The Boston bully: Boston U. chancellor John Silber had a gay son who died of AIDS. So why is he such a dedicated homophobe? – Education

Peter Freiberg

Nobody ever called John Silber dull. Outspoken and combative, the longtime Boston University president and current chancellor has tangled with many groups over the past three decades, including students, faculty, feminists, and gay activists. But his most recent controversy took even some dedicated Silber-watchers by surprise.

This summer, BU president Jon Westling resigned, so Chancellor Silber has temporarily reassumed presidential duties. Then, when the BU Academy, a university-run private school for grades 8 through 12, resumed in September, students learned that Silber had summarily ordered headmaster James Tracy to disband the school’s two-year-old gay-straight alliance. The action, which was prompted by one complaint about the group from a parent, was taken without consulting any of the academy’s students or faculty, according to BU spokesman Kevin Carleton.

Silber, 76, who had a gay son who died of AIDS complications in 1994, declined to talk to The Advocate for this story. But he defended his decision to The Boston Globe. “We’re not running a program in sex education,” he told the Globe. If they want that kind of program, they can go to public school and learn how to put a condom over a banana.” At the BU Academy, he said, “the last thing in the world we want to do is try to introduce these children to the importance of premature sex.”

Silber’s action provoked an outcry from activists, gay groups, elected officials, and the editorial pages of the Globe and BU’s Daily Free Press as well as from students at BU’s school of law and college of fine arts, who circulated protest petitions. Advocates for gay-straight alliances emphasized that the groups are not about teaching sex but about offering support and combating prejudice. One member of the BU Academy GSA, a straight boy who asked not to be identified, tells The Advocate, “We talk about sex in sex education. I viewed the GSA as more of a diversity club.” A petition signed by more than 40% of BU law students and presented to Silber criticized his “intolerable display of bigotry.”

The Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Educational Network, a national gay advocacy group on youth issues, has called for Silber’s resignation. GLSEN executive director Kevin Jennil]gs says Silber’s action was especially dangerous because it could encourage other adminls’ trators to close down GSAs, even though the federal Equal Access Act protects the clubs in public schools. “They’ll think, ‘If John Silber can do it, so can I,'” Jennings says. As a private school, BU is not covered by the act.

Despite the protests, Silber shows no signs of changing his mind. In a speech two weeks after the GSA firestorm erupted, he said the club encouraged “a form of homosexual militancy” ‘and “evangelism,” according to The Daily Free Press. While “some people” are bom gay, Silber conceded, “a very large percentage of people who become homosexual are homosexual because that is the way in which they were first seduced into sex. Not because of anything else. And there’s just no reason for us to encourage that.” He also defended the right of organizations to discriminate based on sexual orientation or physical deformity, as long as they don’t foment hate against these groups of people.

Silber, a University of Texas philosophy professor and dean when he be came BU president in 1971, has long been a hero of conservative academic groups, says Ken Sherrill, the openly gay chair of the political science department at City University of New York’s Hunter College. “Obviously, there are large numbers of people who like what he’s doing, because he’s a prodigious fundraiser,” Sherrill says, “and I’m sure the hard line he takes [on gay issues, among others] is one of the things that makes people want to give money to him.”

In 1990, when Silber won the Massachusetts Democratic nomination for governor, he said he would oppose a gay rights law that had passed the state legislature the previous year. Then, also as a nominee, he backed an unsuccessful effort in the legislature to bar the state from placing foster children with gay couples. Many people say it was fear of what Silber might do as governor that drove gay voters to vote in droves for his Republican opponent, William Weld. Weld’s victory, in turn, led to the landmark “Safe Schools” program, which prohibited discrimination and violence against gay kids and would eventually recommend that all state high schools receive funding to form gay-straight alliances.

Asked if Silber was foisting his personal views about homosexuality on BU, spokesman Carleton declined to answer, saying, “That’s an unreasonable question.” Still, it’s clear that gay issues are not a trivial matter for Silber. In the spring 2001 issue of Focus, the magazine of the BU School of Theology, he wrote a 3,000-word rebuttal to an article from the previous year by the school dean, who advocated “the full participation of gays and lesbians in the church as ministers or recipients of its blessings as in marriage.” Silber also has defended the Boy Scouts’ policy of banning gay scoutmasters as necessary to avoid “sexual abuse suffered by young boys.”

Gary Orgel, an openly gay assistant philosophy professor at BU from 1978 to 1985, dated Silber’s son, David, for six months in the early 1980s, and says David told him Silber was “extremely rejecting and cold upon hearing that his son was gay.”

Nevertheless, Orgel says Silber was always friendly to him before, during, and after his relationship with David. “I don’t think he let his personal feelings get in the way of my [professional] advancement,” Orgel says. “He was very warm, very cordial, even affectionate.” Orgel lost track of David in the late 1980s when David left for New York to pursue an acting career.

But there was no ostracism or estrangement between father and son, and the Globe’s obituary for David said he campaigned for his father during the governor’s race. The obituary also notes that David died at age 41 at his parents’ home in Brookline, Mass.

In a recent letter to In Newsweekly, a Boston gay newspaper, Silber refuted an erroneous statement in the paper that he had “disowned” David, noting that “at the end of his life, David lived in our home …cared for by his family and in the company of his late partner, Marc Brody.”

However much he loved his son, critics say Silber does not realize how much his words and actions can hurt other gay people. Eric Lindemer, 33, a gay massage therapist who quit his $650-a-month teaching position at BU after Silber dissolved the GSA, says, “I don’t feel the BU community as a whole is really homophobic, but it’s problematic to have a leader who sets such a tone against gay men and women.”

Freiberg has also written for The Washington Blade and the New York Post.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Liberation Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group

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