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Profiling Ron Huberman, the new CEO of Chicago's public schools, in the Sun-Times January 31, Fran Spielman mentioned something that it's safe to assume few Chicagoans already knew: he's gay.
"It has given me a great sensitivity for the need to be inclusive," said Huberman, who came out to his parents when he was 15. "If I didn't grow up being part of a group that was viewed differently, I may not have that sensitivity. It makes me in tune to individuals, groups and others who are not fitting in and may need extra support."
Alexander Russo runs a blog on the Web site of Catalyst Chicago, a newsmagazine launched in 1990 by the Community Renewal Society to report on local school reform. On Monday Russo responded to Spielman's story by posting a brief comment he titled "What to Make of Our Gay Schools Chief?" It began, "So now we know," and it asked, "Question is, does it change the way anyone feels about Huberman's appointment, or affect the way that he's going to be able to do his job?" Russo also wondered, "Did someone out him, or had it already been reported but no one noticed? Did the Mayor know?"
Someone promptly responded, "Ron has been openly gay for years. Apparently it never 'mattered' before, but I'm sure Daley has long known." A few minutes later somebody added, "Way to try to create an unnecessary controversy, Alexander. It's posts/comments like this that make many people steer away from the blog." The next response agreed: "This post should be removed from the blog-- esp. the title. I am disappointed in this blog."
Russo then posted his reply: "The politically correct thing to do is to pretend that things like sexual orientation (or race, or class) don't exist. but this blog has never been politically correct. Sexual orientation is an issue in american life, whether you want it to be or not. not talking about it doesn't make it any less so -- it just cedes the field to those who aren't afraid to say what they think. i don't care that he's gay in any personal or moral way. i'm not trying to incite anti gay hate speech. i think it's unfortunate that there aren't more openly gay educators, principals, and administrators. How funny and strange that chicago may be the first."
The next response began, "Alexander -- please remove this thread," and then there was one that reasoned, "No need....The comments show that no one, not even those who think Ron Huberman is wrong for the job, cares about his sexual orientation." Then a "WHO CARES?" followed by a reader agreeing with Russo, followed by someone explaining that Daley "figures having a henchman who is a minority on many levels will make him inscrutable by the left."
There were commenters who assailed Huberman and/or Daley for their respective lack of educational credentials and excess of political cynicism, commenters who considered Russo's post inappropriate, and commenters -- one or two -- who defended him: "Give Alexander a break. As an openly gay educator myself, I think it's just fine to talk about who's who, as long as the dialogue isn't just about being gay. In fact, the more that we get comfortable with this conversation, the less invisible we are."
Tuesday night the entire thread disappeared. Under pressure from Catalyst's editor, Veronica Anderson, and publisher, Linda Lenz, to make the thread more palatable, Russo took it down. "It was like, 'Why was that question asked?'" Lenz tells me. "There were commenters who thought it was offensive. There were people here who thought it was offensive."
Anderson says, "Catalyst is focused on looking at the credentials of people involved in the school system. We thought that this particular conversation was not relevant to the dialogues around school improvement and reform."
It's hard for me to believe that there's a great majority among the parents of Chicago public school students who don't care that Huberman's gay, and don't care that he'll likely never have children of his own in the school system, and see it as neither here nor there that perhaps the most hotly debated CPS issue of recent months, the proposed creation of a high school for gay students, will now be adjudicated by a gay CEO. So while Russo's post was indelicate, I can't agree that the conversation he tried to stir up was irrelevant. When Russo took down his post he replaced it with a new one acknowledging what he'd done: "As in the past, Catalyst and I sometimes disagree about what is appropriate. I've taken down the post about Ron Huberman at their request. Onward and upward." And this post rekindled the conversation among readers who remembered what the Ron Huberman post had been about.
"The fact that Catalyst censored you seems to prove that those who thought it was not an issue, were wrong. Non-issue posts do not get cut by Catalyst bosses," wrote the first commenter. Someone else wrote, "The real error in the Huberman post ... was not that you thought to discuss his sexual orientation - you did so in a polite way. . . . The real error was that by making the discussion about that, you ignored a chance to discuss what really matters - professional history, his demeanor towards employees, his attitudes towards education, etc.
Let's have that discussion now that the silliness is out of the way."
I think what torpedoed Russo's original blog has less to do with the question he asked, or even the way in which he asked it, than it does with blogs in general. The blogosphere is the wild west. If Lenz and Anderson could have been sure that the responses to Russo's question would have settled into a thoughtful, subtle discussion of what really matters in a top educator, I doubt if they'd have said a word. But of course they couldn't count on that. There was too big a chance the lunatics would catch wind of the conversation and overrun it.
"Neither I nor my readers wrote anything that was hateful or offensive. I think they were being oversensitive or politically correct," says Russo. He says it's the first time since he started blogging for Catalyst more than a year ago that he's been asked to take something down that he'd written -- "and the first and only time they've asked me to take down something that I didn't think should come down."
So no hard feelings. Russo continues, "I think that part of this may have been a generational thing -- some people came up during the time when being colorblind was big -- you don't talk about differences of race or class or orientation because we're all the same. I come from a slightly different place, where you talk about differences even if it's uncomfortable at first because being different is OK and being honest about that makes more sense."