The Philadelphia Inquirer



Schools’ Dilemma

Should We Let Homosexuals Be Teachers?



Of The Inquirer Staff


Three months ago, Penn State student Joe Acanfora 3d wrote Pennsylvania’s education secretary, asking the state’s policy on hiring teachers who are homosexuals.  An aide to Education Secretary John Pittenger replied that Pennsylvania has no firm policies.  Now, Joe Acanfora is posing the question to Pittenger again, but in real terms. 


Acanfora, an education graduate now, wants to be certified to teach in Pennsylvania. 


He is a homosexual.


Several Penn State deans, who make recommendations on teacher certification, tossed the problem to Pittenger after they were unable to decide on Acanfora’s application.


THE QUESTION of Acanfora’s fitness to teach centers on this: Can a homosexual be “known as a person of good moral character,” as state regulations prescribe.


Here is how both sides see the problem:


“When you’re in teaching, your profession comes first, just as it does for a heterosexual. Sex, would not enter into your relationship with a student.”            



“The teacher’s influence extends far beyond the classroom. In the case of sexual morality -- particularly where the teacher is involved with the adolescent child -- there is a certain crucial, quality.”

Dr. Abram VanderMeer,

Penn State Dean


If Pittenger signs Acanfora’s certification application, he will set precedent in Pennsylvania by defining homosexuality as a personal lifestyle rather than an antisocial sexual aberration.


Such a decision would not be unprecedented nationally. As early as 1970, the American Federation of Teachers insisted that homosexuals be “judged on the basis of professional and not personal criteria.” In June, however, the National Education Association rejected a similar resolution.


The District of Columbia’s school board earlier this year declared that homosexuality is irrelevant to teaching performance.


Family and Neighbors Stand Behind Homosexual’s Fight for Teaching Job


BUT A COURSE -- one way or another -- has not been charted in Pennsylvania, and the growing campaign for equal rights for “gays” made 22-year-old Acanfora the vehicle for a decision in this state. Last winter, the Brick Town, N.J., student joined a class on homosexuality at Penn. State’s “Free University,” a student-run roster of extracurricular, non-credit courses. Soon some 60-persons regularly came to the sessions, and decided to form HOPS - Homophiles of Penn State, a liberation group for both sexes.


Acanfora became treasurer. The group applied for a university charter, which would permit HOPS to use campus facilities. The student government accepted HOPS into Penn State’s extracurricular fold, but two weeks later, the university suspended its chartered privileges.


HOPS filed a suit charging that Penn State violated HOPS members’ constitutional rights of free speech and association. Acanfora became one of four plaintiffs -- the first time he ever publicly stated his sexual persuasion. The case is still in the Centre County Court.


DURING THIS PERIOD, Acanfora was student teach­ing at a junior high school in State College, where he taught earth science classes. One day, he received a phone call from the College of Education. He was no longer to report to his class.


Acanfora sued and was reinstated within a week. He finished his student teaching with a B grade, but throughout his week-long court case, he became a Penn State cause celebre. University students rallied. Letter writers with all points of view deluged editors.


“I wasn’t sure what reaction I would receive after I returned to that classroom,” Acanfora remembered. “But I was really well received by the students and teachers.”


TO HISAMAZEMENT, most of the response in the college community -- including some from parents of the children in his science classes -- was for his reinstatement.


“I got along with him very well,” said Kenneth Bower, the graduate assistant who supervised Acanfora’s student teaching duties. (The school also said Acanfora was a good teacher who never indicated his homosexuality in the classroom.)


Nevertheless, when Acanfora approached graduation with A-minus grades; the College of Education did some second-guessing.


Dr. Abram VanderMeer, dean of Penn State’s College of Education, convened five other deans to decide if Acanfora should be certified. 


After mulling the question over for three meetings, the deans scheduled a meeting with Acanfora and his lawyers.


“THEY ASKED ME, at that meeting, whether it was true I was a homosexual,” Acanfora said. “I said that was true, to the extent I defined homosexuality. I told them I have emotional, physical and psychological feelings towards men and women, but those toward my male friends were more important to me right now.”


They also asked Acanfora which sexual acts he preferred to engage in. “I told them that was irrelevant. I told them they had to respect a certain amount of my privacy.”


He was asked if he would advocate homosexuality. “I said I was interested in the repeal of discriminatory laws. But no one was trying to convert anyone. That’s ridiculous. The types of questions they asked me indicated that homosexuals had no values, as far as they were concerned.”


To a hypothetical query about approaching a 17-year-old male student, Acanfora said: “When you’re in teaching your profession comes first, just as it does with a heterosexual.  Sex would not enter into your relationship with a student.”


ACANFORA STRESSED that his homosexuality “never once came up in class. It is irrelevant to earth and space science.”


The administrators grilled him for 90 minutes, and he concluded by telling them that the state was reasonable in requiring moral standards for its teachers. But -- where some deans visualized moral mayhem at the mention of homosexuality, Acanfora centered on civil prejudice.


Three administrators voted to accredit Acanfora and three refused to certify him. At that point, the buck passed on to Pittenger and stopped.


Acanfora realized there would be complications. He called an official at the Philadelphia School District and canceled an interview.


Dr. VanderMeer, who voted against Acanfora’s certification, is unwilling to talk about the case. But on the morality clause, he commented that “it is pretty clear that certain acts that are defined as homosexual acts are also acts that can be defined as felonies in the criminal code.” (VanderMeer was not referring to Acanfora, who had never been arrested for any crime.)

“Also,” said the dean, “the teacher’s influence extends far I beyond the confines of the classrooms.  In the case of sexual morality -- particularly where the teacher is involved with the adolescent age child there is a certain crucial quality.


“THE ADOLESCENT, typically, is developing his or her own self-image, and, I think, needs strong and helpful mod­els in, the people he tends to look up to”


Pittenger is on a vacation, and could not be contacted for comment.


Meanwhile, Acanfora waits with his family, in the small Ocean County town.  His mother and father, a trucker with Penn Central, stand behind him, as do all his neighbors – many of whom wrote letters supporting Acanfora to the Penn State committee. 


“That,” he said is a relief. “When your family and friends are in back of you, you can face the world.”


When Acanfora told his parents of his sexual persuasion nearly two years ago, “they were confused and upset. But we talked it out. I’m still their son.”


“He’s still being himself,” said his mother, a pleasant, attractive woman. “As long as he doesn’t hurt anyone or himself -- and he would never do that -- I have no complaints. He’s my son.”


FOR HIS PART, Acanfora accepts the fact that “sooner or later, something like this had to happen to somebody. But the only way you get change is by facing the problem.”


He paused to think about his plight, a situation he accepted reluctantly at first.


“In the event that the rights of homosexuals to teach in Pennsylvania are guaranteed,” he emphasized, “it’ll definitely be worth it”