Parents who object to seeing expressions of affection between two people of the same gender — expressions such as the one that reportedly offended the gunman who opened fire in a gay nightclub in Orlando last weekend — typically argue that’s inappropriate because they have no way to explain what’s happening to their children.
But when schools offer to do this work by developing curricula that would help children understand concepts related to gender and sexuality in a developmentally appropriate fashion, those some parents tend to get angry.
From sex ed classes to gender neutral bathrooms to gay pride, school administrators are often pressured by angry parents and conservative groups to roll back efforts at LGBT inclusion.
These type of controversies in the classroom could have a lasting impact on how young kids grow up to see LGBT people. The backlash not only deprives students of an education about LGBT issues; it also communicates to them that issues that are important to the LGBT community are not worth their consideration and at worst, are offensive. Here are just a few examples of efforts across the country to suppress LGBT student expression and teach straight and cisgender students that it’s okay to celebrate hate against LGBT people — or, at the very least, to ignore their existence:
Silencing LGBT teachers
Omar Currie, a third grade teacher in North Carolina, found himself amid a national controversy last year after he read a book to his elementary school class that featured gay characters. After Currie — who is openly gay — noticed a bullying incident against a child, he decided read the book King & King to his class to teach them more about same-sex couples. Parents railed against his decision to read the book, saying they should have been informed he would read the fairy tale to the class. Most of the people who were angry about the reading didn’t actually have kids in his class.
“The other families were saying that as a gay person, I shouldn’t be in the building, and as a gay person, I might be pushing some kind of homosexual agenda and the book should not be in the building or read at all,” Currietold ThinkProgress at the time. He eventually resigned.
The controversy around Currie shows how little has really changed when it comes to parents accepting that their children will know gay, bisexual, and lesbian people exist in elementary school. The same book also caused an uproar when a teacher read it to his class in 2005. Many LGBT teachers and administrators across the country are still concerned they can’t come out in particularly conservative communities and have jumped through hoops to present their partner as having a different gender or have even presented a friend as their spouse.
Fighting against inclusive sex education
Sex and health education advocates have long pushed for classes that teach students how to use protection against pregnancy, how to protect themselves against STIs, and how to recognize whether their partner consents. But advocates have also begun to do a better job of recognizing that a comprehensive sex and health education also requires acknowledging LGBT students.
Right now, only 12 states ask teachers to mention sexual orientation during their sexual health discussion, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Four states require that when sexual orientation is discussed, only negative information should be shared.
An LGBT-inclusive sex education would challenge gender roles and acknowledge the existence of different kinds of families, including same-sex parents. Any discussion of consent and STI prevention would be done so in a way that acknowledges sex beyond a man penetrating a woman through vaginal intercourse. Pregnancy prevention could be covered in a way that includes transgender people as well.
But pushing for a more inclusive approach to sex and health education is difficult. Parents often object to including LGBT people in these discussions, especially in earlier grades, where they argue kids will lose their innocence. Even when school districts give them the option to excuse their kids from the classes in question, some parents argue these lessons are too inappropriate to offer at all.
For instance, Washington state recently added a discussion of gender roles to their standards on health education. Even though the unit wasn’t mandatory, schools could choose not to teach it, and parents could opt their kids out if schools did adopt it, that didn’t stop parents from getting angry and arguing that the state was forcing “transgenderism” on kids. This shows that parents weren’t concerned with their own children’s education, but how everyone else was educating their child to be more accepting of different kinds of gender expression.
Accusing LGBT student clubs of having a “gay agenda”
LGBT students and their allies also face opposition when they attempt to introduce a Gay Straight Alliance to their schools. There have been various instances of schools and parents resisting GSAs and facing legal action from the ACLU as a result.
Most recently, after students at a Winchester, Tennessee high school started a GSA, they were accused by parents, community members, and anti-LGBT groups of pushing a “gay agenda.” During this outcry, the school board considered placing restrictions on all student organizations, such as requiring students to get permission from their parents to join. For some LGBT students and their allies, a request for parent permission would guarantee they couldn’t join the club, and could face consequences for even asking. Students in support of the GSA clashed with adults who were opposed to it, including protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church. During one of the board meetings, the school had to call in extra security to keep things peaceful, according to The New Civil Rights Movement, a progressive news site.
Blocking students from accessing GSAs through rules such as requiring parental consent can do significant harm to LGBT students. GSAs can help mitigate depression, substance abuse, and suicide attempts, research shows. Students who had a GSA in their school were also less likely to experience depression and more likely to have higher self-esteem, according to the Family Acceptance Project’s findings.
Protesting against gender-neutral bathrooms
Despite clear communication from federal courts and the U.S. Department of Justice that transgender people have the right to use the bathroom corresponding with their gender, there is still fierce opposition from hate groups to gender-neutral bathrooms, which are often one stall bathrooms that don’t require two people to share them.
The Westboro Baptist Church, for example, recently protested the addition of a gender-neutral bathroom in Los Angeles, shouting at students and telling them they were going to hell. An altercation between students and protesters broke out, requiring police to monitor the school the next day in case the protesters returned.
Conservatives tend to argue that allowing transgender students to use the bathroom that matches their gender will put cisgender women at risk. But when trans students are sharing bathrooms with cis students, it’s more likely the threat would work the other way around. Trans women tend to face more harassment, sexual assault, and other threats to their safety than cisgender women do, and there is no evidence to support concerns that trans women would attack anyone in a bathroom. The attack on gender-neutral bathrooms, which wouldn’t require trans students and cis students to share the same bathroom at all because they are typically single stalls, also makes very little sense if protesters are arguing this is a safety issue.
Policing LGBT people’s clothes
Despite all of the progress that has been made in securing marriage equality and in ongoing victories for trans students’ right to use the bathroom, administrators are still accusing of LGBT students of “disruption” and “lewdness” when they wear a T-shirt that expresses their sexual orientation or LGBT pride.
Earlier this year, one administrator told a California student that her “Nobody knows I’m a lesbian” T-shirt was an “open invitation to sex.” He also said the T-shirt could be “gang-related,” and that students aren’t allowed to wear shirts stating their “personal choices and beliefs.” Her school eventually reached a settlement with the ACLU and agreed to change its dress code.
Administrators often police student’s clothing until media attention adds pressure on the school or courts require them to back off. Courts typically explain to schools that expressing one’s identity at school is not inherently disruptive. Legal experts on cases of student expression say that stating one’s sexual orientation in itself is not the same as wearing a shirt emblazoned with a phrase alluding to a sex act or showing a naked person, for example.
Not allowing LGBT people to enjoy prom
Administrators’ attempts to control LGBT student expression often extend to formal events such as dances as well. This year, a member of school staff attempted to stop two boys from attending prom together and a principal attempted to stop two girls from being nominated as prom royalty.
The two boys, who went to French Settlement High School in Louisiana, were told they couldn’t come together as dates by the assistant principal. When a local television station inquired as to why the boys were prevented from attending together, the school said it would investigate the matter. The boys attended as each other’s date and wore matching tuxes.
In the case of the same-sex couple who wanted to be nominated as queen and queen for prom royalty, the school wasn’t so quick to budge. The principal insisted that by giving a girl the opportunity to be nominated in place of a boy as the royal prom couple, opportunities would be taken from the boys. After the school district’s legal counsel and the ACLU traded letters, the school backed down and allowed her to be nominated — although the district never admitted that it did anything wrong in the first place.