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Gay man heads Chicago schools
2009-03-01

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NEWS ANALYSIS by YASMIN NAIR

Ron Huberman, until recently the president of Chicago Transit Authority, was appointed CEO of Chicago Public Schools ( CPS ) by Mayor Richard Daley, filling the seat left vacant by Arne Duncan, who is now part of President Barack Obama's administration.

That initial announcement caused ripples throughout the education world in Chicago, with several educators and activists protesting Huberman's relative lack of experience in education. Huberman's first day on the job was met with a protest by several teachers and students. This past week, Huberman, in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, casually revealed that he is gay. This means Huberman is possibly the first openly gay person to head one of the nation's largest school districts.

Huberman's sexuality has been an open secret in Chicago's gay community. In fact, it might be stretching the facts to even call it a "secret." Windy City Times spoke to community activists about Huberman's disclosure and none were surprised; they already knew or had assumed he was gay. Huberman, according to the Sun-Times, moved in with his current partner four years ago, and had come out to his parents at the age of 15, while attending Lyons Township High School. He has frequently been seen around town with his partner at public events.

At this time, the issue of LGBTQ students in high schools continues to occupy the attention of many educators. Last winter, some activists attempted to create a gay high school but that measure was ultimately shelved for reconsideration at a later date. The Illinois Safe Schools Alliance recently issued a report titled "Visibility Matters" that evaluated teacher training colleges across the state on the basis of their willingness to engage with and competence in LGBTQ student issues.

According to the Sun-Times article, Huberman refused to take a position on the issue of the gay high school. However, he did address the issue of what it meant to grow up gay: "It has given me a great sensitivity for the need to be inclusive. If I didn't grow up being part of a group that was viewed differently, I may not have that sensitivity." What impact, if any, will his sexuality have on the way that CPS is run from now on? Is Huberman's disclosure good for CPS, for students and for gays in general?

Sam Finkelstein is a member of Gender Just, a local group that advocates for safer schools for LGBTQ students and anti-bullying and anti-harassment policies. He was unimpressed by the revelation: "It's irrelevant. There's nothing inherently progressive or radical about being gay." Could the fact that Huberman is gay help activist groups and educators who work on LGBTQ student issues get their message across? Finkelstein wasn't sure, and said they would have to wait and see how the relationship, if any, with Huberman might develop: " [ His being gay ] could help or hurt the work of trying to make schools safer for lgbtq students; he may try to not want to do things that appear to be done just because he's gay. But, on the other hand, he may have a personal connection to these issues. It may open a door in terms of connecting to him, but I'm not sure."

One of the main criticisms of the appointment of Huberman has been that Mayor Daley chose someone with administrative experience, rather than an educator. Cook County Clerk Dorothy Brown and Rev. Jesse Jackson have publicly insisted that Barbara Eason-Watkins, the current Chief Education Officer, was more qualified than Huberman because of her 30 years experience in education. Eason-Watkins was also Arne Duncan's choice to replace him. However, Rick Garcia, political director of Equality Illinois, thinks that the appointment of Huberman is a wise one for precisely that reason: "We need someone with management experience, to whip the system into shape."

As for Huberman's refusal to take a position on the gay high school ( as of yet ) , Garcia pointed said: "We do see gay people in our city who are all over the place on the gay high school. Watching his style, I think it's safe to say that he's going to evaluate the situation with the best information and do what he believes is the right thing for the school system. Just because he's gay, people can't expect that he's supportive or not of a gay high school. He's going to look at the greatest body of knowledge and make decisions that way."

But why did Huberman come out now, and not when he was president of CTA? Garcia pointed out that conservative organizations, like the Illinois Family Institute, were already posting hostile messages on their Web sites. Indeed the Illinois Family Institute's words echo the classic stereotype of gay men as potential predators of children: [ The appointment of Ron Huberman ] is exactly what students who already suffer from significant disadvantages don't need: a leader, and therefore role model, who affirms sexual deviance and who in his personal life volitionally engages in immoral conduct." For that reason, said Garcia, Huberman's decision to make a public statement about his sexual orientation was "brilliant" and probably "strategic."

Renae Ogletree, director of student development at CPS and an out lesbian, echoed this opinion about the timing of Huberman's disclosure: "He's about transparency, and that's Ron's style. I think he's smart. Rather than be attacked for it, he's just saying, 'this is who I am,'" she said. "I like that he did it rather than wait for someone to 'disclose' it. And it lets everybody know who he is." Ogletree also observed, "When you're dealing with an environment where you work with kids, these things become issues. So it's important to come out. The sad part is that we as gays and lesbians have to think about whether we come out or not. Straight people don't have to worry about that."

While optimistic about Huberman taking over, Ogletree is cautious about his lack of experience in education: "The fact that he doesn't have an education background will make for a steep learning curve and it will be longer. It's going to be an interesting transition for him and for us."

Ogletree put the focus on CPS students, and said, "What I hope is that he comes in and really focuses on the culture and climate in our schools and really listens to the voices of young people. I think that's difficult for most administrators because when they come in, they immediately want to look at test scores, at the graduation rates, the drop-out rates. What they underplay is what kind of environment are we bringing our kids in to learn." Like Finkelstein, Ogletree was especially concerned about bullying and harassment of LGBTQ students. How much of a role might Huberman's sexuality play in his consideration of such issues?

Ogletree was forthright in her response to that question: "Should Ron as a gay man be particularly more sensitive to [ LGBTQ student issues ] ? You know, one would think he is. Particularly if he's not in the closet, particularly if he thought he had to be in the closet. I'm not saying that he should be focused on that more than other things. I would hope it gives him a sensitivity to these things that other administrators might not have had."

Erica Meiners, an associate professor of education and women's studies at Northeastern Illinois University and a member of the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance was less concerned about Huberman's sexual orientation and more about the ongoing issues facing LGBTQ students in schools. In an e-mail, she said, "We want schools to be places where LGBTQ students are not spat on in the hallway, not mocked and insulted, not tripped or slammed into lockers and walls, not denied information about their bodies and their sexuality, and not denied the important history: that LGBTQ folks—from Bayard Rustin to Jane Addams—organized to make our communities stronger and more democratic."

Meiners did see some links between Huberman's personal life and his job as chief of CPS and hoped that his experiences as a gay student at Lyons made him more sensitive to the needs of "queer youth and teachers in schools." She also addressed the issue of privatization of CPS, which several teachers, activists, and parents had raised as an issue during the tenure of Arne Duncan: "Privatizing public education is deadly for queers. It reduces the employment protections available for school employees, and makes it harder for teachers to be out and to sponsor a gay straight alliance in the school."

As this goes to print, Huberman's disclosure about his sexual orientation seems likely to be subsumed by the bigger questions surrounding his appointment by the mayor. Clearly, as evidenced by the furor of Eason-Watkins being passed over, there will be dissension over whether CPS should be headed up by an administrator or an educator, and the ongoing questions over that issue appear to be more tensely debated than the question of his sexuality.

As Ogletree put it, "It would seem that the priority is management and that is Ron's track record. And that seems to be what the Mayor feels that we need in CPS right now." Will Huberman, in the rush to prove himself, feel compelled to make too-quick decisions or will he become an administrator who listens to the varied voices of teachers, educators, and activists? Or, as Ogletree put it, "How quickly will he have to make decisions that potentially might require more time?"


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