Conservatives attack LGBTQ-inclusive education under the guise of 'parental rights'


The right-wing push for 'parental rights' in public school education has resulted in bills targeting LGBTQ-inclusive content.

Following a record year for anti-LGBTQ bills, GOP lawmakers are continuing to introduce legislation that bans gender-affirming care for trans youth and prohibits trans athletes from playing on the team of their gender. There are at least 48 new anti-LGBTQ bills in legislatures across the country in addition to bills carried over to this year from 2021.

Lawmakers are also ramping up efforts to control what students learn about the experiences of LGBTQ people in bills that mention "critical race theory," according to experts.

Supporters of the anti-LGBTQ bills argue they protect "parental rights" and allow families to choose how their children are raised. In December, in a video summing up 2021's anti-LGBTQ bills and what to expect this year, Heron Greenesmith, senior research analyst for the progressive think tank Political Research Associates, said so-called parental rights will be a "huge issue" for anti-LGBTQ bills this year.

Some of this legislation essentially forces LGBTQ kids to be outed by requiring schools to share all kinds of sensitive information about students with families, who may not be accepting of their children's identities. LGBTQ groups and civil rights organizations are concerned this will result in these students deciding not to confide in educators they trust. 

"My real worry with them is not just that students could have really sensitive information disclosed to unsupportive parents, but more fundamentally that this will just push trans and questioning youth away from a source of a trusted adult that they might otherwise have felt comfortable talking with," Rose Saxe, deputy director of the LGBTQ and HIV Project for the American Civil Liberties Union, told the American Independent Foundation.

This legislation, introduced in Florida, Arizona, Missouri, and a few other states, comes after a surge last year in conservative advocacy for more say from parents on public school curricula, as they argue that kids are being "indoctrinated" by educators to accept LGBTQ people or "abused" by being taught to understand how racist institutions function.

Parents showed up at school board meetings across the country in 2021 to demand school and community libraries remove books about the lives of LGBTQ people and people of color. Republican lawmakers and governors in many states are supporting those efforts.

In Arizona, Republicans have introduced H.B. 2161, a bill that says a school district can't withhold information from a student's family about "the student's purported gender identity or requested transition," along with other restrictions for schools on how they can proceed with sex education curricula. The bill also requires that school districts develop policies that allow parents to withdraw their kids from an activity or class if it challenges their "practices in sex, morality or religion."

In an Arizona House Education Committee hearing on the bill, lawmakers heard testimony from Lisa Fink, a parent who is the president of the Protect Arizona Children Coalition. The group has called for Arizona residents to petition the governor, lawmakers, the Arizona Board of Education, and school boards to eliminate any school content that could "teach unscientific gender identity theories (i.e., claiming genders or sexes exist other than male or female or that sex is fluid and can be changed)," among other asks. It opposes comprehensive sexuality education that includes the acknowledgment of LGBTQ people. It also encourages supporters to organize other parents for school board meetings. The bill was passed by the House Education Committee on Tuesday.

In December, a GOP lawmaker in Missouri filed H.R. 1474 before the session even began, a bill that LGBTQ advocates say is harmful to LGBTQ students. It says curricula in public schools can't teach or provide materials on what the bill defines as "critical race theory," which includes the use of "immutable, inherited, or objective characteristics such as race, income, appearance, family of origin, or sexual orientation" to "Classify persons into groups for any purpose including, but not limited to, the targeting of only certain groups for education, formation, indoctrination, viewpoint, or transformation." The bill had a public hearing on Jan. 11.

Liberty Alliance, which describes itself as a "group of concerned citizens" and is headed by a former regional field director for the Missouri Republican Party, tweeted in support of H.B. 1474, "This legislation will allow parents to voice their concerns and it will put an end to the socialist indoctrination permeating our schools." The Liberty Alliance website urges parents to "take back YOUR school system before it's too late."

Shira Berkowitz, co-director of the LGBTQ advocacy group PROMO Missouri, told the American Independent Foundation that they believe this bill would prevent students from learning about LGBTQ historical figures like Harvey Milk. Milk was the first openly gay man elected to political office in California — the San Francisco Board of Supervisors — and championed a gay rights ordinance in the city. He was killed in 1978 by a former fellow member of the board, Dan White. Berkowitz is also worried about how gay-straight alliances, or school groups for students who are LGBTQ-affirming, could be affected by the bill.

"We need [LGBTQ students] to see how their history situates themselves in the curriculum and also have that visibility in the school in gay-straight alliances," they said.

Missouri House Rep. Maggie Nurrenbern (D) opposed the bill and said it would have a chilling effect on teachers during its public hearing.

"This is a Trojan horse to destroy quality education," she said on Jan. 11, according to PROMO Missouri, a LGBTQ advocacy group that tracked comments during the hearing.

Florida bill H.B. 1557 says a school district can't "encourage" discussion of gender identity or sexual orientation that is considered age-inappropriate in primary grade levels. But it doesn't define how schools would determine what is considered appropriate for different grade levels.

Equality Florida, a state LGBTQ advocacy group, calls it the "Don't Say Gay" bill. "The bill's vague language appears to be designed to attack support systems in schools for LGBTQ youth to be themselves. It would also put those support systems in the hands of the same officials who just weeks ago deleted anti-bullying resources meant to help prevent LGBTQ suicide," the organization said of the bill.

On Jan. 24, Florida House Rep. Joe Harding, the Republican lawmaker who introduced H.B. 1557, retweeted a photo of himself meeting with the president of the Florida Family Policy Council, John Stemberger. The Family Policy Council's website has a section on "parents' rights" that links to resources from the conservative Heritage Foundation on parent custody of transgender kids and to the American College of Pediatricians, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has designated as a fringe anti-LGBTQ group.

Brandon Wolf, press secretary for Equality Florida, told the American Independent Foundation, "The current slate of bills (that we are calling the Surveillance State slate) is designed to pour fuel into the flames of anger that have raged at school board and municipal government meetings over the last year. Governor DeSantis, in his desperate attempt to outflank Donald Trump to the right, is weaponizing this anti-LGBTQ climate to whip up fervor in his base and build an onramp toward a 2024 Presidential bid."

The bill was approved by the Florida House Education and Employment Committee on Jan. 21.

On Thursday, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, also a Republican, advocated for changing the state's constitution to enforce "a parental bill of rights" that supports allowing parents to decide whether their child has to repeat a course and says that educational personnel can be put on a "do not hire" list if they share materials considered "pornographic." Last November, the governor called for "inappropriate" books to be removed from school libraries and provided books with LGBTQ content as examples.

Experts on anti-LGBTQ bills say they're seeing more of these types of bills this year than in 2021.

"We've been tracking these bills for a while, these general parent bill of rights bills, and there's something different now, that's sort of supercharged," said Rose Saxe, deputy director of the LGBTQ and HIV Project for the American Civil Liberties Union. "I think it's a constellation of the anxiety around racial justice issues, polarization around COVID-19 restrictions, because some of these bills have language around vaccine objections, and then of course the greater visibility of LGBTQ people and particularly trans folks. It'a sort of bizarre amalgam."

Saxe told the American Independent Foundation that the effort to pass these bills and make them more expansive is different than last year and that there's more attention to gender identity in the bills.

"I definitely think we're seeing more energy going into these [bills] and we're seeing more of that sort of hybrid — let's throw a whole bunch of these issues together — kind of bills than we saw last year or certainly than we saw in the past," she said.

Although there wasn't the same focus on bills restricting LGBTQ content in school curricula last year, legislation on the subject did have some success. Two bills regulating LGBTQ content were enacted last year in Montana and Tennessee. LGBTQ advocates are still waiting to see how successful the new bills will be this year.

Jeanne Woodbury of Equality Arizona, a political advocacy group for LGBTQ people in Arizona, said the fate of H.B. 2161 may depend on whatever the next step is in Republican Gov. Doug Ducey's career.

"This is a way to drum up a lot of controversy and divisiveness. So in that sense, it seems to be a very clear priority to put these bills out there in really big numbers, but whether there is follow-through to get these bills passed and whether the governor will sign them is a different question," Woodbury said.

Berkowitz said there is a threat that H.B. 1474 will pass in the Missouri Legislature. 

"We see it as a top priority for Republican lawmakers specifically in this election year to put on record where they stand regarding history and school curriculum. And we know that when there's a priority that is popping up in multiple states, that it definitely has legs in the Missouri Legislature as well," they said.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.