This week, I found someone who has it rougher than pastors in handling dissent generated from right-wing conspiracy theories and fear of the LGBTQ community: Public school administrators.
I had no idea how bad this is, and yet I should have known.
God bless you, teachers and administrators and school board members. God bless you with strength to endure the barrage of selfish, ill-informed parents who are living in such fear that their kids will become uncomfortable in some way and want you to turn an entire district to their way of thinking. God bless you with courage to keep on doing the right thing for all kids when a few parents make themselves public health and morality experts and demand to be heard with their anti-science propaganda.
When I learned that our local school board was going to be barraged with complaints from a small group of parents upset about library books — isn’t this 2021, y’all? —I signed up to speak during the public comment section of the board meeting Monday night. I went to speak against banning books and to speak in support of transgender kids.
What I experienced was 70 minutes of 3-minute variations on a theme likely generated on a blog post somewhere. The main points of the argument were: (1) The district spends too much time and effort on diversity and inclusion initiatives, but I’m not a racist or a bigot; (2) My kids aren’t learning to read and write and do arithmetic, even though they attend a high-performing blue-ribbon school in the district; (3) My good white Christian kids are not racists and never should be made to feel they have to apologize for anything in America’s past, which wasn’t racist anyway because we’ve always had freedom here; (4) The district secretly stocked school libraries over the summer with books about race and gender and sexuality, and I’m afraid my kids will check out one of those books and you won’t tell me they did; (5) Parents like me should have veto power over every book that’s placed in the school library; and (6) The school library should only be stocked with books that directly relate to teaching objectives such as the aforementioned reading, writing and arithmetic because anything else is either a “social construct” or a “political agenda.”
I’m not kidding. These are nearly verbatim excerpts of what was said.
“I knew we were headed for trouble when we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and one of the parents behind me loudly emphasized the words ‘under God.’”
I knew we were headed for trouble when we all stood for the Pledge of Allegiance and one of the parents behind me loudly emphasized the words “under God” during both the pledge to the American flag and the pledge to the Texas flag.
It should have been no further surprise, then, that the president of the school board had to admonish these same parents several times not to applaud, stand up or make gestures while others were speaking at the podium. Until the third or fourth admonishment, some of them acted like they were at a sporting event where their kids were whipping up on other little kids.
And then throw in a few other random people who wanted to speak their piece about the pandemic and the evils of believing it’s real — did you know there are 17 “scientific” articles that explain how wearing face masks is bad for your health? — and you get the full circus effect.
But back to the book banning. As someone who has walked through the fire of leading a Baptist church through an 18-month study of LGBTQ inclusion, listening to this barrage of parent complaints stirred up old emotions. I had heard all this before in a different context.
The presumption of these parents is that an entire public school district should cater to their desired limitations on what kids are exposed to and what they might choose to read. The arrogance is astounding. And when they can’t win the argument on their own biases, they change the subject to something they think will be more successful: “Because you are taking so much time talking about diversity and inclusion, my kid isn’t learning to read.”
“Apparently having the opportunity to read a book about America’s founding racism counts neither toward language arts nor history.”
Apparently having the opportunity to read a book about America’s founding racism counts neither toward language arts nor history.
And then the heavy artillery: “Our school is failing. Our district is failing. And this failure is because of all the emphasis on race and gender and sexuality.” In the church context, this argument gets expressed as, “Our Sunday school attendance is lower than it was in 1970.”
When the time came for my 3-minute address to the board, I followed three school librarians in asking the school board not to start banning books because the subject matter makes some parents uncomfortable.
Here’s what I said:
I’ve lived in our district for 22 years and sent our two boys all the way through from first grade to senior year here. Both our boys went to TCU on full academic scholarships because of how well they were taught in our district. But what they learned here was not just reading and writing and arithmetic. They learned critical thinking skills, and they learned to be good people. Merely knowing how to read, write and do math will not get you a full ride to a university.
And then I added: I’m an ordained Baptist minister who knows more transgender people than any other minister you’ve ever met. I have talked personally with hundreds of trans folks. And every one of them — to a person — told me they knew as early as age 4, 5 or 6 that they were somehow different on the inside than who they appeared to be on the outside but they didn’t have the vocabulary to talk about it. Children learn vocabulary by reading, and by reading age-appropriate books they learn to talk about who they are and how they are made.
I never dreamed that in the year of our Lord 2021 I would stand before a big city school board to defend keeping age-appropriate books in a library.
Look, I get it. Parenting is hard and scary. I’ve been there. And I’ve witnessed other parents who were so concerned about their child being left out, not fitting in, that they wanted to perpetually rig the game to ensure their child was accommodated. But in every case I can think of, these were parents with immense privilege due to race, income and status. But that wasn’t enough.
“What I’ve seldom seen is parents of marginalized children seeking to redefine the entire playing field to ensure their kids come out on top.”
What I’ve seldom seen is parents of marginalized children seeking to redefine the entire playing field, a whole school district even, to ensure their kids come out on top. Most of the time, these parents simply want there to be room for their kids, a safe place to learn and grow. And that requires more than reading, writing and arithmetic.
It’s easy to look at minority groups as so insignificant that no effort should be made to include them. But sometimes a reframing shows us a reason why.
The latest national research on transgender youth finds that 1.8% identify as transgender. That appears to be a small portion of any school district, until you do the math. In our public school district that serves more than 39,000 students, that means there are most likely 700 students who already identify or will identify as transgender or non-binary. For comparison, 700 students is about the size of one of the larger elementary schools in our district.
And here’s the other part of the data picture that matters: The Williams Institute at UCLA Law has documented that 46% of homeless LGBTQ youth ran away from home because of family rejection of their sexual orientation or gender identity; 43% were forced out by parents; and 32% faced physical, emotional or sexual abuse at home.
Even when families — usually driven by conservative evangelical ideology — disown their children, our public schools do not. Neither should our school libraries.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global. He is the author of Why Churches Need to Talk About Sexuality and gave a 2016 TEDx Talk titled “The Baptist Pastor and His Transgender Friends.“