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11/25/2008 10:00:00 PM

What happened to Pride Campus?

Activists say evangelical influence watered down proposal


Editor - Chicago Journal - LINK

Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus

Rev. Wilfredo De Jesus is one of most powerful evangelical ministers in Chicago.

In the past 10 years, he has seen his New Life Covenant Ministries congregation in Humboldt Park expand from 120 members to about 4,000 while two new sites, a social service agency and a recovery and retreat center for women were added.

He has also made a name for himself in Chicago politics, serving as executive assistant to the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools from 1998 to 2000, campaigning for Barack Obama over the past year, and serving since 2004 on the city's Zoning Board of Appeals.

Nationally, De Jesus serves as vice president of Social Justice for the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, which serves about 15 million born-again Christians across the country.

But Chicago Public Schools spokesman Malon Edwards said it wasn't clout that won the reverend a private audience with schools' CEO Arne Duncan in mid-October, where the reverend and 10 of his colleagues expressed their opposition to a proposal to open an LGBT-friendly high school.

"It's not unusual for Arne to sit down and talk to members of the general public," Edwards said.

But some gay rights activists, who thought the proposal was on track for approval prior to Duncan's meeting with DeJesus, are raising eyebrows.

One week after the meeting, Mayor Daley voiced conerns, calling the proposal "controversial," despite overwhelming support at both public hearings.

"There is this private meeting after the two public hearings and then-boom-all of the sudden, the thing is thrown into question," said Andy Thayer of the Gay Liberation Network. "What is the point of having these hearings if you can just scuttle the whole process with back door meetings with the mayor's buddies?"

Pride Campus was proposed in July by a design team comprised primarily of staff at the Social Justice High School in Little Village. It's stated purpose at the time was to create a school that would be open to all students, but would be deliberately welcoming of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) teens.

De Jesus said he took issue not with the school's acceptance of LGBT youth, but with creating any school for a special, minority population with taxpayer dollars.

"I felt this was a form of segregation and that these kids represent a very small minority-6 percent, they are saying," he said. He added that he didn't think it was fair to weave gay heroes into the school's curriculum without adding Muslim heroes and figures from a number of other marginalized groups.

"I would have said the same thing if they wanted to build an all-Christian school," he said.

Last month, De Jesus was quoted in an evangelical magazine, Christianity Today, stating that "opposing abortion and homosexuality have been the paramount moral issues for him."

Asked by Booster to square those comments with his stated reasons for opposing the school, DeJesus said that the opposition referred to in the magazine article takes the form of fighting to preserve "the sanctity of marriage," not to punish or judge gay people.

A spiritual study guide on his church's Web site, however, refers to homosexuality as the "work of the devil."

De Jesus also said that, with CPS funding strapped across the district, it is irresponsible to open a new school for a special population when some schools have to cut teachers, administrators and even security guards.

"What about that girl who is a virgin, who is being harassed by lesbians and guys to have sex, and yet you're going to build a gay school?" he said. "It's not fair."

A 2005 CPS survey found that lesbian, gay and bisexual students were twice as likely as straight students to be threatened at school, two to four times more likely to report being treated for an injury resulting from a fight and two to four times more likely to be the victim of sexual assault. The survey also found that lesbian, gay and bisexual teens were three to four times more likely than straight students to report attempting suicide. The survey did not collect data on transgender youth.

After meeting with DeJesus, Duncan, who had already publicly expressed his support for the school, arranged for De Jesus and his colleagues to sit down with the design team to see if they couldn't come to an understanding.

De Jesus said the representatives, who included Chad Weidin, the would-be principal of the new school, assured him that their school was open to all students, and would have a curriculum that would elevate leaders in many oppressed groups, not just LGBT heroes.

The Pride Campus design team also agreed with De Jesus that the name might have been misleading, and agreed to change it to Solidarity Campus. They also expanded the mission of the school to include all youth that are victims of bullying and removed some references to LGBT youth.

However, the night before the decision, Hogan said, the design team agreed to retract its proposal, since many members felt it strayed too far from its original mission.

In a statement submitted to CPS, the design team said: "The proposal has changed since the Oct. 8 public hearing, and the design team is taking an additional year to finalize the proposal. The proposal start date will remain as fall 2010. We look forward to expanding research efforts, collecting more data and building on existing efforts in the Chicago Public Schools to create system-wide change for all students, including LGBT students and their allies."

"We have a lot of really good ideas," Hogan said. "We want to continue to help inform the public about what our school is and what our school isn't, because there was a lot of misinformation put out there."

Hogan said that race, gender and socio-economic status are "all issues we want to address with our school," but that the ministers wanted all references to gay youth taken out of the proposal.

"The Center on Halsted is packed with kids who should be in school during the day, and they are not kids from the North Side, they are from the South and West Side, and they are students of color," she said. "To argue over the sexual orientation aspect, you have to ask, 'is this about the kids or is this about you not wanting to have anything to do with gay kids'?"

However, Hogan said she doesn't feel demoralized by the outcome. It was a learning experience, she said, and next year's proposal will be all the stronger for it.

"Normally when we talk about gay kids, it comes only after a murder or hate crime, and that is unacceptable to me," Hogan said. "We need to talk about how to keep our kids safe. So if we can advance that conversation just by pushing this proposal, then we've already accomplished part of our goal."


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