Best known for her claim to put “Students First” and more controversially, to use student standardized test scores to evaluate teacher performance, Michelle Rhee will likely go ahead with plans to speak on Friday, August 12, 2011, at the Global Leadership Summit at Willow Creek, a conference held at a Chicago-area “mega-church.”
But claims that the church espouses or espoused anti-gay “reparative therapy” and other questionable “ex-gay” approaches to dealing with LGBT youth has caused Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz to pull out of the conference schedule, where he was also slated to speak.
Rhee’s continued participation at the conference and lack of any statement regarding the need to accept and keep LGBT youth safe from bullies has riled many LGBT activists and caused allies to question Rhee’s devotion to her slogan.
This Huffington Post report highlights the problems many LGBT activists have with Rhee’s participation at the conference:
Rhee, former chancellor of D.C. public schools and founder of the PAC StudentsFirst, remained on the docket and [will] address the conference late Friday morning.
Although the church severed ties with Exodus International and has released statements welcoming the LGBT community, they continue to offer counseling services and use phrases like “same sex attraction” that LGBT rights advocates reject. In April, Willow Creek hosted a presentation by Christopher Yuan on his memoir, “Out of a Far Country: A Gay Son’s Journey to God, A Broken Mother’s Search for Hope,” and his recovery from homosexuality.
Although the conference is sponsored by an international association of churches, not the South Barrington Willow Creek Community Church specifically, [activist Asher] Huey says the event is inextricable from the political positions of the church where it will be hosted and broadcast to 200 similar congregations across the country. He believes that participation without explicit objection to the church’s position represents an implicit endorsement, which is particularly problematic in relation to Rhee’s presence.
“It makes a statement that these anti-gay churches are acceptable, that they’re mainstream, and one can go to them and speak and not have to denounce their views,” Huey said. “And I think that’s a problem. It legitimizes the church and their views.”
As an educator, Rhee has not been particularly vocal about numerous incidences of anti-gay bullying that have occurred around the country, despite a cluster of suicides that drew national media attention.
So many tragedies occurred in the fall of 2010 that Secretary Arne Duncan held a special Department of Education summit on bullying prevention, launched a special website, and released strengthened guidelines for school administrators wrestling with homophobic and other kinds of bullying issues.
President Obama even created a video supporting and encouraging LGBT youth in the “It Gets Better” series of Youtube videos meant to reassure questioning, gay-“appearing,” or LGBT school-aged kids who are bullied that their lives will improve and that there are adults who will and must help.
As for why activists find Rhee’s silence on bullying prevention troubling, one man explains:
Huey also contends that Rhee’s position as an advocate for students invariably overlaps with issues facing LGBT children and teenagers, including the high incidence of bullying that has led to a rash of suicides among queer youth.
“She’s speaking at a church that legitimizes the idea that [LGBT individuals] can change, and that’s what a lot of the bullying we see is based on,” Huey said. “The fact that somebody like Michelle Rhee would be speaking there is really disturbing to me, and it should be disturbing to the LGBT community and all other allies.”
The stakes for schools to provide a safe, homophobia-free environment are high, as a key lawsuit shows. A past victim of bullying by homophobic fellow students successfully sued his school district and won damages because the district failed to create and maintain an atmosphere for safe learning. A Minnesota school district that had a horrifying nine students commit suicide due to bullying related to sexual orientation or gender nonconformity is now the target of 6 separate lawsuits by students who were tormented and provided no relief from the Anoka-Hennepin Unified School District.
As of this posting, no statement has been forthcoming from Michelle Rhee.
UPDATED, August 14, 2011
On Twitter and later in a “correction” added to the original Huffington Post story, Michelle Rhee’s publicist Hari Sevugan was concerned to add that Asher Huey was a paid “operative” who is employed by New Partners, a political consulting firm that has the American Federation of Teachers as its clients, and the problems Huey had (cited in the Huffington Post article) with Rhee’s participation in the Global Leadership Summit were manufactured to try to smear Rhee. Sevugan cited appearances at the Global Leadership Summit by former President Bill Clinton and Bono, neither of whom were questioned about their participation. President Clinton participated in the Global Leadership Summit in 2000, on something of a repentance tour after Republicans tried to impeach him for his liaison with Monica Lewisnky; Pastor Hybels faced much anger from his congregation at Clinton’s appearance. In 2000, hardly anyone was talking about anti-gay bullying to the extent that they are now. Bono appeared in 2006 and 2009 to talk about global poverty, again before that terrible cluster of suicides from homophobic bullying got the nation’s attention.
At the same time, Sevugan did not highlight that he is currently paid to manage public relations for Michelle Rhee and Students First, although that information was circulated in press releases earlier in the year and others familiar with Sevugan’s work as one of the press secretaries for the DNC (as I am) would know this. Sevugan is no less a paid “operative.”
Alexander Russo added that in his opinion:
To maintain credibility and avoid passing along dubious claims, journalists and bloggers need to be ever more careful about finding out who they’re talking to and identifying their sources for readers. Ditto for advocates and opinionaters; your arguments are undercut mightily if it comes out later that you have a personal or professional stake.
Here’s what I say about personal and professional stakes:
I’m not paid by anyone to take a position. I am not employed by any lobbying organization — no union, no political consultancy. K12NN is a for-profit venture, but seeing as how I’ve yet to turn a profit, I simply say what I believe given the best information that I have at hand. I’d hope that if we did become profitable, I’d still say what I believe.
Of course my child comes first to me — I’m his parent. Others who claim to put students first can prove it by ensuring that the curriculum is rich in breadth and depth; the most creative, experienced, and talented teachers are consistently there to teach with adequate professional and personal resources to do so; and the culture of schools carefully cultivates positive peer pressure so kids inspire, motivate, and nourish each other to keep exceeding his or her own “personal best.”
When Michelle Rhee said in Waiting for ‘Superman’ that “it all becomes about the adults,” parents were tempted to trust her because they’ve seen how that happens.
But by turning this genuine concern about Willow Creek’s fresh break (as of June/July, 2011) from involvement with the Exodus International program* into a “who’s paid by who” round of fingerpointing, once again the LGBT youth who were at the center of Huey’s inquiry fell out of the picture. Kids came last.
When CEO of Starbucks Howard Schultz declined to participate in the Global Leadership Summit at the last moment, reportedly over Willow Creek’s “reparative therapy” and position that marriage is defined as the union of a man and a woman, did Rhee review her own position as an educator at the Summit and decide to make a statement? Did she feel that as a high-profile former educator and current reformer, she had a special responsibility to clarify her position on anti-gay bullying much as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan had? If Willow Creek had indeed taken a major step by rejecting “reparative therapy” offered by Exodus International, why wouldn’t her appearance at Willow Creek be an opportunity to praise that action, even if the change came at the behest of and after much pressure put on Willow Creek by gay rights group Soulforce?
Schultz’s refusal to participate should’ve signaled to Rhee that she may be asked to confront these issues herself. And as an Asian American leader and outspoken education reformer, Rhee surely must know that the stakes are very high for Asian American Pacific Islander youth.
One of the signature figures in the “ex-gay” movement Willow Creek has given a platform to is Christopher Yuan, who has written a book on his embrace of “pray away the gay” religious ministry to change his sexual identity. Below is a video showing his testimony and promoting a book he wrote about his “conversion”:
Given the high rates of suicide, mental illness, and depression among Asian American Pacific Islander youth in general, and among AAPI LGBT youth in particular, Michelle Rhee could’ve used her bully pulpit as an educator who has the attention of parents to speak out and urge that we accept and embrace our LGBT kids–especially Christian Asian American parents. Pacific Islander youth are particularly vulnerable to suicide; when all of a child’s institutions — church, family, school, peers — are aligned against him or her because of sexual identity or non-standard gender behavior or LGBT-“appearance”, it’s no wonder an increase in depression/suicide/increase in mental illness results. When parental pressure to achieve academically is added to the mix, it can be a toxic environment for LGBT young people. For Rhee to avoid address these issues is, to say the least, a major disappointment.
No statement by Rhee in this environment of heightened awareness and concern is a major failure. Kids came last, and shouldn’t that be the last thing Rhee wants?
*Dr. Cindi Love, of the LGBT religious rights group Soulforce, describes in her post how Willow Creek came to sever formal ties to “reparative therapy”:
The leadership of the church and its congregants may still disagree doctrinally with any position that affirms LGBT people as whole children of God entitled to full membership and relationship within the Beloved Community. We have not yet heard where they stand on these issues. [emphasis in bold mine]
Yet, their disaffiliation with Exodus and its harmful reparative therapy is a blessing that I want to affirm and thank Bill Hybels for doing this.