Karen Pence will return to teach at Immanuel Christian School—a school that has policy of banning LGBTQ and LGBTQ-supportive teachers and students. When asked about the criticism his wife has faced for this, Vice President Pence’s Communications Director said, “It's absurd that her decision to teach art to children at a Christian school, and the school's religious beliefs, are under attack.”
With all due respect, that is not the real issue here.
That Karen Pence would be willing to teach at such an institution (that also insists that marriage stands for “the uniting of one man and one woman”) is no surprise. She already did, at this school specifically, for 12 years.
The Pences’ religious beliefs regarding the unacceptable nature of LGBTQ identity, proscriptive and subordinate roles for women, and rigid understandings of the relationship between sex and gender—all reflected in the policies and practices of Immanuel Christian School—are widely known.
Indeed, their religious beliefs widely permeate Trump-Pence Administration policy, and are reflected in numerous executive branch actions, taken or under consideration, that seek to dismantle recent progress for LGBTQ people.
These efforts include revoking guidance on non-discrimination protections for transgender youth at school, ongoing attempts to ban transgender people from serving in the military, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed memo to change the legal definition of sex under Title IX, and I could go on.
Karen Pence’s return to teaching at this institution now that she is Second Lady of the United States has to be understood in that context. And that is the source of the deep consternation and distress at her decision.
Intentionally or unintentionally, the Second Lady, in her highly visible role, is choosing to send a deeply hurtful message to LGBTQ youth and those who support them by acquiescing to, and upholding, deeply and directly discriminatory policies as a member of the school’s faculty.
Like it or not, there is no question that the school itself, as a religiously-controlled institution, has the right to have these policies under the religious exemptions built into existing U.S. law.
We may rightly be shocked and dismayed, however, at the choice of such a symbolically powerful public figure to lend the force of their public role to such discrimination.
Study after study has documented the broad human cost of official expressions of anti-LGBTQ bias.
A 2017 UCLA report that surveyed public high school teachers found that student anxiety over the highly charged public conversation surrounding the Trump Administration, including LGBTQ rights, was impacting their studies and attendance.
A study from the Universities of Virginia and Missouri found that rates of bullying rose in some Virginia middle schools located in districts that voted for President Trump after the 2016 election.
Indeed, GLSEN’s 2017 National School Climate Survey shows that hostile national rhetoric may, in fact, be slowing critical progress in reducing the victimization of LGBTQ students in K-12 schools.
It is not simply Karen Pence’s students who will get this hurtful message. As news of her decision spreads, LGBTQ youth across the country will hear the message coming once again from inside the White House, that are wrong, or lesser in some way to their non-LGBTQ peers.
Even beyond the broad implications of Karen Pence’s choice for U.S. students, however, is the very specific and individual dimension of her return to the classroom.
Consider this: the most recent national Youth Risk Behavior Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2017 found that 15% of U.S. students identified as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or not sure. That is three students in any classroom of twenty.
A survey of the U.S. student population in 2015 found that more than 82% of U.S. students had an LGBTQ person in their lives. More than 72% knew an LGBTQ student at their school, and nearly 23% had an LGBTQ family member.
It is inevitable that some of Karen Pence’s students are LGBTQ, and that the vast majority know LGBTQ people as part of their school community or their family.
For those specific students who will be in Karen Pence’s actual classes, Immanuel Christian School’s policies and requirements are more than a threatening abstraction. They are a looming daily reality that shapes their sense of themselves and their place in the world—their right to be themselves, or even to stand up for the dignity of people close to them. I would hope this would give Karen Pence pause.
If Karen Pence wishes to return to teaching, she should, while serving in such an important and visible role, not do so at an institution that has policies that will cause pain to so many of our nation’s youth. As an elementary arts teacher, she surely has many other choices.
Eliza Byard is the Executive Director of GLSEN, a non-profit education organization focused on LGBTQ issues in K-12 education.