Right-wing parents hope to turn schools into conservative 'citadels'

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Their latest mission is to pull books with LGBTQ themes from school libraries.

Parents, community members, and political figures in a number of states have recently attacked books with LGBTQ themes and demanded they be pulled from school libraries.

It's part of a larger effort to spread anti-LGBTQ messages, associate LGBTQ topics exclusively with "pornography," and create islands of conservative thought within schools, experts say.

Those complaining about LGBTQ-themed materials are particularly focused on the book "Gender Queer: A Memoir," by Maia Kobabe, an autobiographical comic written by an author who identifies as nonbinary and asexual. The book focuses on Kobabe's life experiences, including having crushes and coming out to loved ones.

In September, Stacy Langton and Adrienne Henzel slammed two books that were held in Fairfax County Public Schools libraries: "Gender Queer" and "Lawn Boy," a coming-of-age novel by Jonathan Evison. Henzel told the county school board, "I am here to protest the use of Fairfax taxpayers' money in a campaign to normalize homoerotic material with minors."

Henzel's comments before the school board were highlighted in a campaign ad for Glenn Youngkin, the Republican nominee for Virginia governor running against Democratic former Gov. Terry McAuliffe. Youngkin has focused on LGBTQ content in schools and on transgender students and argued that efforts to make schools more LGBTQ-friendly are taking control away from parents.

"Gender Queer" and "Lawn Boy" were pulled from Fairfax County public high school libraries two days after the school board meeting pending a review by the district.

Earlier in the year, in July, an organizer of a drag queen story hour event held at a Fairfax County public library said families were harassed outside of the event. Henzel, who was present at the story hour, a local take on a national program through which drag queens read to kids to celebrate LGBTQ diversity, said the accusation was inaccurate.

Adam Laats, a professor at Binghamton University in New York who studies the history of American education, said conservatives are using individual school fights to build fortresses against pro-LGBTQ thought.

"There's a sense America has been sort of stolen from them and replaced with this much more LGBTQ-friendly society, and it's that sense of outrage," Laats said. "I think that leads to these laws and bans and attempt to sort of create either citadels or islands. ... They say, Well, it's not going to happen to my kid and it's not going to happen in my public school or my county."

On Oct. 6, People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch project shared comments North Carolina Lt. Gov. made in June, telling a church audience of teaching students about LGBTQ issues, "Those issues have no place in a school. There's no reason anybody anywhere in America should be telling any child about transgenderism, homosexuality, any of that filth."

Franklin Graham, an evangelical leader with a long history of opposing LGBTQ rights, tweeted in Robinson's defense, "Thank you Mark Robinson for having the guts to stand up and tell the truth." A number of Republican politicians have also publicly supported Robinson in the past week.

Robinson has not backed down from his comments. In an Oct. 12 press conference, he said that the book "Gender Queer: A Memoir" was "borderline child pornography" and that he would also oppose including books in libraries that featured heterosexual people in sexual situations.

Campaigns to remove books about LGBTQ people's experiences have taken place in Florida, Rhode Island, and New Jersey.

Florida Today reported on Oct. 11 that Brevard Public Schools had removed a book from a high school library that it hadn't named but was likely "Gender Queer."

According to the website My Central Jersey, parents at a Sept. 28 North Hunterdon Regional High School District school board meeting described books with LGBTQ content as "wicked" and "immoral." One parent, Gina DeLusant, proposed that school administrators be investigated for child pornography.

In Rhode Island, parents have objected to "Gender Queer" in school libraries. Nicole Solas filed a police report calling the book pornography in a school, an ABC affiliate reported on Oct. 20. Solas has also made 160 public records requests about "critical race and gender curriculum" this year.

Laats noted the religious right's longstanding practice of equating all aspects of LGBTQ identity with sex, with "practice" or expression of queer desire instead of identity.

"They can turn around and say, 'Well, because it talks about these issues that are about what we say is practice instead of just sort of identity, therefore it's sexual or pornographic.' But you made it sexual and pornographic by defining it in this very limited and even lascivious kind of fashion," Laats said.

Meanwhile, partly in response to parents' complaints, schools are taking down Pride flags displayed in classrooms. States have passed bills that advocates say stigmatize the mention of LGBTQ people in education.

In May, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed a bill into law requiring that parents be notified of LGBTQ subjects in the classroom in advance and be able to opt their kids out of lessons on these issues. Montana Gov. Greg Gianforte (R) signed a similar bill in May.

Wendy Via, co-founder and president of Global Project Against Hate and Extremism, said these efforts are part of a broader attack on LGBTQ rights. By April, more than 250 anti-LGBTQ bills had been introduced in state legislatures, and several had passed and been signed into law. Via said that although right-wing groups like the Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel know they've lost the fight to ban marriage equality, they know the realm of education is vulnerable.

"It's a multi-pronged strategy to gin up fear and hate of the other that your life is being destroyed right now in this country," she said. "It's much easier because of course parents love their children, and if you tell parents that their children are in danger, people are going to listen, right? It's easier to gin up this excitement."

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.