Schools grapple with new restrictions on teaching about gender and sexuality

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It happened in one class, then in another.

An English teacher said he couldn’t talk about gay activists in a class discussion because he didn’t send home the required opt-out form.

A history teacher skipped PowerPoint slides on the struggle for gay rights during a lesson on the civil rights movement.

Another English teacher implied Oscar Wilde was, “you know,” instead of saying he was gay while teaching “The Picture of Dorian Gray.” Queer symbolism throughout the text was not mentioned.

For 17-year-old Aneshka, who asked that her last name be withheld, it all pointed to a new law requiring teachers to tell parents about lessons about gender and sexuality had had an effect at their high school from eastern Tennessee. The omissions and the “hint, hint, nudge, nudge” approach frustrated Aneshka, who identifies as queer and uses the pronouns they and she.

“It was a bit like turning something that is a fact of history, of life and of my life into something secret or taboo,” Aneshka said. “It was very much like this weird sense of, So, am I not allowed to mention myself?”

While a Florida law banning kindergarten through third grade classes on sexual orientation and gender identity has attracted national attention in recent weeks, several other states have imposed similar restrictions.

Friday, The governor of Alabama signed a law like the one in Florida that bans teaching on these same subjects for students in kindergarten through fifth grade. Montana, Tennesseeand Arkansas all passed laws last year that require schools to notify families in advance of lessons on gender identity and sexual orientation and allow parents to withdraw their children.

Ohio, Louisiana and South Carolina are considering restrictions like Florida. And the legislators of Oklahoma and Tennessee have introduced proposals that would go further, restricting teaching about LGBTQ issues in a history or English class, for example, although no bills have advanced.

Already, these curriculum laws are affecting the choices some educators make in their classrooms, leaving them and their students uncertain about how to talk about LGBTQ content. The result is that sometimes it is completely avoided.

Coupled with other efforts, such as those seeking to remove books from school libraries which include themes of sexuality and gender, it is a climate that has left many students and educators feeling a sense of a boost.

“Honestly, they’re so overwhelmed,” Nashville teacher Cassie Norton said of her students.

Norton co-sponsors his high school’s GSA club, where students come together to talk about gender and sexuality. Watching a multitude of laws pass in rapid succession – including a law that restricts teaching about race and racism and another law that restricts access for transgender students in some school bathrooms – left club students feeling frustrated and isolated.

“By making it harder to have conversations in the general classroom environment, it compounds these issues,” Norton said.

Proponents of these measures said it should be up to parents to decide when and how to teach their children about LGBTQ topics. And lawmakers who support these teaching restrictions have argued that elementary school students are too young to learn about sexual orientation and gender identity in the classroom.

“We don’t need to teach sex to young children,” said Alabama Governor Kay Ivey, when she signed the new state law. “We need to focus on what matters – basic education like reading and math.”

Many students, school staff and LGBTQ rights advocates have strongly opposed these curricular restrictions, saying they could lead to incomplete and inaccurate lessons, scare some students into talking about themselves or their families in the classroom and exacerbate the mental health disparities that already exist for LGBTQ youth.

As Montana’s legislation was debated, for example, several high school students and recent graduates said they feared the restrictions would make it harder to access factual information at school on topics such as healthy relationships and the consent. “There is already a gap in the curriculum around comprehensive sex education and this bill makes that gap a gaping hole,” said Clara Bentler, a University of Montana student who graduated. his high school diploma in Billings, in testimony to Montana lawmakers.

These problems are not new — there have been decades-old arguments about what children should learn about gender and sexuality in school – but observers say this moment is remarkable because of the number of proposals and the speed at which they are spreading. Federal education officials said they monitor potential violations of federal civil rights.

Some educators in states with these laws now find that they are extra cautious when LGBTQ issues arise in school. A contemporary issues teacher from Tennessee said she added a disclaimer to her curriculum to let students and parents know the class would cover topics such as gender and sexuality.

When Norton taught students about the Civil Rights Movement in United States History class this year, she let them choose which parallel movement they wanted to study on their own and made it an option to learn about it. more about LGBTQ protests during the stonewall uprising – so it doesn’t need a form. And when Norton talked about President Reagan and the AIDS epidemic, she sent the students home with the full text of the state history standard to show that the lesson was needed.

These laws had other knock-on effects.

At Aneshka High School, for example, GSA club members planned to hold an “ally week” to teach their classmates how they could support their LGBTQ peers. They found a short PBS video that provided advice and compiled a list of resources. Then they asked their principal if they could share these tools during the school’s consultation period.

But the principal told the students that wouldn’t be possible because there wasn’t enough time to give parents the legally required 30-day notice. So instead, Aneshka and other AGK members held smaller, optional after-school and lunchtime events.

“It’s definitely a lot punchier than I thought it would be, but in a much calmer way,” Aneshka said of Tennessee Law. She had expected a “visible fuss and bureaucratic mess,” with extra clearance slips. But the reality was “just like silence”.

State education officials in Montana, Arkansas and Tennessee have left it up to local school districts to enforce their state laws on gender identity and sexual orientation lessons. . None have provided advice to schools and none track how often parents are told about these lessons or how often they opt out.

Arkansas and Tennessee laws state that teachers can mention the sexual orientation or gender identity of a historical or public figure without an opt-out form if doing so provides “necessary context” during a lesson. Teachers can also answer student questions on these topics if they are linked to a class discussion.

In Florida, the new law requires that courses on sexual orientation and gender identity for students above third grade be “age-appropriate” or “developmentally appropriate” and meet the standards of the state. But who decides that is up for debate, and the state has until June 2023 to provide guidance.

This has left teachers trying to figure out the limits of these laws for themselves, creating a climate in which some teachers fear that if they say the wrong thing, they could lose their jobs.

Anita Hatcher Powderly, who teaches sixth grade English in Jackson County, Florida, and is part of a federal trial challenging Florida law, has already seen evidence of it.

Shortly after the Florida law was passed, sixth graders at its schools lined up in front of the board’s school buses for a school field trip. At first there would be separate buses for boys and girls. But one transgender student, who hadn’t gone out with all of her professors and classmates, looked puzzled as to where to sit. Two of his colleagues “looked at me like, ‘What are we saying?'” Hatcher Powderly said.

Before anyone could intervene it was announced that there was only one bus so it would be mixed. But the storyline left Hatcher Powderly worried.

“If we say the wrong thing now, is it going to be retroactive against us?” she says. “How do we comfort this child, how do we ensure inclusiveness, how do we ensure fairness?”

When elementary students turn to Nashville counselor Alyssa McGuire on issues related to gender or sexuality, she always does her best to help. Now, however, the fear that it could cost her her job hangs over her like “a constant cloud”.

Recently, a few third graders at McGuire’s school told their classmates that they were interested in a relationship with another girl. The girls were teased by their classmates and wanted McGuire to help them figure out what was going on. They had lots of questions.

“They were like: A lesbian isn’t bad, is it?” McGuire recalled. “Am I allowed to say that? Can I be a lesbian?’”

McGuire told them about how people can label themselves in different ways. She would rather risk a parent complaining and give her students the words to describe how they feel, she said, than make the girls feel rejected.

“There are times when I think about law and politics, and I decide I don’t care what the law says, I’m just going to help my student because that’s the priority,” McGuire said. “But it’s just sad that it’s even something I have to think about.”

Kalyn Belsha is a Chicago-based national education reporter. Contact her at [email protected]

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