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Conservative Christians Are Making Schools Less Safe for LGBTQ Students

Evidence shows gay-straight alliances make schools safer for all kids, but conservatives want to shut them down.

Evidence shows gay-straight alliances makes schools safer for all kids, but conservatives want to shut them down.

When student Mason Rice announced that he intended to start a gay-straight alliance, also known as gender and sexuality alliance or GSA, in Fannin County High School in Blue Ridge, Georgia, earlier this fall, conservative parents, students and church leaders organized to create a petition: “Don’t Let Homosexuality Be Pushed on Students in Fannin County,” it read. As of November 25, around 1,303 individuals had signed on.

Rice, however, launched a counter-petition that has collected nearly 32,000 signatures as of November 25. Nonetheless, despite overwhelming support for the GSA , the school principal has refused to allow the group to meet, arguing that new organizations can only be initiated at the start of the academic year, not six weeks in. Meanwhile, more than 20 groups, including a Bass Fishing Club and a Fellowship of Christian Athletes, currently meet on campus.

Trans Students and GSAs Are Under Attack in Florida School

A different scenario has unfolded in rural Pasco County, Florida, where more than 75,000 students attend the region’s 49 elementary, 16 middle and 14 high schools.

In October 2018, a Pasco County middle school gym teacher contacted Liberty Counsel — a 20-year-old international organization that uses litigation to promote an anti-abortion, anti-LGBTQ and biblical-literalist worldview — and enlisted its help to counter the school district’s support for gay-affirmative and trans and nonbinary acceptance.

Since then, the situation has ramped up. According to Linda Cobbe, the school district’s public information officer, conservative parents have vowed to picket every school in the district during the 2019-20 academic year to express their opposition to policies that treat nonbinary students with dignity. They also want to halt GSAs in their tracks by mandating that parents be informed about which kids attend meetings. Similarly, they want schools to require parental consent before students can participate in GSA gatherings or activities. These parents came together to form the Protect Pasco Students (PPS) group.

“We’ve had GSAs in the Pasco schools for more than a decade,” Cobbe told Truthout. “But it was only when a trans student came to the right’s attention that they began to organize.”

Last year, according to Cobbe, a student who identifies as male enrolled in one of the middle schools. His parents met with school administrators beforehand and thought everything had been arranged, but Robert Oppedisano, a physical education teacher, refused to monitor the locker room if this student was present.

Although the school principal began monitoring the locker room following the trans student’s gym classes, Oppedisano nonetheless contacted the Liberty Counsel about the situation. “A lot of untruths surfaced,” Cobbe said. “The people who formed PPS have said things about students running out of the locker room screaming and about Oppedisano being threatened with firing, neither of which happened. But they’ve said these things over and over and over again.”

Since the brouhaha began, activists from PPS have also attended every bimonthly school board meeting, picketed outside schools in the district and have indicated that they will oppose the elected school superintendent – a Republican — when his term ends in 2020. They’ve also pledged to run for open seats on this governing body.

PPS’s most hostile barbs, however, have been directed toward psychologist Jackie Jackson-Dean, LGBTQ liaison for the county. Jackson-Dean had also been the lead content developer for a Best Practices Guide for educating LGBTQ and nonbinary students that was finalized in 2016.

In a letter to the district superintendent, Liberty Counsel made several claims: “These clubs [GSAs] allow children as young as 11 years old to join, without parental consent [emphasis in original] and have high school and middle school students communing in the club together.” Other communication with the district further charged that Jackson-Dean had abused her position as GSA adviser by referring students to outside resources and support groups that provide contraceptives, HIV/AIDS PrEP drugs and counseling without parental permission.

Liberty Counsel charged that Pasco County, its school superintendent and Jackson-Dean had violated parental rights, had trampled students’ privacy and had curtailed the religious liberty of a faculty member (Oppedisano).

To its credit, the district has not capitulated, since Title IX currently protects LGBTQ students from discrimination. PPS, however, has continued to mobilize, and the attacks have gotten personal.

“When the district did not rescind the Best Practices Guide or change its policy regarding the use of locker rooms and bathrooms by trans students, PPS went to my Twitter and Facebook pages, and my personal website, which included LGBTQ resources for parents and educators,” Jackson-Dean told Truthout. “The site had nothing to do with my employment, but PPS went through everything and said I was promoting trans ideology, pederasty and pedophilia. They sent hateful messages to me through the Contact Me button on my website — things like, ‘I hope you get cancer and die.’”

Jackson-Dean subsequently removed this button, but did not close the site or suspend her Facebook or Twitter accounts. And although she reported the abuse, she said that she is thankful to have received continuous support from her colleagues, family and the district superintendent.

Nonetheless, Jackson-Dean notes that many LGBTQ kids in the district became frightened after learning of the conflict. This, she added, strengthened her resolve: “If the kids saw an adult cower, it would have sent a bad message, so I’ll shoulder this. I’ll take the heat, so they don’t have to.”

What’s more, like many people who work with queer youth, Jackson-Dean is an ardent proponent of GSAs and believes efforts to stop them are not only misguided, but potentially damaging to students who feel unsafe in the schools they attend.

A mountain of evidence supports this assertion.

Keeping Queer and Nonbinary Kids Engaged

Elizabeth Saewyc, professor of nursing at the University of British Columbia and executive director of the Stigma and Resilience Among Vulnerable Youth Centre in Vancouver, Canada, has spent the last 25 years studying health disparities for LGBTQ youth.

Her work has revealed persistent trends: Queer youth, she told Truthout, typically experience higher rates of substance abuse, higher rates of anxiety and depression, higher rates of suicidal ideation and suicide attempts, and lower rates of school completion than their non-LGBTQ peers.

But, she says, gender and sexuality alliances can serve as an important and effective school support, a way to limit oppressive dynamics and reduce the problems that result from bullying and bias.

In addition, Saewyc adds, they’re not just a boon for queer, questioning and nonbinary kids. In fact, her most recent study, released in January 2019, found that GSAs in both the U.S. and Canada make all students feel safer and freer to be who they are and present themselves however they’re most comfortable — as butch, femme or androgynous — and not have to answer for their choices.

“Many schools have tried to create a safer environment for all students. GSAs are one strategy. Young LGBTQ people who participate in them, and their straight, cisgendered allies, have created campaigns and increased visibility of LGBTQ people across the board,” Saewyc told Truthout. “Some schools in British Columbia have had GSAs for 14 years and we found that the longer a school had a GSA in place, the safer kids feel even though the student population is constantly changing.”

GSAs, she continued, make inroads in shifting this paradigm by promoting respect and acceptance for all students. In addition, she said, they often give students a way to rebuff gender stereotypes and let go of simplistic definitions of “acceptable” sexual behavior and sexual or gender expression. Furthermore, they help kids graduate on time and develop into healthier adults, both mentally and physically.

Jennifer Driver, vice president of policy and strategic partnerships at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States, told Truthout that GSAs are often a boon to schools wishing to make the academic environment more conducive to learning. “Many teachers want to provide a supportive environment, but they often need help to make that happen,” Driver said. “They want to remove the shame and stigma of being LGBTQ. It’s a question of how best to provide a safe environment for young people so that schools can remove as many negative outcomes as possible.”

Enter GSAs

There are now approximately 4,000 GSAs in middle schools and high schools throughout the U.S., and perhaps surprisingly, they partly owe their existence to conservative support for the federal Equal Access Act (EAA), legislation that gave public school students the right to form non-curricular after-school clubs.

According to Americans United for Separation of Church and State, after Congress failed to pass a school prayer amendment in the early 1980s, conservative lawmakers settled on the Equal Access Act as a way to appease the religious right and ensure support for voluntary religious expression in schoolhouses throughout the country.

The EAA was the brainchild of the Christian Legal Society, but, according to Ian Smith, staff attorney at Americans United for Separation of Church and State, its passage not only gives Christian kids the right to pray before and after school, but provides all students with the right to form a variety of clubs, including GSAs. “In essence, if a school allows a chess club, it also has to allow a Christian Fellowship and a GSA,” Smith told Truthout.

The first high school GSA came into being in 1988 at the private Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts, when a queer teacher and a straight student formed one. According to The Atlantic, “GSAs sprang up organically because of the presence of leaders who felt a need for them, not a national leadership structure that swooped in and set them up.” The rationale was simple: Make gay students feel less isolated and alone. Within a year, a public school in nearby Newton, Massachusetts, followed suit, setting in motion GSAs’ exponential growth and development.

The EAA, Smith added, also stipulated that schools cannot force employees to supervise or advise an activity or group that runs counter to their religious or political beliefs.

This, however, has done little to assuage Christian conservatives like Florida’s Oppedisano – or groups such as, the Alliance Defending Freedom, Child Protection League, Family Research Council, Focus on the Family, Liberty Counsel, MassResistance, and Parents and Friends of Ex-Gays and Gays – that have been outspoken opponents of GSAs since the first ones formed more than 30 years ago. (Despite emails to all of these groups asking for comment, none responded to Truthout’s request.)

That said, it is worth noting that protest against GSAs has ebbed and peaked at different points. Nonetheless, eruptions in places like Fannin County, Georgia, and Pasco County, Florida, are not anomalous — or confined to the southern U.S. In fact, as part of a more general expression of anti-sex attitudes, right-wing opposition to GSAs, expressed throughout the U.S., fits into a larger rubric that includes rejection of sex before heterosexual marriage, opposition to abortion and contraception, and disdain for any expression of LGBTQ acceptability. More often than not, their fury has also extended to comprehensive in-school sex education.

And, since GSAs promote a divergent view, they have repeatedly found themselves in the Christian right’s crosshairs.

Marriage Equality Prompted Backlash

“Opposition to GSAs and trans inclusivity is a scary and growing trend that we’ve increasingly seen since passage of marriage equality,” said Ellen Kahn, senior director of programs and partnerships at the Human Rights Campaign. “Groups that tried to stop marriage equality have shifted their attention and are now working to shut down the reality that being LGBTQ is a legitimate way to live.”

Since schools do not always protect students from discrimination or bias, Kahn said that “the doors have opened to anti-LGBTQ folks to go in and organize. Their success depends on whether there is robust community and school support for inclusive policies.”

Kahn noted that in conservative regions of the U.S., news of the formation of a new GSA or policies that support trans or nonbinary students have triggered the formation of local anti-LGBTQ organizations. “GSAs do not exist in a silo,” Kahn told Truthout. “There has been a tremendous effort on the part of very conservative networks and organizations to scare students out of forming GSAs or protecting trans or nonbinary students. In some cases, school officials have been threatened for allowing students to use the bathroom or locker room that best aligns with their gender identity, so it is not surprising that some schools have hit the pause button or have retracted inclusive policies.”

This, of course, can have a negative impact on students.

Heather Hensman Kettrey, a sociology professor at Clemson University who has written about the benefits of GSAs in reducing school violence and student victimization, says that retrenchment not only compromises students’ physical and emotional safety but infantilizes them. “Adults who are concerned about these issues argue that kids are being manipulated into a lifestyle, but this idea takes away their agency. We know that children have developing gender and sexual identities from birth, but we nonetheless tend to view them as sexually innocent. It goes back to Puritanism,” Hensman Kettrey told Truthout. “But the fact that numerous studies have shown that kids who attend schools with GSAs feel more secure and do better overall should be a compelling argument for having them.”