Fear Factor

What Did You Learn at School Today? Homophobia.

LGBT teachers are being fired, gay history is not being taught, and in Canada, gay-straight alliances are under threat—making life even harder for already isolated LGBT students.


Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Keeping LGBT issues out of schools is a fool’s errand.

Some seven percent of millennials—who now account for the majority of the U.S. workforce—now identify as LGBT. The legalization of same-sex marriage has ushered in sweeping cultural change, too.

Fewer teachers will feel like they have to hide who they are, or like they must leave the LGBT history untaught.

And yet, in recent weeks, there have been a rash of national news stories about LGBT issues—and, indeed, LGBT people—being pushed out of schools.

LGBT teachers are getting suspended or fired. Some parents in Illinois are working themselves into a tizzy over LGBT history making its way into textbooks. And across the border in Alberta, there is considerable controversy over the fact that gay-straight alliances do not have to notify parents if their children come to extracurricular meetings.

Taken together, these stories paint a depressing picture of the state of LGBT acceptance today: For some Americans, the fantasy persists that schools can and should be LGBT-free zones. Age-old fears about teachers indoctrinating children, or “turning them gay,” still have power. And even some parents who consider themselves to be allies of LGBT adults will draw an uncrossable line in the sandbox.

If there is a gay agenda, though, it’s as simple as this: LGBT people exist and also have spouses and should be allowed to mention them the way most married people do.

In Kentucky, middle-school chorus teacher Nicholas Breiner is suing in federal court, alleging that he was discharged for being bisexual. In Texas, art teacher Stacey Bailey sued her school district, saying that she was suspended for showing a cute photo of her and her wife in Finding Nemo costumes in an introductory slide show on the first day of school.

Bailey’s attorney said that one parent had complained that the photo was an attempt to further a “homosexual agenda,” as the Star-Telegram reported.

If there is a gay agenda, though, it’s as simple as this: LGBT people exist and also have spouses and should be allowed to mention them the way most married people do.

LGBT people have also made major contributions to history—and yet, if some parents got their way, they would never be mentioned until some indefinable moment when their children would be “old enough” to metabolize them.

Following in the footsteps of California, the Illinois Senate voted earlier this month to require an LGBT history unit in public schools. The move sparked controversy—as it did in California—with the local anti-LGBT group calling it “outrageous and offensive.

Perhaps such outrage is to be expected in the United States, which has tended to lag behind other developed democracies on LGBT issues.

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But in Canada, albeit in the conservative-leaning province of Alberta, conservative lawmakers recently had what the Canadian Press described as a “heated debate” over a policy that would require parents to be notified when their children become involved in gay-straight alliances, longstanding clubs where LGBT students and allies can find support.

The Alberta United Conservative Party, as the Canadian Press reported, ultimately voted in favor of the policy resolution.

Outing LGBT students to unsupportive parents will only end in tragic tales of suicide and self-harm. GSAs literally help students stay alive: As the American Psychological Association notes, all LGBT youth are at risk of facing “bias, discrimination, or even violence” but “supportive families, friends, and schools” can be “important buffers against the negative impacts of these experiences.” And yet, some lawmakers want to treat GSAs as “sexual” groups that children should only attend with a parental blessing.

All of these stories came to a head in the last month. And all of them point to the persistence of the paranoid fantasy that the mere presence of LGBT adults—or the slightest mention of LGBT people’s contributions to history—will corrupt young minds.

There is evidence to suggest that this paranoia even takes hold among parents who are undisturbed by LGBT adults. The 2018 Accelerating Acceptance survey commissioned by the LGBT advocacy group GLAAD and conducted by The Harris Poll found that 31 percent of non-LGBT adult respondents would be “very” or “somewhat” uncomfortable having their child in a class with an LGBT teacher.

Considerably fewer—27 percent—said the same about seeing a same-sex wedding photo on a co-worker’s desk. Indeed, schools seem to activate a special kind of moral panic: a full 37 percent said they would be uncomfortable with their child learning an LGBT history lesson in school.

The polite arguments against openly LGBT teachers, against LGBT history lessons, or against GSAs being able to operate without parental notification are as rote as they are exhausting: Children shouldn’t be “exposed” to this, too early, parents will say. They’re not “ready” to understand.

Those arguments all hinge on the sexualization of LGBT identity, even though children are constantly “exposed” to images of heterosexual romance long before they’re “ready” to experience it on their own.

But looking for reason behind these arguments is futile because underlying all of them is a longstanding, irrational fear: What if my kid turns out gay or bisexual or transgender because of a factor within my control? What if their teacher or their GSA or their curriculum shapes their identity? And, of course, the kids who are actually LGBT suffer the most from this anxiety—as they always have.

As queer theorist Eve Sedgwick wrote in a 1989 article that she entitled “How to Bring Your Kids Up Gay” as a sort of challenge to this paranoia, “It’s always open season on gay kids.” Sedgwick was writing at a time when “teachers in the primary and secondary levels of public school” were “subject to being fired, not only for being visibly gay, but, whatever their sexuality, for providing any intimation that homosexual desires, identities, cultures, adults, children, or adolescents have a right to expression or existence.” If that sounds familiar, it’s because that is still the case today.

In fact, the year before Sedgwick wrote that article, a Thatcher-era amendment in the United Kingdom known as “Section 28” banned “the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”—a policy that was ultimately repealed, but that still has contemporary echoes in the form of “no promo homo laws” across the United States.

A handful of states including Texas, Oklahoma and Mississippi still prohibit the discussion of homosexuality in schools through pieces of legislation known as “no promo homo” laws. South Carolina’s “no promo homo” law, for example, only allows students to hear about “alternative sexual lifestyles” in “the context of instruction concerning sexually transmitted diseases.

LGBT people still go virtually unmentioned in sex education, too: Fewer than six percent of LGBT students, as the Guttmacher Institute recently noted, reported seeing “positive representations of LGBT-related topics” in their health classes.

There are plenty of social, cultural, and legislative forces working against LGBT youth—so many, in fact, that things like an openly gay teacher, or a GSA, or an LGBT history lesson are just lifelines in a sea of misinformation and prejudice

What children do commonly hear about LGBT identity in schools is that it is shameful and wrong. One need only consult GLSEN data to realize just how pervasive anti-LGBT bullying is today. According to GLSEN’s latest National School Climate Survey, over 85 percent of LGBT students between ages 13 and 21 experienced verbal harassment at schools, 95 percent heard  slurs, and 98 percent heard expressions like “That’s so gay.”

There are plenty of social, cultural, and legislative forces working against LGBT youth—so many, in fact, that things like an openly gay teacher, or a GSA, or an LGBT history lesson are just lifelines in a sea of misinformation and prejudice, not part of some vast conspiracy to produce queer children.

As Sedgwick summarized, “Advice on how to help your kids turn out gay, not to mention your students … is less ubiquitous than you might think. On the other hand, the scope of institutions whose programmatic undertaking is to prevent the development of gay people is unimaginably large.”

Trying to stop LGBT youth from existing is pointless at any stage. Conversion therapy has been discredited by most major medical associations, with physicians pointing out that it will not only fail to change someone’s sexual orientation or gender identity, but that it poses a serious threat to the mental health of minors.

And because no one knows exactly why some children are straight or cisgender, and some are LGBT, the logic of trying to keep LGBT issues out of schools is just as fraught.

The American Psychological Association notes that there is “no consensus” about the “exact reasons” why people develop different sexual orientations. The APA notes that scientists believe “nature and nurture both play complex roles”; however, “most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.”

Children of LGBT parents can—and, in fact, most often do—turn out to be straight and cisgender. And children born into deeply religious anti-LGBT families can turn out to be LGBT. Trying to manage that process is like trying to control the weather.

Indeed, LGBT teachers and lawmakers who advocate for LGBT history in schools are not trying to mass produce a generation of queer kids. The next generation is proving itself to be very queer all by itself, thank you very much.

What they want is for fewer of those kids to hurt themselves or feel invisible to the point of hopelessness. What they want is for the contributions of LGBT people to be taught the same way that other minority groups are handled, and for LGBT teachers to be able to work as their authentic selves.

There is an abundance of research showing that social support helps LGBT youth achieve better mental health outcomes. LGBT advocates are not trying to inject LGBT propaganda into schools; they’re trying to keep kids alive. And that is no fool’s errand.