Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Councilman’s remark defended by gay rights advocate

Exchange occurred during Clarksburg town hall meeting

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A county councilman has drawn fire over a comment concerning gays and bullying, but an area gay rights advocate has come to his defense.

At a town hall meeting in Clarksburg last week, Councilman George L. Leventhal said many victims of bullying are gay after a resident commented about that her daughter was being bullied at school.

‘‘It was totally inappropriate,” said Kathie Hulley, president of the Clarksburg Civic Association. ‘‘If the County Council is going to come out to a town meeting and somebody in distress asks a question, to go off on a tangent, which has no bearing to what she was asking, is really bad.”

Councilman Marc Elrich, who also attended the meeting, said ‘‘I don’t know why [Leventhal] went there.”

But Dan Furmansky, executive director of Equality Maryland, said Leventhal’s comments were being misconstrued.

‘‘Within the context of a discussion in which people were criticizing the county’s [anti-discrimination law regarding transgender individuals], which is up for referendum, Councilman Leventhal was simply trying to point out that gender non-conforming and [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] students face a higher rate of bullying,” Furmansky said.

Leventhal’s statement came during a standing-room-only town hall meeting Wednesday at Little Bennett Elementary School. During a question-and-answer segment, Derwood resident Valerie Ricardo described how her daughter was being bullied at an area middle school. Ricardo went on to discuss the county’s anti-discrimination law covering transgendered individuals, and also discussed her fears of being approached by ‘‘a man with an exaggerated walk, a female walk” and ‘‘evil intent in his eye.”

‘‘So I want to say that the risk is real and I think that we need to take these situations of violence and bullying and crazy situations for what they are and begin to do something about it,” Ricardo ended her statement.

Three other council members responded to Ricardo’s statement, then Leventhal said the issue of bullying in schools is extremely serious. He then said, according to a transcript of the session provided by his office: ‘‘The victims of bullying in so many cases are young people, who, over the course of their lives, are gay.”

The interaction was first reported last Thursday night by WTTG-Fox 5 News. The station’s story drew criticism from Furmansky and Leventhal.

‘‘Fox 5 badly distorted my remarks and took them out of context,” said Leventhal (D-At large) of Takoma Park. ‘‘Bullying is a serious issue for all victims. My expression was the hope that we would view all of our neighbors with love and tolerance.”

Elrich was still scratching his head a week later.

‘‘The only thing I can think he was going for was that gays get bullied more than other kids, but that was totally irrelevant to her concern,” said Elrich (D-At large) of Takoma Park. ‘‘I felt the appropriate answer was the way we could try to help kids not bully each other.”

Before Ricardo’s comments, several speakers in the audience questioned council members about the county’s new transgender law. The law expands the county’s existing law to prohibit discrimination against transgendered people in housing, employment, cable television and taxi service. Opponents of the law collected enough signatures to have the law put on the ballot in November as a referendum.

‘‘The way I took Leventhal’s comment was that a majority of gay kids are bullied which is the case,” said Councilwoman Duchy Trachtenberg, who was also at the meeting.

Trachtenberg (D-At large) of North Bethesda would not comment on whether Leventhal’s comments were out of order.

‘‘Apparently there are people who thought they heard something else and I really can’t comment on what they thought they heard,” she said. ‘‘Also, I think the mom who asked the question did combine different levels of issues because at the end she did get into commentary about the transgender bill and that wasn’t involved in the issue about her daughter directly.”

Staff Writer Titus Ledbetter III contributed to this report.