Shawano middle-schooler Tanner Uttecht went home one January day carrying a newspaper column to discuss.
The Shawano High School Hawk Post contained a page with point-counterpoint commentary on gays adopting and parenting children. Tanner and his three siblings live in a duplex in Shawano. His two dads – Nick Uttecht and Michael McNelly – live in one apartment. His mom, Uttecht's ex-wife and his best friend, lives in the other apartment.
When 13-year-old Tanner arrived home that January day, he told Nick Uttecht, "Dad, I need to talk to you."
Then he showed his dad the newspaper.
In one column, high-schooler Maddie Marquardt argued that children need homes, and gay couples can provide those homes.
In the other column, high-schooler Brandon Wegner argued that gays are sinful and gay parents are an abomination.
"Jesus states in the Bible that homosexuality is a detestable act and sin which makes adopting wrong for homosexuals because you would be raising the child in a sin-filled environment. Leviticus 20:13 states, 'If there is a man who lies with a male as those who lie with a woman, both of them have committed a detestable act; they shall surely be put to death. Their bloodguiltness is upon them,'" he wrote.
The 16-year-old writer went on to say that children of gay parents suffer and are "at risk of many different things."
Tanner said, "I first thought to my self, 'This can't be serious. I am being raised by gay parents and there is nothing wrong with me.' There was a feeling of anger and sadness flowing through me, but I thought to myself not to let it get best of me."
Nick Uttecht read the opinion piece and thought, "This is really bad. This is telling my kids they're not going to amount to anything because I'm gay."
He summed up his reaction to the publication of the commentary in one word on Facebook – "Unfreakingbelievable."
The father had many more words for Shawano School District administrators and teachers in the days that followed.
"This is bullying," Uttecht said. "What impact does this have on gay kids in school? I want kids to be safe. But how can they feel safe with this?"
Kids grow up hearing, "Sticks and stones may break your bones/but words will never hurt you." But there's evidence – in science and day-to-day life – that words not only hurt but incite physical violence.
On Jan. 11, EricJames Borges, a 19-year-old intern with a gay crisis hotline, committed suicide. Weeks before, Borges made a video for the anti-bullying "It Gets Better" project. He recalled being tormented in his Christian-right home and assaulted at school. "My name was not Eric, but Faggot," he said.
Gay California teen Jeffrey Fehr also committed suicide in January. The 18-year-old was found hanging in the entrance to his family's home on New Year's Day. Fehr's father said, "For years and years, people knocked him down for being different. It damaged him. It wore on him. He could never fully believe how wonderful he was, and how many people loved him."
"School climate and victimization can affect students' educational outcomes and personal development at every grade level," said Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network.
The week of Jan. 23, the New York-based GLSEN sponsored No Name-Calling Week in partnership with several companies and leading educational associations. For the campaign, teachers received lesson plans, educators got tips to counter bullying and students made buttons and posters to spread the No Name-Calling message: "No Sticks. No Stones. No Dissing."
GLSEN also shared the findings of "Playgrounds and Prejudice: Elementary School Climate in the United States," a survey of 1,065 grade-schoolers and 1,099 grade-school teachers.
The survey found:
- Forty-five percent of elementary school students and 49 percent of elementary school teachers regularly hear "that's so gay" in a negative way.
- Twenty-six percent of students and teachers hear homophobic remarks such as "fag" and "lesbo" in grade school. Students at a similar percentage hear negative racial comments.
- Three-fourths of students report that students at their school are called names, made fun of or bullied with at least some regularity. Most commonly this is because of students' looks or body size, followed by not being good at sports, how well they do at schoolwork, not conforming to traditional gender norms/roles or because people think they're gay.
- About 48 percent of teachers said they feel comfortable answering questions from students about LGB people and 41 percent are comfortable answering questions about transgender people.
- Seven in 10 students say they have learned about family diversity, but only two in 10 have learned about families with gay or lesbian parents.
- Nearly 90 percent of elementary school teachers surveyed said they include representations of different families in the classroom, but only 21 percent report representation of LGB parents and only 8 percent report representation of transgender parents.
In Shawano, in the first month of 2012, Nick and Tanner Uttecht and others in their family did much to offer a complete lesson in family diversity, gay parenting and no-name calling.
Nick Uttecht, who works as an emergency medical technician, complained to the high school principal, the district superintendent and the school board about the student newspaper article on gay parents.
District superintendent Todd Carlson responded, "Offensive articles cultivating a negative environment of disrespect are not appropriate or condoned by the Shawano School District."
Carlson, in a statement to the Green Bay Gazette, also wrote, "We sincerely apologize to anyone we may have offended and are taking steps to prevent items of this nature from happening in the future."
The point-counterpoint feature also was removed from leftover copies of the Hawk Post.
But Uttecht, who read a three-page statement to the school board on Jan. 16, said he still wants assurances of disciplinary measures against the faculty advisor to the paper and the student.
The anti-gay commentary, which begins with the false statement that same-sex couples can marry in 11 states and cites the work of long-discredited sex researcher Paul Cameron, was not edited for accuracy or the credibility of assertions, Uttecht complained. Cameron, he observed, was expelled from the American Psychological Association and has worked with the Family Research Institute, labeled a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Institute.
Uttecht also remains concerned about the climate for LGBT students and children of gay parents in the district. "Kids in the closet, they must be scared right now," said the 33-year-old Uttecht, who came out three years ago after years of struggling with his own fears.
Uttecht, who is on the Menominee Indian Head Start Policy Council, has requested another appearance before the Shawano School District School Board – this time under an agenda item so board members can respond to his concerns.
In the meantime, the family is hearing from supportive families and faculty in the Shawano district. The controversy has, in a sense, outed the family.
"My friends are quite OK with it … with words of encouragement," Tanner said. "Some of my friends I never wanted to tell, but they accept it too. He is my dad and always will be. There isn't anything wrong with him."
Now Tanner has taken up the cause at his middle school, where he has been wearing rainbow-adorned "coming out" buttons.
"A few teachers have questioned my pin that I'm wearing and said it was inappropriate," he said. "I had to explain what it was for and they then said it was OK. I want kids to know it is OK to be gay and it is OK to have gay parents. I'm afraid this will make kids not come out and be who they are and that is wrong."
Uttecht said of his son, "I'm so proud of him."