Alex Merritt was not used to being the butt of jokes. Solidly built with a smooth face and shaved blond hair, he cruised to junior year of high school without the usual social speed bumps. But, enrolled in a part-time vocational program, he was taking his first lumps, scorned for being gay—or so his tormentors claimed. "Alex's fence swings both ways," they taunted. "Alex's boat floats in a different direction than the rest of the guys in the class." Suddenly everything Alex did seemed to offer evidence against him: when he mentioned Ben Franklin in a report on the Industrial Age, it was because he has "a thing for older men." When he covered Abraham Lincoln in another presentation, it was because Honest Abe and Merritt were "made for each other." Even the name of his car, a Ford Probe, was viewed as a sign of his homosexuality—the perfect vehicle for a boy who "enjoys wearing woman's clothes."
That was 2007, during the fall semester of the Secondary Technical Education Program (STEP) in Anoka, Minn., a suburb 20 miles from Minneapolis. As the year progressed, the sneers sharpened and spread through much of the student body. "Kids were calling me fag, they were calling me queer," recalls Merritt, who says that he is straight. The Minnesota native, then 16, says that he initially decided to laugh along with the verbal attacks, hoping they would disappear. Instead, he says they escalated. The final straw came in December that year, when Merritt asked to use the bathroom. Did he want a fellow student "to sit in the stall next to him and stomp his foot?" he was asked—reference to former senator Larry Craig, whom police arrested earlier that year in Minneapolis for allegedly using the move to solicit sex with an undercover officer in an airport bathroom. What makes this juvenile behavior so unusual? Merritt's bullies, who allegedly made all of these remarks, were his teachers.
In a damning report issued by the Minnesota Department of Human Rights and made public last month, the alleged incidents at STEP were perpetrated by social-studies instructor Diane Cleveland and Walter Filson, a former cop who taught a course on law enforcement. While enrolled in a traditional high school nearby, Merritt came to STEP for three periods a day in search of college credit. What he found, according to the report—which draws on interviews with Merritt's classmates and echoes an initial report by the school district—was "regular comments, jokes and innuendo about his perceived sexual orientation," resulting in an environment that "a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive." Stained in the eyes of fellow students, who brought the STEP punch lines back to his regular high school, Merritt says he was forced to transfer out of the district to escape the bullying. As part of a temporary reassignment following Merritt's initial complaint to the district, Cleveland was ordered to spend the remainder of the fall semester—five days—working on a social-studies curriculum and "reflecting on diversity." She called in sick after serving just one day. While Filson has yet to be disciplined, the district later suspended Cleveland for two days without pay and agreed to give Merritt's family $25,000 for what a district spokesperson has called the "inconvenience" of his having to commute 25 miles to a new school.
Both Filson and Cleveland deny Merritt's allegations, and maintain that they have been miscast as homophobes. "I treat all students equally," Filson tells NEWSWEEK, adding that "live and let live" is his policy toward gays. Cleveland, for her part, recently told the Minneapolis Star Tribune that "the insinuation that I’m homophobic, that I’m a bigot, bothers me to no end." The school district, despite its own findings, has not acknowledged wrongdoing. And last week, some students and teachers came forward to offer a different accounting of events more sympathetic to the teachers. The case reflects a broader cultural paradox: at a time when same-sex relationships and gay culture have never been more mainstream, the classroom remains rife with homophobia. The percentage of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) middle and high-school students who report harassment has hovered above 80 percent since 1999, according to the New York-based Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, which conducts a biennial survey of school climates. Long after it has become taboo to publicly lampoon other minorities, homophobic humor still flies—even in a public school. "There isn't the same recognition that antigay bias is wrong the way bias based on gender, race, or ethnicity or religion is wrong," says Ellen Kahn, family project director for the Human Rights Campaign, a Washington-based advocacy group for the LGBT community.
The ambivalence over homophobic humor is reflected in weak legal protections for gays: only 21 states ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, and in 29 states a person can still be fired on the basis of their bedroom partner. More than 40 states have antibullying laws, but less than a third specifically prohibit bullying on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation. Intent on plugging this gap, LGBT activists have long lobbied Congress for a federal law that requires public schools to adopt such codes—although they are hardly foolproof. Merritt's home state of Minnesota has had a comprehensive antidiscrimination policy on the books such 1993. (Although the DHR found probable cause that Filson and Cleveland's actions violated Minnesota's Human Rights Act, the school district avoided court and denied liability as part of its cash settlement with Merritt.)
It's perhaps understandable, given the state of popular culture, that public-school teachers and kids would be confused about what passes as school-ready humor. Their fictional counterparts on Fox's new fall series Glee—a comedy about a high-school music club—don't offer much of an example. In the show's second episode, which aired recently, the coach is along for the ride as a kid mocks a song as "really gay" and the coach's wife calls a pink and lace-strewn room in a model house the place "where our daughter, or gay son, will live." Last fall in partnership with GLSEN, the Advertising Council, which directs public-service campaigns on behalf of Madison Avenue, launched a campaign aimed at discouraging use of the word "gay" as a synonym for "uncool" or "undesirable." "When you say 'That's so gay,' do you realize what you say?" the ads ask. For millions of people, the answer is still "no."
Merritt himself seems confused over what passes as good, clean fun in the classroom. The teen says that he was not offended by his teachers' alleged homophobic humor, at least not at first. "A joke is a joke," the self-described class clown says of his initial reaction, "and I thought it would get old." (It was his mother, Jodi, who intervened against his wishes after she heard the Larry Craig joke.) According to the school district report, a partial copy of which was leaked to local press and obtained by NEWSWEEK, Cleveland also ignored comments like "that's so gay" if they were said without malice. (Details on Filson remain private as his case is still under dispute.)
The best way to clear the fog, according to a 2009 report by the National Education Association, a 3-million-strong union of public-school teachers—including Filson and Cleveland—is to provide programs that promote tolerance among students, provide training for educators and include policies that specifically prohibit harassment and bullying on the basis of sexual orientation. But many states are wary of deploying such a "rainbow" approach, which can fall foul of conservative parents and religious groups that view homosexuality as a sin and sex education as outside the bounds of public school.
Back in Minnesota, both Cleveland and Filson still have their jobs. But all isn't exactly rosy for the two teachers. Some parents, students and gay-rights supporters packed last month's school board meeting and protested on the first day of classes, calling for Cleveland and Filson to be fired. More than 2,000 people have joined a Facebook group dedicated to the same cause. Cleveland has taken an indefinite unpaid leave, "because of all the news coverage in this case and the pressure it has brought to bear on her," according to her lawyer. Filson has done the same, but he tells NEWSWEEK that his absence is due to Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare nerve disorder. Merritt, for his part, joined the Army earlier this month, partly because "they have rules to prevent this sort of thing." Then again, so does Minnesota.