Liz Swain 4:24 p.m., May 24
Minority Report: Manuel vs. Manny
Hispanic Teacher Runs Afoul of Gay-Rights Group Over Proposed Film Aimed at Keeping Kids Out of Prison
No good deed?
Manuel Arturo first noticed the problem when he lost five students over the course of a single semester from the 11th-grade History class he taught at Cesar Chavez High School in Chula Vista. All five students were Hispanic. Then he found out why: all of them were being held in Juvie. When he looked into their cases, he found that they weren't the only ones.
"I was understandably disturbed by the report from SANDAG which showed that a disproportionate number of those currently held in juvenile detention were Hispanics," recalls Arturo. "The report noted that many of these offenders were employed by Mexican gangs as drug mules. Worse, the report found that many of them did not understand the gravity of what they were doing. They simply didn't realize that it was a Federal offense that could, in some circumstances, land them in a prison environment."
Arturo set out to solve the problem the best way he knew how: through education. "I was talking to one of my gringo colleagues in the breakroom one day at lunch, and he said that he had been profoundly affected as a teen by the 1978 film Scared Straight. He had been involved in some petty theft - shoplifting on a dare, that sort of thing - but the exposure he got from Scared Straight to the unhappy possibilities of prison brought him up short. 'It was a little cheesy and over the top,' he recalled, 'but I have to admit it worked.' I did some looking into the matter, and found that my colleague was by no means alone in his response to the film. So I set about developing a Scared Straight presentation of my own, one that would speak to today's Hispanic Youth."
But times have changed since 1978, and Arturo found that some aspects of prison no longer inspired the horrified reaction they once did. "Sadly, the rise of gang culture in the Hispanic community has taken a lot of the stigma away from prison. There are gang elements both inside and outside, and tragically, time spent inside can actually be seen as a rite of passage, an entry into a gang's inner circle. Prison life is harsh, but if it is seen as part what must be suffered to really become a man, then the harshness is no longer a deterrent."
Once a general sense of hardship proved insufficient, Arturo was forced to look for some particular aspect of prison life that would scare kids straight. And he found it: sodomy. "A big part of Hispanic gang life is the possession and display of machismo," explains Arturo. "But it's hard to manage a manly swagger when you're too butt-hurt to walk normally. When I began to investigate the culture of sodomy within the prison environments - the power structure, men making other men their 'bitches' - I knew I had found my way in to the dark and scary recesses of my students' minds."
At that point, Arturo applied for, and received, a $50,000 grant from the San Diego Fund for Childhood Development. He planned to use the money to hire a local film company to help him produce a short film that could be shown in a variety of settings. But before the cameras rolled, he got a letter from the San Diego chapter of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation.
San Diego GLAAD Chapter President Manny Manheimer says that he understands Arturo's desire to keep Hispanic kids out of prison. "But you can't do evil tin order o bring about a good result, and his planned video looked to us like a pretty clear evil. We obtained a copy of his proposal to the SDFCD" - how, he declined to say - "and we feel it plays into the continued demonization and othering of the homosexual community, which is already a problem in Hispanic culture. Of course, we're not speaking out in favor of prison rape - gay or straight, rape is a terrible crime. But by making sodomy into a bogeyman meant to inspire fear in the hearts of Hispanic teens - well, just imagine you were a closeted 14-year-old Mexican-American, and you were hearing this sort of thing. Even the title is offensive: 'Scared Straight.' I mean, really."
Manheimer says that GLAAD has filed a formal motion with the City to block Arturo's funding, and that it will fight the production of his film every step of the way. "We here at GLAAD find it deeply upsetting that, even as we have gained a significant victory with the implementation of gay history programs in California schools, we should have to go the mat in this fashion. We wish Mr. Arturo the best in his efforts to better his community, but we respectfully insist that he find some other way to go about it."
Arturo, for his part, is also upset. "These gays have me over a barrel," he fumes. "I could fight them, but I'd probably just end up taking it in the shorts. It looks like I'm screwed, along with the rest of my people."