Conservatives are getting very upset over the news that Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools made recommendations to staff so they can better understand Title IX obligations and prevent bullying of trans students.
As part of that bigger effort to help staff members better respect students’ gender identity, Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) — an organization whose mission is to create a “trans-friendly education system” — distributed a “gender unicorn” as an educational tool.
That didn’t sit well with conservative news outlets, which went so far as to call the unicorn graphic “the weird, drug-induced nightmares of a mentally deranged pedophile.” Franklin Graham, an American Christian evangelist, wrote on his Facebook page that using the unicorn in class is a “dangerous path” toward letting the state make decisions about morality, calling it “Communist brainwashing.”
During a recent Fox News segment on gender identity, one commentator remarked, “I’m worried that school is no longer about reading, writing, and math. What is happening? We can’t call boys boys and girls girls anymore? And that unicorn could frankly be a little bit scary.”
Some parents in the district also expressed concerns about brainwashing. “Introducing this terminology like this to my child without getting my permission through staff and faculty, feels like communistic brainwashing,” one parent, Donica Hudson, told WCNC.com when she attended a board meeting to voice her concerns.
“And that unicorn could frankly be a little bit scary.”
In reality, the school district’s materials — including the unicorn — were considerably misrepresented. As reported by Snopes, which looks into the accuracy of internet rumors, the school simply had principals and counselors view a presentation on issues of gender identity to help them “understand how gender identity impacts student needs and culture.”
The presentation was intended to help staff understand issues of school safety for LGBTQ students, citing the fact that LGBTQ students are more likely to be harassed and assaulted at school. The materials included a video with instructions about how to use appropriate gender pronouns, reminding staff that while “inadvertent slips may occur,” any intentional refusal to acknowledge the child’s gender identity is a violation. The presentation recommended that staff avoid gendered language by referring to students as “scholars” or “students” versus boys or girls, for example.
The materials also covered important legal developments regarding trans students’ use of bathrooms at school, referenced the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruling that protections against sex discrimination apply to gender identity, explained conditions under which staff can share a student’s gender identity status, and noted that student services staff should work on a plan to address any privacy concerns a student may have.
At a recent school board meeting, school officials said these materials are just for staff, and students are not receiving class instruction on the information in the presentation. The school is not mandating a class on transgender issues.
TSER responded to the controversy over its unicorn graphic in a statement last week. “The goal of the graphic is to help create a healthy educational environment for young trans people through facilitating understanding and suggesting small shifts from gendered rhetoric towards gender neutral terminology,” the organization clarified. “We, in fact, are not ‘psychologically abusive predators who wish to pollute [students’] minds and rob their innocence and their moral sanity.’”
“The goal of the graphic is to help create a healthy educational environment for young trans people.”
This is certainly not the first time, however, that mere standards and guidelines about inclusivity were represented as mandates.
In June, Washington state released updated learning standards on health and physical education that included gender expression and identity under “sexual health.” Under this category, the standards stated that students should “understand there are many ways to express gender” in kindergarten. In other words, girls may learn it’s okay for them to play sports and boys may learn it’s okay for them to play with a doll.
There wasn’t any indication of a conversation that would explain the concept of what it means to be transgender at this stage, but that didn’t stop conservative outlets from representing Washington’s standards that way.
In the Fox News segment on the gender unicorn, commentators first said that concerns about gender identity and expression had nothing to do with a quality education. Then they remarked that it was okay for classrooms to be sensitive to transgender students, but that using gender-neutral language to describe students went “too far.”
What is unclear, however, is what educational value Fox News commentators think students would miss from being identified as “students” versus “girls” or being lined up by their favorite color rather than according to gender. And despite outrage over standards like those released in Washington forcing kids to “lose their innocence,” what is often forgotten in the discussion is how developmentally appropriate they are. The specific concept of gender identity isn’t mentioned until later grades when teachers believe students can better understand these concepts.