ANOUSHKA MALLIK/SAGAMORE STAFF
In 1993, when social studies teacher Polly Attwood came out to her students, Johanna Jenei felt uncomfortable with the information and asked to be transferred out of her class. When this request was denied, her parents moved her out of Brookline High School and into a Christian private high school.
Three years later, the Jenei family sued Brookline High School on account of emotional distress, saying that Brookline was responsible for their daughter’s leave. They charged Brookline $359,000, with $300,00 for emotional distress.
The high school had three months, from January to March, to accept and countersue, which would mean legitimizing the lawsuit, which they chose not to do. The Jeneis then had a few months to decide whether or not they still wanted to pursue the case, and they chose not to. This lawsuit had a larger political context, occurring in the midst of a complicated cultural conflict not unlike the one we are undergoing now.
During this time, Attwood received support from the Brookline community, coupled with hate mail and charges that she had done the wrong thing by coming out as a lesbian.
According to Attwood, this lawsuit extended beyond her and the Jenei family, who were unable to be located for comment.
Before the lawsuit was filed, the Student Rights Bill was expanded to include LGBTQ+ rights. In reaction to this, the Political Religious Right (PRR), a conservative organization that emerged in the ‘90s, was pushing back on the rising support for the LGBTQ+ community. Thus, the PRR supported the lawsuit largely because they hoped to undo this addition to the Student Rights Bill.
“The case went from me all the way to the superintendent of the schools and the School Committee saying that we were denying her heterosexual rights. They aimed it that way because they wanted to take down the Students Rights Bill we had just expanded to include sexual orientation,” Attwood said. “ was claiming that by coming out, I was denying her heterosexual rights. They were trying to undo that legislation that was just accomplished.”
Attwood said this larger goal resulted in Johanna Jenei having to prove that she was emotionally damaged.
“I felt the ways that we were both pawns,” Attwood said. “The Political Religious Right was asking her to make herself vulnerable. They were going to have to deconstruct her whole being. And that was what was sad for me.”
Jonathan Landman, one of Attwood’s colleagues at the time, said the Jenei argument that Johanna’s “heterosexual rights” were violated represented a wildly different worldview than that of Attwood and sympathizers.
“They felt like the simple fact of Polly’s existence, and the fact that she declared who she was out in the open, was an assault on them. I think that’s an illegitimate worldview. We all have that right to say out loud who we are and to talk about how that influences the way we see the world. The Jenei perspective was totally dehumanizing of Polly,” Landman said. “Their perspective was that her expression of who she is was an infringement on their rights.”
While this lawsuit was an extreme event in the high school’s history, current social studies teacher Kathryn Leslie said it is hard to know if this was a one-off incident.
“Teachers were not out then; Polly Attwood was one of the very few. Students were not out. The GSA existed in private,” Leslie said. “I hesitate to say that her case is unusual because I fear that if there had been other people who were brave enough to do what she did when she did it, there might have been other lawsuits or people who were made uncomfortable enough that they would leave Brookline High.”
Leslie said the idea of trying to ‘convert’ people was very common in the ‘80s.
“Being gay isn’t something you’re thrusting upon people, and I think that’s a really dangerous idea that was promoted a lot in the 1980s, that somehow a gay teacher was trying to convert others, but that makes my blood boil and my skin crawl,” Leslie said.
According to Dean Brian Poon, Brookline High School has come far in its acceptance of LGBTQ+ rights but still has a long way to go.
“I think we have higher expectations in terms of toleration, in terms of protecting everybody’s rights and being intentional about that,” Poon said. “I think, no, we are not done in supporting queer rights, queer teachers, queer students. We’re just not done, but we’ve come wicked far.”
The PRR emerged at the same time as another group, the Committee for Quality Education (CQE). This group pushed back on the rising support and acceptance of homosexuality into curriculums across Brookline, as well as changes to the history curriculum.
“They had a purpose of trying to roll back certain aspects of our curriculum or change it, and we worked hard to be open to continuing to have dialogue. So there was a context already of a conservative backlash happening in Brookline,” Attwood said. (see insert)
According to one of Attwood’s colleagues at the time, Jonathan Landman, this lawsuit also occurred in the wake of the change in Brookline High School’s 10th grade social studies curriculum.
Previously, the social studies classes had been teaching Honors and Advanced Placement European History. However, there was a vote passed in 1989 that removed the AP class, replacing it with World History. According to Landman, this change led to conflict in Brookline.
“When they made that decision, there was a huge eruption in the community, from people who were outraged that the Western canon and the European history, which was the most important thing for their college-bound kids to get, was going to be supplemented by this multicultural agenda. There were people in the community who came out swinging,” Landman said.
Looking back on it, Landman thinks the history department made the morally correct decision with the history curriculum change and that Attwood had not done anything wrong by coming out.