The political right’s current strategy for fighting against LGBTQ+ equality is to frame discussions about sexuality and gender in school as an infringement on parents’ rights.
In 2020, far-right Australian MP Mark Latham introduced a “Parental Rights” bill. The bill would have prohibited teachers from addressing any topic that veered close to “core values” without parental consent — including LGBTQ+ gender and sexuality.
Parents, as a group, represent diverse concerns. The group includes LGBTQ+ parents, parents of queer and trans children and young people, pregnant and parenting teens and politically progressive activist parents — and all of the above have diverse educational, religious, economic, racialized and political experiences. However, the conservative description of parents often neglects this reality.
Rise of ‘parental rights’ campaigns
In the United States, the now infamous parental rights law in Florida, widely known as “Don’t say Gay,” restricts conversations about sexuality and gender in primary school.
And in 2015, conservatives framed a controversy about a new, progressive sex education curriculum in Ontario, Canada as an attack on parents’ rights.
In this conflict over gender, sexuality and schooling, conservatives invoke parental rights, and implicitly position these as superseding young people’s right to access information about their health and well-being.
As American journalist Judith Levine argues, the elevation of parents’ rights can be tied to U.S. Reagan-era policies. These policies sought to salvage the nuclear family, in part by attacking public education and the expansion of rights for sexual and gender minorities.
The 2021 foreword to Lantham’s proposed bill, when it was sent to committee for review and inquiry, articulated the view that a “positive view of family life is under challenge,” due to school-based discussions of gender and sexuality.
Problems with ‘health outcomes’ approach
In a broader context of controversies over sexuality and gender in schools, some policy-makers focus on the important health outcomes for young people who have comprehensive, medically-accurate information about sexuality and gender.
Sociologists Steven Epstein and Laura Mamo call this approach “healthism.” They argue the language of health contains or cancels “the stigma that so often adheres to sexuality and extinguish[es] the flames of political and moral controversy.
But the work of queer theorists like Eve Sedgwick reveal problems with "healthist” approaches to sex education in schools. Sedgwick’s warning from 1993 remains eerily prescient:
“this society wants its children to know nothing; it wants its queer [and trans] children to conform (and this is not a figure of speech) or die; and wants not to know that it is getting what it wants.”
Sedgwick’s warns it would be naive to believe that there is broad support for protecting the health and well-being of young people when their needs and questions challenge dominant modern norms and values embedded in our institutions.
Recent conversations about trans youth’s access to health care that would support and affirm their gender expose the ways health care systems — despite their supposed neutrality — are shaped by transphobia.
Trans historian Jules Gill-Peterson writes about how “the foundation of the transgender healthcare we inherit today was deliberately designed to stop trans people from transitioning in most cases.”
Trans youth framed as threat
Conservative parents and politicians who invoke parental rights are not persuaded by arguments that access to information and support is necessary for young people’s health and well-being.
In their view, young people aren’t being educated, they are being “groomed” and conversations about gender identity and sexuality are themselves abusive.
LGBTQ+ youth, and trans youth in particular, perversely become framed as a threat to their straight and cisgender peers.
Conservatives insist that knowledge about diverse genders and sexualities introduce faddish ideas about gender and sexuality that contaminate the innocence of their children.
This logic reaches its dangerous conclusion in laws that would restrict trans youth from accessing health care that affirms their gender. In Texas, the state has been investigating parents who secure gender-affirming health care for their children as potential child abusers. This legal sanctioning of transphobia denies trans existence and sanctions discrimination and violence that can have lethal consequences for trans people.
Rethinking parental rights
Shouldn’t “parental rights” extend to the parents of trans and non-binary young people and their responsibility to protect their children’s health and well-being? Shouldn’t trans and queer parents also expect schools to provide safe learning environments for their children?
Australian research has shown the vast majority of parents support explicit teaching and learning about gender and sexuality diversity. With a sample of more than 2000 parents across Australian government (public) schools, more than 80 per cent of respondents indicated they supported gender and sexuality diversity inclusion as part of the relationships and sexual health curriculum from kindergarten through to year 12. In Canada as well, there is widespread and well-established support from parents for LGBTQ+ inclusion in schools and sex education.
This isn’t to suggest that there aren’t debates about the nature and scope of LGBTQ+ inclusion in schools. Both these aforementioned Australian and Canadian studies point to differences based on region, topics addressed and grade level.
However, the parents represented in these studies are more diverse and less conservative than right-wing advocates of parental rights. Parents who want to see LGBTQ+ students, teachers and families supported and affirmed in schools need to speak up against right-wing framings of parental rights.
We can start by recognizing and supporting the parental rights of parents who are doing their best to love and support their trans and queer children in a hostile political climate.
Jen Gilbert receives funding as the Hunt-Simes Visiting Chair in Sexuality Studies Fellow at the Sydney Social Science and Humanities Advanced Research Centre (SSSHARC) at the University of Sydney.
Victoria Rawlings receives funding from the Australian Research Council DECRA scheme.
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