A pressure campaign from Focus on the Family and its Denver affiliate, the Rocky Mountain Family Council, threatens the distribution in the Denver Public Schools system of an AIDS poster developed by the gay community that warns gay youth about the disease.
Focus on the Family is credited with generating national support for Amendment 2-type initiatives, opposing homosexuals in the military and refuting the need for sex education in public schools.
The religious organization circulated a letter last week asking supporters to contact their local high school principals and Collaborative Decision Making teams (known as CDMs) to oppose hanging the poster, which was created by the Youth Board of the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Services Center of Colorado.
DPS health education specialist Penny Ware explains that the poster is part of a packet of teaching materials about sexually transmitted diseases and HIV/AIDS awareness. When first told of the campaign, which was launched by a letter from Focus chief James Dobson to his hundreds of thousands of radio listeners, Ware said, "With all the controversy that has been generated, the packet may not go out for a long time." However, she later emphasized that distribution of the packet has been delayed until after the first of the year because "we need to organize staff training and get all the resources together."
The timing of Dobson's letter may prove sticky for DPS. Mailed last week, it comes just a month before Denver voters will decide whether to give the school district more money. But DPS spokesman Mark Stevens (until recently the Denver Post's education reporter) says, "We're not caving from a little bit of pressure from Focus on the Family."
Stevens says that since no one has come to public hearings or board meetings to oppose the poster, his office does not plan to respond to the letter. "However," he adds, "if enough people agree with it and use the district's response as a meter for our concern about the issue, then sure, it could have a negative effect on the bond issue."
Ware says the poster simply is intended to give high school students more information in order to encourage healthier behavior.
But Dobson sees it in a more sinister light. "I don't know how this strikes you, but it sounds a great deal like a recruitment campaign to me," he wrote.
"It's not about recruitment," Ware counters. "You can't recruit anyone for a sexual orientation."
Focus on the Family's argument is that the poster "undermines parental rights and responsibilities... assumes that sexual orientation is an innate and immutable characteristic...encourages impressionable and confused youth to label themselves permanently a `lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgendered,' thus encouraging the adoption of sexual identity and behavior that places individuals at high risk of contracting AIDS, and worst of all, refers youth to a homosexual advocacy group that has a strong vested interest in pushing a highly specialized and self-perpetuating agenda."
Brad Jackson, director of Youth Services at the Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Community Center, denies that the Community Center is a "homosexual advocacy group." When he does work with teens who need professional counseling, Jackson says, the center has an extensive referral list of licensed professionals.
The DPS Health Education Advisory Group, a committee that reviews teaching materials, approved the poster last spring over the objections of former committee member Joy Overbeck. Overbeck argues that by referring teens who are questioning their sexual identity to the Community Center, DPS is encouraging them to embrace a gay--and therefore "life-threatening"-- lifestyle.
In a letter to Denver's daily newspapers, Overbeck wrote, "The youths will be referred via the phone number on this poster not to the school counselor or psychologist, but to a group whose services include Lavender University, which offers such courses as `Gay Men Eating Out' and `Bisexuality 101.' The center also has dances, plays and Friday `Youth Movie Night.' Does this sound like a counseling agency, or a dating service for people bent on same-sex romance?"
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Phil Campbell, a United Church of Christ minister in Park Hill and also an advisory-group member, says the idea that this could be seen as a recruitment program is "fallacious." "The Community Center is not an advocacy group for a particular lifestyle," he says. "It's simply a safe place in the community for high school students who are questioning their sexual identity."
Jackson agrees, insisting, "We encourage abstinence as the first line of defense against HIV or AIDS. Many of the young people who come to the center are not sexually active at all. The idea that we're encouraging any kind of behavior other than safety is ludicrous."
DPS's Stevens says the final decision about whether or not to distribute the poster will not be made on a "public-relations basis." "There are youth in our schools who have legitimate needs along the lines of the sexual-orientation issue," he says. "I encourage the Health Education Advisory Group to do what they think is best for the kids.