Last month, colorful flags waved proudly and vibrantly in Pride parades across the country. In the U.S., a total of 19 states have legalized same-sex marriage (with more states likely to join soon). Yet too often when we discuss attacks on LBGTQ people, attention focuses solely on same-sex marriage or workplace discrimination. All the while, right-wing groups are also actively targeting public school classrooms under the guise of “religious liberty,” advancing a deeply discriminatory and homophobic agenda.
Arguably, the most well-known and successful recent use of the “religious liberty” argument is the recent Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case, which has resulted in the devastating loss of comprehensive contraceptive access and basic health care coverage. The implications of the ruling, however, extend far beyond health care, as right-wing groups are also using the “religious liberty” frame to oppose comprehensive sex education and policies that work to make schools safer spaces for LGBTQ students. Instead, they advocate for curricula teaching that abstinence until heterosexual marriage is the only correct method; that same-sex attraction is wrong; that questioning gender identity is unnatural; and that discriminatory environments are permitted and, in some cases, even, to be encouraged.
As the American Health Association recommends, comprehensive sex education “utilizes classroom teachers and other professionals who have … received special training that includes addressing the needs to gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth,” empowering students to understand healthy sexual relationships, gender identity, and sexual orientation. Yet, this is a far cry from what sex ed looks like in most public school classrooms. The Guttmacher Institute’s 2014 Sex and HIV Education reports that only 22 states mandate sex education. Of those, only 12 states require discussion of sexual orientation, with three of them mandating inaccurate and anti-LBGTQ information be provided, such as in Mississippi where teachers instruct students that homosexual activity under the “unnatural statute” is illegal.
This lack of comprehensive sex ed often allows a homophobic environment in schools to flourish. Mental Health America reported that teen students hear anti-gay slurs, such as “homo,” “sissy,” and “faggot” about 26 times a day on average, or once every 14 minutes. Boys as young as nine are being called fags, as author C.J. Pacscoe accounts. A different study done in 2001 showed that 31% of gay youth had been threatened or injured at school in that year alone. This kind of harassment and bullying is certainly exacerbated by the lack of comprehensive sexual education in schools, which might otherwise help affirm the experiences of students of all genders and orientations, and foster an atmosphere of questioning and acceptance rather than silencing, shame, and stigma.
Additionally, Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah have “Don’t Say Gay” laws. For example, Arizona mandates that “no district shall include in its course of study instruction which… (1) promotes a homosexual life-style…(2) portrays homosexuality as a positive alternative life-style.” (Revised in 2011). Texas and Alabama take it a step further –educators must describe homosexuality as abhorrent to the general public and as a criminal behavior.
Indeed, some of the right-wing organizations advocating for these policies are the same players who were involved in the Hobby Lobby case and other efforts to redefine religious liberty as a right to discriminate. The Alliance Defending Freedom, for example, was not only a leading proponent of the Hobby Lobby case, but it also worked on a religious liberty bill in Arizona that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LBGTQ people (later vetoed by the governor). ADF has also publicly and falsely claimed that sex-ed curriculum is a plot by Planned Parenthood doctors to perform more abortions in order to make more money.
Aside from endorsing LBGTQ exclusionary sex-ed curriculum bills, right-wing groups have also opposed efforts to promote diversity and a safe environment for LBGTQ students. Southern Poverty Law Center, in collaboration with school stakeholders, organizes a nationwide annual Mix It Up at Lunch Day event to encourage inclusivity, oppose bullying, and promote tolerance in schools. In 2012, however, the American Family Association (AFA), a leading conservative anti-LGBTQ group, charged SPLC with forcing the acceptance of homosexuality in public schools and the oppression of Christian students, by urging schools to abandon anti-LGBTQ policies. The AFA’s opposition gained traction in Maine, where parents, with the support of Project Marriage Maine, challenged Gorham Middle School’s annual Diversity Day for promoting homosexuality after a lesson on gender diversity prompted a student to ask about safer sex practices for same-sex couples.
Finally, it is worth noting how school privatization efforts further enable and exacerbate these problems of biased sexuality education and discrimination against the LBGTQ community. Private Christian schools, for example, which often are the primary beneficiaries of voucher programs, are allowed to teach (or not teach) whatever they want in regards to sexuality—and can even deny admission outright to LGBTQ students—even as many of these schools are still receiving public tax dollars. As PRA fellow Rachel Tabachnick states, “Exclusion policies [that refuse admission to LGBTQ students] can be found in private schools around the country receiving public funding through school choice programs.” Many of these schools are also instructing children that “homosexual unions must be opposed because God opposes them,” and are also teaching “young earth creationism, bigotry toward other religions, revisionist history, and climate change denial.”
So, as we move beyond a month of Pride celebrations, let us not forget how the anti-LGBTQ agenda of conservative right wing groups has infiltrated the American public education system. Rather than emphasizing equality, open-mindedness, and human rights, intolerance and conservative interpretations of the Bible’s outlook on sexual orientation and gender roles are shaping the curricula and policies of public schools across the country.