Overview

By attacking schools, Republicans are attacking democracy. We must prevent a minority from imposing their will on us and our children.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

In the early 1990s, I moved from California to Oregon to take a teaching position. Just as I arrived, a highly divisive battle over gay and lesbian rights rippled through the state, polarizing small communities. To try to understand what was driving the conflict, I ventured into a small town in the middle of Oregon to talk with people on both sides of the issue and learned a great deal in the process.

The battle began when a right-wing organization called the Oregon Citizens Alliance mobilized evangelical Christians to pass an amendment to the state constitution. Ballot Measure 9 proposed to define homosexuality as a perverse practice, along with pedophilia and sadism. It called upon the state to protect youth from exposure to such practices. And it sought to prohibit the “promotion” of homosexuality—that is, discussing same-sex desires and practices in ways that do not vilify them or characterize them as dangerous.

At the time, conservatives were organizing at the state, federal and local levels, exerting influence upon the Republican Party to try to halt the teaching of comprehensive sex education, federal funding for the arts, and civil rights protections for gays and lesbians.

Those campaigns were animated by the belief that knowledge is power—and that ideas are dangerous, especially in the hands of children. The right-wing activists I met in Oregon were fearful that their children were being exposed to ideas that were at odds with their own values. Chief among these ideas was the belief that homosexuality is part of human diversity, and that those who choose to express same-sex desires should be protected by the state.

But what I came to realize is that these activist parents weren’t simply waging a battle against homosexuality. They were trying to limit their children’s access to forms of knowledge that might empower them to think for themselves—and make decisions on that basis. 

The right’s romanticizing of childhood

For example, in warning that schools are “promoting” homosexuality, parents objected to the prospect that children might come to think of their bodies as sites of pleasure. And they upheld the ideal of the “romantic child”—naturally asexual, and pure, whose innocence depends upon protection from sexuality.

Since the antebellum period, the belief that white children are naturally innocent has been a consistent right-wing theme. Efforts to “protect” the innocent white child have rationalized policies that punish immigrants, descendants of enslaved people, criminals, people with disabilities, and so-called deviants, including LGBTQ people, writes historian Jules Gill-Peterson.

Today we see echoes of the 1990s campaigns against LGBTQ rights I witnessed in Oregon. In Florida, there are new efforts to mandate that discussions of homosexuality be framed exclusively in relation to the notion of perversity. Like those earlier campaigns, they charge that educators are encouraging the early sexualization of children. But right-wing activists now focus their attack on “gender ideology” in the schools, which they claim is sowing gender confusion and sexualizing innocent children. 

“At younger ages than ever before,” warns a group calling itself the Promise to American Children, sponsored by the Heritage Foundation, a leading right-wing organization, “American children are being targeted by the left with sexual content and destructive gender ideology.” The term “ideology” is key here, referencing earlier anti-communist rhetoric about the threat posed by alien invaders bent on destroying the American way of life.

What is the core of this supposedly destructive ideology? It is the idea that social norms, institutions, and expectations play an important role in shaping masculinity and femininity– and not biology alone. Since the 1970s, social scientists have demonstrated how culture shapes our understandings of gender and sexuality. More recently, they have demonstrated that for some people sex and gender may or may not correlate. That is, someone who is assigned female at birth can experience their gender identity as masculine, or they may feel that they possess no distinct gender at all. Critical theories of gender and sexuality are supported by decades of evidence

That’s precisely what bothers the right. Energized by their opposition to feminism and transgender rights, right-wing activists are targeting teachers, medical professionals, and the so-called “woke” left, charging they are endangering girls by planting the suggestion that sex and gender are related but separate concepts that may not vary together. The differences between the sexes, right-wing activists say, are biological, binary, and inviolable. Teachers who teach critical gender theories, and those who support them, are indoctrinating children and undermining “the family.” Girls, they argue, are particularly vulnerable.

Right-wing activists are targeting teachers, medical professionals, and the so-called “woke” left, charging they are endangering girls by planting the suggestion that sex and gender are related but separate concepts that may not vary together.

You can clearly see this in two recent right-wing campaigns: the quest to “save women’s sports” and outlaw gender-affirmative medical care for youth. Republicans have introduced over 100 bills in more than 30 states limiting trans youth’s access to sports teams. After fighting to defend men’s sports and minimize the reach of Title IX of the Higher Education Act (which promises equal access to education, including team sports, for all students) they now assert that trans women are infringing on women’s spaces, making them unsafe, and taking opportunities away from women and girls, even though only a minuscule number of trans women even seek to compete on these teams.

The very notion of transgender children is a dangerous myth, claims the Promise to America’s Children, warning of an “epidemic” of “rapid onset gender dysphoria.” Educators and doctors have convinced young women that they are “really” men, causing them to mutilate their bodies, and become sterile. Transgender, they say, is a fad, a “craze” sweeping America’s youth. They question whether individuals are capable of clearly articulating their desires and choices. It is a short jump from such assertions to the claim that gender-affirmative health care is a form of child abuse—precisely what a Texas bill claims.

And in New Jersey, where I live now, right-wing parents are mobilizing against newly implemented sex education standards requiring second graders to learn about gender role stereotypes and the ways people express gender. By the end of fifth grade, students are taught about sexual development.

The red herring of “parental rights” movements

Under the guise of protecting girls’ minds and bodies, right-wing activists say that the very notion of gender is dangerous. They call educators pedophiles and racists.

What these so-called “parental rights” movements are most upset about is the prospect that kids, when given critical forms of knowledge, enjoy greater power to define themselves. Anxious about being left behind by the rapid cultural changes taking place around them, some parents are nostalgic for “the good old days.” And they worry that their kids may make choices to live differently from them.

Yet if educators are doing their jobs, they will unsettle norms and open up new possibilities for living. Learning about the history of LGBTQ lives helps queer youth know that they are not alone. Being exposed to feminism can help women leave oppressive marriages or terminate pregnancies that may compromise their lives. And studying critical race theories can help racial minorities understand that if they’re having trouble moving ahead, it may be due to institutionalized racism.

The right is fine with government deciding what adult women can do with their bodies, as we can see after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson decision overturned a constitutional right to abortion, and yet cries government overreach in the case of education.

It’s not about championing “wokeness”—it’s about helping children adapt to changing realities, and empowering them, in the words of New Jersey’s acting education commissioner Dr. Angelica Allen-McMillan, speaking about the state’s sex education standards, “to stay safe, evaluate risks, make informed decisions and communicate health issues or injuries if necessary.”

It’s also about educating our children to become citizens. Understanding one’s own body, and the pleasures and the risks of using one’s body in different ways, should be a central part of every Americans’ education. Knowledge is power, and “an educated citizenry makes democracy possible,” write Heather C. McGhee and Victor Ray.

On the face of it, campaigns against the teaching of comprehensive sex education, and in favor of censoring books and lessons that tackle issues of racism, may look like they’re grassroots in nature. But it is important to recognize that they are cooked up by wealthy right-wing organizations, such as the Heritage Foundation, which offers small groups of local parents scripts, and financial assistance, for undertaking these campaigns. Many of these parents are well-meaning—they believe they are protecting their children.

The real target: democracy itself

But the national right-wing organizations they team up with have larger ambitions, which go way beyond rolling back LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, the rights of racial minorities, or even the rights of children: to sow distrust in science, public education, and the operations of the secular democratic state. They hope to achieve this goal by polarizing Americans and turning us against one another.

Years ago, I saw this process occur in Oregon. Though the statewide anti-LGBTQ campaign failed at the ballot box, it succeeded in dividing communities throughout the state. In Cottage Grove, where I interviewed dozens of residents, and eventually wrote a book about the conflicts, normally friendly neighbors stopped talking to one another. Kids whose parents stood on the opposite side of the ballot measure got into fights with one another. The local school district tried to build a new high school to replace the old falling-down building. It was all but assured to pass– until the antigay ballot measure hit town, and people became less interested in investing in projects that would lift the community up.

What I learned is that even when campaigns such as these lose at the ballot box, they frequently still win. That’s because their real goal is to stir resentments, create divisions, and diminish our faith in public institutions.

So what can we do?

We should turn out to express support for diversity education and protect those who are targeted by these battles: LGBTQ youth, racial minorities, teachers and librarians. Even if trans rights or anti-racist education is not your issue, when you take a stand against the censorship of books that better reflect LGBTQ lives, or the experience of racial diversity, you’re supporting democracy.

We should avoid the tendency to polarize. The right has convinced many people that liberals look down on them. At times, we could be doing a better job of speaking to people who disagree with us. Still, all the talk of the threat posed by “cancel culture,” and leftwing authoritarianism, is grossly overstated.  It furthers the right’s strategy of turning us against one another, it deflects attention from their anti-democratic goals.

We must protect our public institutions. The great political theorist Hannah Arendt noted that 20th-century totalitarian rulers were successful because they managed to destroy civic trust and keep them isolated from one another. Institutions such as libraries and schools are guardrails that protect us against isolation. They help to nurture social bonds that make community possible. And they give young people the capacity to lead more fulfilling lives.

And, finally, vote Democratic in November. The Republican Party is now committed to dividing Americans and turning back the clock. They are willing to suspend democratic norms and rules to achieve minority rule. Those who attack our schools in the name of “parental rights” do not reflect the will of the majority of Americans. 

By attacking schools, Republicans are attacking democracy. By turning out to the polls, and resisting these attacks, we can prevent a minority of Americans from imposing their will on us—and our children.

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Arlene Stein is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. An updated version of her prize-winning book "The Stranger Next Door: The Story of a Small Community’s Battle Over Sex, Faith,...