Republican lawmakers in Congress are unleashing their hate on families like mine nationwide, all while speaking disingenuous words about “parents’ rights.” As a queer parent with a trans partner and a child in public school, I have a visceral understanding that the “Parents Bill of Rights Act” passed by the U.S. House on March 24 has nothing to do with empowering parents, and everything to do with bringing the mounting Republican moral panic over schools to the national stage.
The bill, which was designed to facilitate parents’ scrutiny of schools’ books and other teaching materials, combines the GOP’s fear mongering about its imagined crisis of transgender contagion with the party’s long-standing campaign to undermine trust in public education.
Introducing the bill in the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on March 1, Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) decried what she characterized as “the left’s attempt to push parents out of the decision-making process when it comes to their child’s education.” She accused teachers’ unions, school boards and Democrats of undermining parents’ “God-given right to make decisions for their children.”
The bill re-enshrines a handful of existing laws, such as parents’ access to school budgets and the right to speak at public meetings, to give the bill a gloss of public accountability. In the original version of the bill, anti-LGBTQ intent was coded in language over reviewing teaching materials — the subtext being that schools are exposing children to inappropriate sexual material that promotes queer and trans identification. However, both in committee and on the House floor, the bill accumulated explicitly anti-LGBTQ amendments that restrict the right of young people to change their gender expression in schools without explicit parental approval.
By wedding their gender panic to education, House Republicans are exposing that their attack on trans children (and increasingly, on trans adults, as well) is an explicit effort to enforce traditional gender roles and adherence to the heteronormative and conventionally gendered nuclear family. By pushing the (straight, cisgender) family as the pivotal social institution, the GOP is furthering its erosion of social programs in favor of even greater immiseration, which they term “personal responsibility.” The crisis of confidence in public education following the COVID-19 lockdown and remote learning has allowed Republicans to use suburban, predominantly white parents’ anger to advance their decades-long dream of dismantling public schools.
As the largest, most universally accessed social program, public education is the brass ring of privatization. The GOP has long chased the dream of replacing public, universal schooling with a “school choice” model of privately owned charter schools, a goal that is not as far-fetched as it once seemed.
Pitting parents against teachers (and teachers’ unions) is a tried-and-true tactic, but in the years leading up to the pandemic a wave of teacher activism successfully fought back by foregrounding how the continued provision of high-quality education is only possible when teachers’ basic economic and labor needs are met. In 2018 and 2019, the “Red for Ed” strike wave impacted millions of students in districts from Los Angeles to West Virginia.
Republicans are now turning the pandemic-era frustrations of largely white, suburban parents with the quality of remote schooling into a backlash against teachers. Speaking in support of the bill, Rep. Foxx pointedly claimed the system is “spiraling out of control” as math and reading scores have declined. Instead of blaming COVID-19, she blamed “Teachers unions and education bureaucrats [who] worked to push progressive politics in classrooms while keeping parents in the dark.”
Meanwhile, the right is further entrenching its attack on public schools as a whole by pushing a meteoric rise of the policing and criminalization of trans people in school contexts.
Like many culture war offensives, the Parents Bill of Rights Act offers nothing to alleviate the actual crises in education, from class size to teacher turnover. The right to child care, universal health care, a raise in the minimum wage, an expansion of SNAP, or protection and expansion of reproductive justice measures, all of which would improve students’ ability to learn by improving family wellness and parenting conditions, are absent. The bill does not even increase the budget for education itself. Instead, it aims to make schools an unsafe space for LGBTQ+ kids, turning educators into gender police.
Currently, most school districts around the country explicitly support and protect the right of young people to use names and pronouns that align with their gender without requiring parental notification. But a rash of bills at the state level and revisions to district guidelines are attacking student privacy. The current version of the Parents Bill of Rights requires school staff to report to parents if their child changes their name or pronouns from what appears on their birth certificate. In addition, new amendments that were added to the bill on March 24 attached more anti-trans dog-whistle topics, mandating that parents be informed if their child uses a bathroom or joins a sports team that does not match the gender they were assigned at birth.
“Parents’ rights” is not a new slogan for Republicans. In 1993, then-candidate for lieutenant governor of Virginia Michael P. Farris demanded parents’ rights in the New York Times, decrying public schools as a “Godless monstrosity” and “values-indoctrination centers.”
Farris is the founder of the Home School Legal Defense Association, producer of conservative Christian curriculum for homeschoolers and a leading player in the homeschool lobby. The association caters to the middle-class, white, Christian families that make up a majority of homeschoolers, and used the pandemic to reach even larger numbers with its conservative, anti-public education message.
Farris hails from Virginia, which between 1956 and 1959 delayed school openings, defunded schools, and closed others for the entire school year rather than abide by the desegregation orders of Brown vs. Board of Education. In light of Republicans’ historic commitment to shut down schools rather than mix white students and Black ones, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis’s book purges appear to be merely a continuation of a better-illiterate-than-equal approach to education.
Despite the growing dominance of conservative white Christian voices in politics, white Christians as a group are shrinking as a portion of the U.S. population, falling to 42 percent in 2022. This decline is causing an existential panic that is easily mined by the far right, allowing extremist politics to move quickly from the margins to the center of national discourse.
A case could be made for an actual parents’ rights movement in the U.S. — one formed to defend the largely BIPOC families that are disproportionately policed and torn apart by the state. According to the American Journal of Public Health, fully half of Black and Native children in California were party to a Child Protective Services investigation by the time they were 18. The chances that a Black child will spend time in foster care is three times higher than for that of a white child. Parents regularly have their children taken for the nebulous charge of “neglect,” which is often simply a result of the conditions of poverty that many women parent in. But the “parents’ rights” movement that the right is calling for has nothing to say about these violations of parental rights, and instead is overtly attacking schools’ ability to support BIPOC students and families.
The right-wing campaign for “parents’ rights” is not and will never be about what is medically or socially appropriate for children. Fantasies about “porn-peddling librarians” and drag queens recruiting children at story hours proliferate while the real perpetrators of sexual abuse — masses of whom are straight, cisgender men — escape the spotlight.
But we live in a post-hypocrisy world where the real and devastating facts about sexual exploitation are irrelevant to the GOP’s campaign. The family is being held up as a fortress against the abuse of children, but in some ways, it is the least safe place: 30 percent of children sexually abused are abused within the family; the rate for children under 6 is 50 percent. And 90 percent are abused by someone known and trusted by the family.
Transness upsets the apple cart of assigned and assumed gender roles under capitalism, and that’s a good thing. The supposedly common-sense, biblical/biological determinism of the nuclear family model has women doing the equivalent of $1.5 trillion a year in unpaid labor in the home in the U.S. alone. The U.S. political system — through either the GOP or their B team, the Democrats — is not going to admit the irrationality of a system that extracts uncompensated labor from half the population, based on whether they got an F or M on their birth certificate.
On a recent appearance on “The Daily Show,” when asked about the state bills attacking trans children, President Biden gave a homey, “oh shucks, isn’t that a shame?” answer, making a vague reference to passing federal legislation as was done with same-sex marriage. That legislation exists in the Transgender Bill of Rights, which passed the House in 2022. Biden, however, did not name the bill or indicate it would be coming to the floor of the Senate any time soon.
An emboldened, rabid right will not be defeated by Uncle Joe’s wide-eyed wonder at the inhumanity of these bills, but a grassroots movement is fighting back. Legal challenges are being brought against every anti-trans law, state by state. Activists have been packing statehouses and defending drag story hours. Thousands will be joining Trans Day of Visibility marches at the end this month.
But new anti-trans legislation is introduced every day. The Republican Party’s use of transness as a bogeyman will only give the GOP confidence to go further against all LGBTQ+ people, reproductive justice, and social services. It should be clear to all that standing up for trans rights is central to repelling the Republican agenda.
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