R.J. Stevens, 7, of Vestal, holds a sign before the start of Vestal's Board of Education meeting Tuesday in the administration building in Vestal. The board received comments from the public concerning the display of Tennessee Sen. Stacey Campfield's picture in Vestal High School's Hall of Fame. / REBECCA CATLETT/ Press & Sun Bulletin
By Jennifer Micale / (Binghamton) Press & Sun Bulletin
VESTAL -- "Shame!" "Cowards!" "Lawsuit!"
Cries shot through the rumbling crowd Tuesday night at Vestal's Board of Education meeting, as attendees waved signs with slogans "Hate speech is not free speech," "It makes me sad that my school supports hate" and "the mechanism is a screwdriver." The last is a reference to Vestal High School teacher Charlie Arbuiso's suggestion how to remove Stacey Campfield's portrait from the district's Wall of Fame.
But the portrait is staying, according to Board President Kim Myers.
"You may be surprised to know that we have heard from many, many people, including students, who understand and agree with our position," she read from a statement at the meeting as some audience members booed. "Many who feel intimidated and fearful to publicly state their approval for fear of being labeled a bigot or anti-gay. When you attempt to shout down opposing voices, who is the bully?"
At issue is the 1986 Vestal graduate's comments concerning homosexuality and AIDS. Campfield, a Tennessee state senator who sponsored his state's "Don't Say Gay" bill that would ban teachers from discussing homosexuality, made national headlines in January following an interview on Sirius XM radio during which he discussed the origin and transmission of AIDS.
The senator has defended his statements, saying homosexuality is "deadly and dangerous." In an online posting, he claimed AIDS "is mostly a disease of people in around the homosexual lifestyle or IV drug users" and it's difficult to contract AIDS from heterosexual sex. Campfield, however, also said his opponents are entitled to their views and he doesn't hate homosexuals.
Five speakers -- including three Class of 2012 graduates, a gay Vestal High School teacher, and the father of a Wall of Fame member -- spoke against Campfield's inclusion, saying he has a right to free speech, but he shouldn't be a role model.
"Everyday young men and women are going to walk by Mr. Campfield's portrait and think that 'some people hate me for no reason and my school is fine with that,'" said Class of 2012 graduate Nicholas Gates, who identified himself as a gay student.
Salutatorian Nisha Dalvie, whose editorial in the school newspaper first brought the issue to light, said an online petition calling for Campfield's removal has garnered 1,200 signatures.
When teacher Steve White was offered his job in the district five years ago, he told Assistant Superintendent Mary Surdey he was gay to avoid any issues. He remembers her response.
"She said, 'We're hiring you to be the German teacher, not the sex education teacher,'" he told the board.
Like many gay men, he grew up hating himself at a time when remarks like Campfield's were commonplace. Even today, he finds himself being reticent with students, editing out references to his long-time partner and legal husband of four years to avoid ruffling any feathers.
"I lived part of my life in contempt of myself because of people like him," he said of Campfield.
Campfield was honored in 2008, prior to his statements on the matter, Myers said. She noted that O.J. Simpson's later actions didn't remove him from being listed as a Heisman Trophy winner or in the NFL Hall of Fame.
The easy solution would have been to hand Arbuiso a screwdriver and let him take the picture down, Myers said.
"The courageous and difficult thing to do is to stand up for our beliefs to model what we expect and teach our students and defend the rights of a man whose words make our skin crawl," she said. And it leads to a larger question, she said: "Where does it end?"
Protesters promised to return to board meetings every two weeks until the portrait is removed.
Before going into a final executive session on another matter, both Myers and Superintendent Mark LaRoach spoke one-on-one with attendees, but tempers were heated.
"I will not let people be abused, I will not let people be abused!" said LaRoach, when Gates' mother asked if Vestal was aware of the Dignity for All Act that prohibits bullying. "My record speaks for itself."
The national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates 529,908 AIDS cases in the U.S. resulted from male-to-male sexual contact from the start of the epidemic through 2009, with 273,444 from injection drug use, 77,213 from a combination of the two, and 198,820 via heterosexual contact -- with 126,637 of the last in women and 72,183 in men. Heterosexual sex is the most common means of transmission through much of the world, according to CDC information.