MERRIMACK, N.H. — Ask Tom Gotsill, an English teacher for 30 years, how Walt Whitman's homosexuality affected his poetry.
"I can't discuss that," Gotsill says.
James Roy, a math teacher for 21 years, surely can explain a newspaper article citing AIDS statistics.
"I apologize. I just can't talk about that," Roy responds, lowering his head as color rises in his face.
Until this school year, both teachers would have answered those questions. Today, they back away for fear of violating a school district ban on teachers discussing homosexuality as a part of life and living.
"For the first time in my life, I feel I have to look over my shoulder every time I say something," says Roy, who has joined parents and others in suing Merrimack schools in federal court on grounds that the policy inhibits freedom of speech.
The policy, titled the "Prohibition of Alternative Lifestyle Instruction," has pitted neighbor against neighbor in this town of 22,450.
The school board's conservative majority is standing firm, insisting that the policy protects children. Hundreds of students, however, are wearing black armbands or pink triangle pins in protest. Meanwhile, teachers have altered how they teach classics such as "Moby Dick," "Of Mice and Men," "A Raisin in the Sun," "The Glass Menagerie" and William Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream" and "As You Like It" to avoid any discussion of homosexuality, either in plot or authorship.
Under the policy, enacted on a 3-2 vote in August, teachers are not allowed to pass out materials, instruct or offer counseling portraying homosexuality as an acceptable way of life.
School board chairman Chris Ager, who proposed the policy, says violations would be regarded as insubordination--grounds for firing. Ager won't specify what he would consider a violation, so teachers say they are in the dark.
"I will say that as of today, not a single teacher has been disciplined as a result of this policy," Ager says.
That's because teachers are taking every precaution to protect their jobs, says Sue Ruggeri, president of the Merrimack Teachers Assn., one of the plaintiffs in the U.S. District Court lawsuit.
According to the suit, classes no longer address AIDS prevention and suicide among gay teens.
Roy says he altered plans to have math students clip newspaper stories citing statistics because he was afraid that someone would bring in an article on AIDS or homosexuality.
Teachers say "Twelfth Night" has been withdrawn from instruction. Its comical plot involves a young woman who disguises herself as a page, who falls in love with his-her master, who becomes fond of the page but pines for a countess, who becomes infatuated with the page, not knowing him to be a her.
Gotsill says he stopped using a video about Whitman because it mentions that the poet was gay.
"If you build a class around discussion, as we do in literature, then you oftentimes don't know in what direction conversations might go. For fear it might end in discussions of prejudice or bigotry against homosexuals, you shy away from it," Gotsill says. "As a result, our discussions have been stifled. Education has been hampered."
Lymon Mower, a 15-year-old freshman at Merrimack High School, has worn a black armband to school all year. He says the policy cheats students out of a full education.
"A lot of times we'll have class discussions and the teacher will feel they can't go on because of fear of violating the policy," Mower says. "My friend was taking a social problems class, where the whole point is to talk. One day they were talking about AIDS and, of course, you have to talk about homosexuality. The teacher said, 'Sorry, we can't talk about this anymore.' "
Mower attends the volatile monthly school board meetings, and urges other students to wear armbands and gay rights buttons. He says he's lost regard for teachers who abide by the policy.
"There isn't really a single teacher in this district who supports that policy, but they're practicing it," Mower says. "I really have to say I don't have a lot of respect for anyone who can do that. What's a job if you are forced to be the agent of injustice?"
But Roy, whose two children attend Merrimack schools, says that fighting the policy through the courts was the best thing that he could think to do.
"I believe that I can make a difference in kids' lives. I would be teaching them nothing if I quit in this battle," he says.
Debra Herget, who has three children in the Merrimack system, says she joined the lawsuit because the policy goes against everything that she is trying to teach her children at home.
"I teach my children tolerance and respect for others," she says. "This policy is, in effect, teaching intolerance."
Also signed onto the lawsuit are the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders of Boston; People for the American Way, based in Washington; and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ager criticizes the involvement of the national groups, saying they don't represent the interests of Merrimack.
"What makes this country great in the democratic process is [that] arguments make people change their minds, not threats and intimidation," Ager says. "And I have not heard any good arguments as to why this policy should not be in place."