts--barking loud and non-stop--which gives people on the other side of the door the impression that there's a big and powerful, even vicious dog waiting for a chance to pounce. But if the door is opened, nothing but a tiny, scared pup is revealed."
In other words, that 12 percent minority is so vocal and intense that school boards and school officials mistakenly believe they are the majority. Why risk doing the right thing when you think you'll be pounced upon by a pit-bull in retaliation?
Well, turns out it's not a pit bull; it's a chihuahua.
Wow, could I ever relate to that. The same thing can be said about the minority of parents who oppose reality-based school sex education as well as the minority of Oklahomans who believe abortion should be criminalized. Even though the far-right and anti-choice groups are the minority, they bark so loud and for so long that they intimidate policymakers into thinking they are the majority.
Our challenge is to convince policymakers that, in fact, these anti's are far from the controlling majority. For me, the take-home message of today's conference was this: We MUST find our voices. The progressive majority MUST learn to be comfortable in speaking up and speaking out. Although we had a number of disappointments in the 2007 legislative session, we did learn that speaking up makes a difference in public policy. As the Planned Parenthood slogan goes, "There's power in your voice. Use it!"
We can't, and we won't give up. We WILL have an impact, and we WILL expose the chihuahua in the house.