Riverton educator should answer radio host's question


On April 25, a 10-minute interview on Riverton’s local radio station created a dust-up across the state. So far, Wyoming’s liberal news site, WyoFile, has written three articles about it. The Casper Star-Tribune has published two; and numerous other outlets around the state have weighed in. Two weeks after the interview, new articles appeared May 10-11.

Not only is the conversation ongoing, it is yet another one-sided lambasting of every Wyomingite who cares about what our children are being taught and how they are being encouraged. Like most of you, I wish we weren’t constantly talking about these things in public. 

Families are weary of headlines saturated with salacious details that they would prefer be shielded from the eyes and ears of their young. We would much prefer to talk about heroism, bravery, courage, great feats of human endeavor, poetry, love and God. 

But we are faced daily with a terrible dilemma. Either enter into the public discussion of sexual matters that is better talked about by parents in the home, or let the public conversation be dominated by only one point of view. I am reluctant to wade into the mire, but there are some things that need to be said.

The controversy started with two paintings on the walls of Riverton High School. Photographs were shared with the school board of the rainbow flag artwork declaring “Love is Love,” and a black heart dripping hate standing opposed to a red heart emblazoned with “LGBT.” (Reportedly, these have since been painted over.)

When John Birbari, a Riverton radio host, was interviewing Fremont County School District No. 25 Superintendent Terry Snyder, he asked whether it is appropriate for a high school to be promoting homosexuality. Snyder responded by talking about tolerance and acceptance, but he did not answer the question that was posed.

Birbari restated the question asking if it is wise to encourage a lifestyle so strongly correlated with an increased rate of disease and suicide. Again, Snyder side-stepped the question. Instead, he said, “as you know, we can’t discriminate against those classes. That’s a personal opinion that you have there…”

There are two things that are striking about this response. First, notice how Snyder characterizes facts reported by the CDC and every other reputable study as “personal opinion.” An educator should know better. 

Also, the authors of the articles taking Birbari to task and praising Snyder should know better. They all admit that Birbari is stating a fact, not a personal opinion. For instance, WyoFile reported, “The Center for Disease Control reports increased health risks for members of the LGBTQ community,” (Former GOP leader and radio host suspended for homophobic rant, May 3). 

However, after reporting it, most of the slanted articles inserted an opinion. Here’s how that same article in WyoFile sought to explain away the fact: “Those risks are driven by ‘stigma and discrimination’ in addition to sexual behavior.” This is certainly an oft-repeated opinion, but there is no data to back it up.

In 1994 the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services looked at the issue and concluded, “… that while factors such as social stigma and discrimination are widely believed to place homosexual men at higher risk for developing substance abuse and other difficulties, existing research fails to document this belief.” (National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuals). In the decades since, research has still not confirmed it.

We should also note the words “in addition to sexual behavior.” These admit that behavior does indeed have something to do with the increased health risks. Stigma and discrimination are only suggested as factors that might explain a higher incidence of substance abuse and suicide. 

Nobody has ever suggested that they explain the higher rates of STDs, AIDS/HIV, intimate partner violence, experience of infidelity and other mental and physical health risks associated with risky sexual behaviors. In fact, the risks of these behaviors have absolutely nothing to do with the “sexual orientation” of the person at all. They would all be just as unhealthy when shared between people of the same sex as people of different sexes. 

We live in a world that especially educates our children to avoid health risks of all sorts; and we prohibit all sorts of encouragement to unhealthy behavior. It is illegal to post cigarette advertisements on school grounds, or even to use a cartoon character that might appeal to the young. No school would ever allow a sign on school property that encouraged the consumption of alcohol.

On the contrary, we have ads reminding high school students to wash hands, don’t use drugs, don’t text while driving, look both ways when crossing the street, eat well, get plenty of sleep, and a thousand other encouragements to engage in healthy activities. There are even schools that forbid the sale of junk food and soda pop.

So why is it that when it comes to unhealthy sexual behaviors, discouragement and education are demonized? Wouldn’t all people of every sexual orientation benefit from these? Isn’t it the very definition of discrimination to withhold education from certain classes of people for ideological reasons?

It has become fashionable to shut down honest discussion of issues and behaviors by changing the subject to people and identities. That is the second part of Snyder’s response that is noteworthy.

Birbari asks about behaviors with no reference to classes of people. But the superintendent speaks only of classes of people, with no reference to behaviors, saying, “We can’t discriminate against those classes of people.” 

This disconnect epitomizes the state of today’s conversation. It is as if everyone who expressed concern about the health risks of smoking were shouted down as one who wanted to kill smokers. In fact, just the opposite is true. Again, it is as though a doctor were telling his patient that over-eating can lead to heart disease and his license were revoked for allegedly hating fat people. That would be utterly ridiculous. 

But that is exactly what Snyder did to Birbari. Is it possible that a highly trained educator was unable to tell the difference between a question of behavior and a question of identity? I doubt it. Educated people know quite well when they are changing the subject.

Mr. Snyder, please answer the question. Don’t bow to those forces that would stifle the discussion. Riverton High School deserves better. The students who are being led and encouraged deserve educators with the courage to discern between healthy and unhealthy behavior. The people of Wyoming deserve better. Let’s respect all people — even those who ask unpopular questions.

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