Public education serves many functions. Among other things, it can highlight past and present inequities, particularly those suffered by historically oppressed groups. By acknowledging these injustices, schools can play an active role in achieving broader civic goals—social justice, equality of opportunity, and political empowerment (Ballantine, Hammack, and Stuber 2017). Effecting these goals necessarily involves the affirmation of racial/ethnic, religious, and sexual/gender identities within a larger multi-cultural framework (Delpit 2019). This affirmation can and often does lead to conflict. Nowhere is such conflict more apparent than in current attempts by conservative political groups in the U.S. to prohibit or minimize discussions of sexual orientation and gender identity in public schools. What follows will review the three areas where these attempts are most prevalent: curricular restrictions, opposition to non-normative gender identities, and book censoring/banning.
Local school districts and state education departments typically determine the information and skills students should be taught. These determinations are based on a number of factors, including student needs, community values, and parental input (Imber, Geel, Blokhuis, and Feldman 2021). Moreover, throughout much of U.S. history, public schooling was predicated on certain assumptions—namely, the superiority of white heterosexual Anglo-Saxon Protestant men—that remained the abiding cultural paradigm until the mid-1960s (Spring 2018). Reflecting significant changes in social and political beliefs since then, U.S. public school curricula now stress the inherent equality of all people, noting and celebrating the accomplishments of individuals (regardless of sex) from a wide range of racial/ethnic, religious, and socio-economic groups.
Similarly important, public schools are among the first targets of moral panic, which is when “a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests” (Cohen 1972, 9; Goode and Ben-Yehuda 2009). Shifting norms regarding sexual orientation and gender identity are two of these putative threats—threats that lawmakers in several U.S. states have addressed by proposing curricular revisions (PEN America 2022).
For example, in Florida, HB 1557 (enacted on March 28) prohibits any classroom instruction of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in grades k-3. In Kansas, HB 2662 would bar k-12 schools from displaying, presenting, or distributing any materials to students containing sexual content, with specific reference to homosexuality. In Oklahoma, SB 1654 would prevent k-12 schools from “discussing or administering any survey or questionnaire related to gender or sexuality,” while SB 1470 would prohibit school districts from hiring anybody (including teachers) who “promotes positions in the classroom … that is [sic] in opposition to closely held religious beliefs of students” (the phrase “religious beliefs” is often coded language for views that condemn non-heteronormative sexual interactions). In Rhode Island, HB 7539 would bar sex education classes from discussing “sexual preference, gender dysphoria, or sexual lifestyles.” In South Carolina, HB 4605 would have prevented k-12 schools from providing minors any “instruction, presentations, discussions, counseling, or materials in any medium that involve … sexual lifestyles, acts, or practices [and] gender identity or lifestyles,” though that provision was eliminated when the bill was incorporated into one piece of omnibus legislation. And in Tennessee, HB 800 would prohibit any “textbooks and instructional materials or supplemental instructional materials that promote, normalize, support, or address lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) issues or lifestyles” (PEN America 2022).
Supporters of these restrictions on k-12 subject matter offer rationales similar to ones that led to an earlier wave of so-called “no promo homo” laws. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis’ press secretary Christina Pushaw outrageously claimed that opponents of the current legislative proposals are “groomers,” a term associated with child sexual predators (Atterbury 2022; Henderson 2021). Similar claims have been made about opponents of proposed legislation in Tennessee, Oklahoma, and New York (Kruesi and Phan 2022). These claims are part of orchestrated smear campaigns that fly in the face of recent polling data that indicate 71 percent of the U.S. population believes that the focus on sex and sexuality in local schools is either about right or too little (Fingerhut and Ma 2022).
Proposed legislation has also targeted curricular innovations that seek to introduce and broaden perspectives on sexual and gender diversity. In at least four states, lawmakers want to forbid any mandatory gender or sexual diversity training for students, teachers, or administrators (PEN America 2022). Specifically, opponents view this training as an attempt to influence the beliefs and attitudes of children/youth on matters that they think should be addressed by parents, not schools or state legislators, unless those legislators are opponents of diversity training (Akbarzai 2022).
U.S. political and religious conservatives have expressed additional animus toward non-normative gender identities, particularly accommodations for, and affirmations of, those identities in public schools. In the decade between 2010 and 2020, this concern was expressed mainly through opposition to gender-neutral bathrooms and locker facilities. During the most recent panic over LGBTQ issues, lawmakers have proposed twenty-five bills in seventeen states requiring schools to use birth-assigned gender to determine student eligibility in athletic activities (Freedom for All Americans 2022). In a similar vein, lawmakers in two states have introduced legislation that would prohibit teachers and administrators from being compelled to address students by the gender with which they identify if it differs from the gender they were assigned at birth (PEN America 2022). These bills manifest the belief that schools, as agents of socialization, should reinforce traditional male-female sex binaries, while ignoring the needs/desires of students who identify as non-binary, gender fluid, or transgender.
Banning/censorship of books and other educational materials is a third strategy that parents, community members, and legislators are using to eliminate information about LGBTQ identities and issues in U.S. public schools. Though censorship is not new a challenge for schools, contemporary efforts have been veiled behind seemingly innocuous requests for curricular transparency and parents’ bills of rights. Virginia Republican governor Glenn Youngkin has created a “tip line” for parents who want to report concerns about instructional materials (Ujifusa 2022), and the conservative organization Moms for Liberty (MFL) sponsors chapters throughout the U.S. for parents who want to protest against local curricula, including books with LGBTQ themes, which MFL members frequently condemn for being pornographic and/or obscene (Little 2021).
According to recent data, approximately 80 percent of the children’s books that parents and others challenge are books that highlight LGBTQ characters (Flood 2020). In Oklahoma, for instance, proposed legislation would prohibit school libraries from having any book whose primary subject is “the study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender issues or recreational sexualization,” with “recreational sexualization” defined as “any form of non-procreative sex,” presumably a euphemism for masturbation (PEN America 2022).
Books notably singled out for condemnation during previous purges have included Heather Has Two Mommies (1989), And Tango Makes Three (2005), and Fun Home (2006). Three other books have now joined their ranks. One is the novel George, by Alex Gino (2015). Intended for readers from eight to twelve years old, George is about a child who identifies as a girl (“Melissa”), despite her gender assignment as a boy (“George”). Ultimately, the novel affirms transgender identities, which conservative parents believe are a threat to traditional family structures (Holiday 2021). George was the fifth most banned book between 2010 and 2020 (American Library Association n.d.).
The second book is Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe (2019), a memoir that describes the author’s struggles growing up as an individual who identities as nonbinary and asexual. In November of 2021, South Carolina Republican Governor Henry McMaster excoriated the book as “obscene and pornographic,” demanding to know why a school library had a copy of it (Lavietes 2021). In response to such criticisms, Kobabe has emphasized that the book is for older students, and that “removing or restricting queer books in libraries and schools is like cutting a lifeline for queer youth” (Kobabe 2021).
The third book is All Boys Aren’t Blue, by George Johnson (2020), a memoir about the challenges the author encountered as a Black queer teen/young adult. Written for readers between the ages of fourteen and eighteen, the book has reportedly been removed from school libraries in ten states, with critics claiming that the book is akin to child pornography (McDougle 2021). Defending the book against these charges, Johnson has said that “the catalyst behind the project was … to give [queer] youth a story where they could see happiness in their experience and people supporting them” (Cooper 2021).
In the U.S. and elsewhere, emerging and evolving definitions of sexuality and gender—and wider social acceptance of these conceptualizations—understandably produce anxiety. But the rising tide of restrictions and intolerance noted throughout this article signals something more. It indicates the increasing appeal of authoritarianism in a world confronting various uncertainties. To be sure, political and cultural conservatives frequently conflate their support for authoritarianism with their abhorrence of sexual and gender minorities. It is no coincidence that Arizona Republican State Senator Wendy Rogers has simultaneously expressed admiration for Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine and disgust for transgender individuals, tweeting that “Putin’s military gets Ukraine. Our military gets trannies …” (Moreton 2022).
Rogers and other U.S. conservatives want to restore a hierarchal social order based on white (heteronormative) masculinity, and one way to do so is by prohibiting virtually all LGBTQ subject matter and discussions from U.S. public schools (Kobes Du Mez 2020). Such efforts should not remain uncontested. As the historian Timothy Snyder has warned, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom” (Snyder 2017, 65). This admonition is certainly ominous—and timely.
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