When a teacher reads a fairy tale about a prince and a princess to his class, he’s doing his job. But trade the princess for a second prince and suddenly he’s a dangerous propagandist.
Omar Currie, a gay North Carolina teacher who read the book King and King to his third-grade class after someone used the word “gay” as an insult, has resigned from his position after protests from parents, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
But even though the assistant principal who lent Currie the book has also resigned because of a lack of support from the school administration, the parents aren’t satisfied with the consequences: they want the book banned from all Orange County schools.
Currie’s case reveals an emerging faultline in the pathway to cultural acceptance for LGBT people: Same-sex marriage may soon be a legal reality nationwide but many children can’t even read about fictional same-sex relationships in school. Early childhood is still the final frontier for the promotion of LGBT acceptance and by far the most controversial one.
At the core of efforts to keep LGBT-themed material out of elementary schools is the age-old but unfounded fear of children “becoming” gay if they are exposed to books like King and King too early. As The Washington Post reports, one concerned parent wrote an email to Currie claiming that he was attempting to “indoctrinate” the children through “psycho-emotional rape.”
This intense fear of indoctrination is alive and well. When California passed legislation requiring public schools to teach LGBT history in 2011, the founder of Traditional Values Coalition claimed that “Governor Jerry Brown has opened the classroom door for homosexual activists to indoctrinate the minds of California’s youth.” Last year, Florida State Representative Charles Van Zant warned that Common Core would “attract every one of your children to become as homosexual as they possibly can.”
If you listen to some alarmist parents, almost anything will turn kids gay: the movie Frozen, Taylor Swift, Pokémon, and, of course, vaccines. Taylor Swift singing "Love Is an Open Door" with Jigglypuff in a PSA from the CDC? Instant homosexuality, guaranteed.
But the psychological truth of the matter is that the etiology of sexual orientation is complex, multifactorial, and largely unknown. In its FAQ on sexual orientation, the American Psychological Association (APA) notes that, although the initial signs of one’s sexual orientation “typically emerge between middle childhood and early adolescence,” no single factor or set of factors can be said to determine one’s orientation.
“[M]ost people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation,” the FAQ adds.
King and King might allow young children to discover that same-sex relationships are a culturally acceptable option—a fact they’ll discover soon enough—but no single book is going to send them to Sodom.
What is psychologically proven, on the other hand, are the effects of the anti-LGBT prejudice that is common in U.S. schools. According to a 2013 report from the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), nearly three-quarters of LGBT middle and high school students were verbally harassed in the last year, with over 30 percent receiving physical harassment.
According to the APA this discrimination against LGBT people can have “serious negative effects on [their] health and well-being.”
The incident that inspired Currie to read King and King to his third-grade class is also alarmingly common: 71.4 percent of LGBT students report frequently hearing the word “gay” used in a derogatory way at school.
GLSEN’s report covers students who are ages 13 to 21 but these behaviors—and the negative ideas about LGBT people that shape them—begin much earlier. A past GLSEN report focusing specifically on elementary school found that nearly half of teachers heard their students use the word “gay” in a negative way and that students who do not conform to traditional gender norms are much more likely to be bullied.
North Carolina parents might be worried about books like King and King harming their kids but banning it is far more likely to cause actual, measurable pain. Keeping positive LGBT-themed media out of schools helps to preserve a culture in which lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth are four times more likely to commit suicide than their straight peers, as The Trevor Project notes.
In North Carolina, a black gay teacher like Omar Currie could have been a lifeline for a child who was going to grow up anyway; now Currie is out of a job—and being told by parents that he is going to “die young” and “spend eternity in hell”—based on vague notions about the deleterious effects of gay books on kids.
In the meantime, schools are flooded with what in a bizzaro-world alternate universe might be considered heterosexual propaganda. According to the Guttmacher Institute, only 12 states require discussion of sexual orientation in their sex education curriculum. The characters in children’s literature are homogeneous: almost exclusively white and almost never LGBT.
In 2011, young adult novelist Malinda Lo researcher conducted independent research and found that less than 1 percent of YA novels have LGBT characters. In the U.S., 3.5 percent of adults are LGBT with another recent study finding that a full 7 percent of adults between 18 and 35 now identify as LGBT. In other words, LGBT people are multiple times less common in children’s fiction than they are in reality.
As the late literary critic Eve Sedgwick wryly observed in a popular 1991 essay on panic over gay teachers, “Advice on how to help your kids turn out gay … is less ubiquitous than you might think.”
When books featuring gay characters do emerge, parents vigorously try to keep them out of schools. In 2006, parents in Massachusetts—of all places—sued an elementary school for teaching King and King. A federal appeals court upheld the school’s decision, with chief judge Sandra Lynch writing, “There is no free exercise right to be free from any reference in public elementary schools to the existence of families in which the parents are of different gender combinations.”
If heterosexuality is supposed to be universally natural—and if homosexuality is indeed the “birth defect” that some critics have told Currie that it is—one might wonder why it seems to require so much cultural and legal reinforcement.
After all, who’s really doing the “indoctrination” here: the schoolteacher who tried to use a fairy tale to address homophobic bullying or the parents who pushed him out of a job, damned him to hell, and want the book banned?