Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Matthew Shepard scholars

This year's Matthew Shepard scholars are (from left) Quentin Hill, Benny Tremmel, Ben Alley, Rachel Anderson, Nick Muntz, Sara Puffer, Sarah Mowitz, Carter Collins, Sean Hernandez and Nolan Reisen.

The Eychaner Foundation, which awards nearly $200,000 in Matthew Shepard Scholarships annually to Iowa LGBT high school seniors, honored the Class of 2011 June 3 in Des Moines by recognizing this year’s 10 recipients from across the state.

Des Moines entrepreneur Rich Eychaner founded the program, which honors the memory of Matthew Shepard, a gay University of Wyoming student beaten to death near Laramie during October of 1998. Scholarships have been awarded since 2007.

Perhaps the most compelling story among those of the 10 recipients is Ben Alley’s. A 2011 graduate of East Marshall High School in LeGrand, Alley was kicked out by his parents, a Southern Baptist preacher and his wife, after he told them he was gay. They have since moved from Iowa, leaving their son behind.

Alley survived in a shelter for homeless youth before finding a new family who took him in as their own son and supported himself as best he could with a job at Walmart. You can read more of Alley’s story here for a time at least, in a column by Rekha Basu due to disappear behind a pay wall before long.

Other recipients are Benny Tremmel, Mason City High School; Carter Collins, Hampton-Dumont High School; Nick Muntz, also East Marshall High School; Nolan Reisen, Dubuque Hempstead High School; Quentin Hill, Eagle Grove High School; Rachel Anderson, Des Moines East High School; Sara Puffer, Linn-Mar High School; Sarah Mowitz, Des Moines Roosevelt High School; and Sean Hernandez, Columbus High School.

Alley, Hill and Hernandez received “gold” scholarships worth up to $40,000 each; the other seven, “silver” scholarships worth up to $9,000 each.

Two of the Matthew Shepard Scholarships are named for strong Iowa women who were champions of LGBT rights before support became as broadly based as it is now. The Mary Louise Smith Gold scholarship honors a longtime Republican national committeewoman from Eagle Grove who in 1974 became the only woman to chair the national Republican Party.

The Joy Corning and Sally Pederson Silver scholarship recognizes two Iowa lieutenant governors who also are champions of the LGBT community --- Corning, a Republican, who served 1991-99 with Terry Branstad during his first gubernatorial incarnation; and Pederson, a Democrat, 1999-2007, with Tom Vilsack.


It’s interesting, too, that many of the scholarship recipients have helped to organize or have been involved in Gay-Straight Alliances at their schools, a program that is gaining strength across the state.

Christianist zealots hate these alliances, intended to promote harmony among students and support LGBTQ minorities.

And now and then, a school district bows to pressure from “concerned” parents and declines to recognize an alliance. The difficulty is that federal law requires public secondary schools to treat all student-initiated organizations equally under the Equal Access Act of 1984.

The threat of a lawsuit generally is enough to earn an alliance recognition, but a few districts have gone so far as to ban all student organizations in order to bar a gay-straight alliance.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan found it useful on Tuesday to send out a "Dear Colleague" letter to schools across the country reminding them that no matter how much they'd love to discriminate, they really can't.

The fascinating thing about the Equal Access Act is that it became federal law at the urging of those Christianist zealots --- who wanted to make sure students could organize Bible study groups in “godless” public schools.

In Iowa at least, it seems likely that there are by now more gay-straight alliances than Bible study groups in our public schools, suggesting again that God does indeed have a mighty sense of humor.

You can read more about the Eychaner Foundation and its scholars present and past by following this link.

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