Part Eight: A Very Slippery Slope

A Very Slippery Slope

Part Eight of Thirteen

I can still vividly recall the 2016 Michigan State Board of Education meeting when I had the sinking feeling that my trans son and kids like him will never be safe in this world.

Along with other supportive parents and allies, I took advantage of public comment to talk openly about our family’s story and the ways in which our school district successfully supported our transgender son since he socially transitioned before kindergarten. I shared the overwhelming evidence debunking false allegations perpetuated about the L.G.B.T.Q. community.

We were hoping the state would approve guidance to help all public schools create safe and inclusive learning environments for L.G.B.T.Q. students. Guidance that has been shown to make schools safer and more inclusive for all students. Guidance that educators across the state had requested.

Prior to that meeting, I was much more optimistic that reason would prevail over the fear mongering and disinformation that maligns transgender and non-binary students and their allies. Every major organization in our country representing the medical and mental health fields, education, child safety, social workers, even law enforcement, has validated trans-affirming policies in health care, education, and public spaces.

While there are always a few parents and ministers who speak on behalf of God, this meeting was different. I didn’t anticipate the busloads of worshippers, entire church congregations filling the meeting hall and lobby and spilling out onto the plaza. I didn’t anticipate the number of anti-trans protestors who would frame their arguments in religious terms. I certainly didn’t anticipate the viciousness in which they would condemn trans and non-binary students as abominations in the sight of God and a threat to other children.

In what would become a regular occurrence, conservative community leaders organized church congregations and bussed them to school board meetings by the hundreds. Trans students had to walk through a sea of vitriol, sometimes punctuated with Oath Keepers in full tactical gear.

I also didn’t anticipate how many protestors would brazenly accuse affirming parents, doctors, and educators of being satanic child abusers, molesters, and groomers. The board ultimately adopted the guidance, outvoting the conservative members, but these types of chaotic scenes began to occur more and more frequently across the nation as conservatives launched a full out initiative to discriminate against trans people and deny their identities.

One of the outcomes from testifying at that board meeting was that our family became an instant target of conservative rage. It turns out a parent in our school district was intending to run for a seat on the board and happened to be in attendance for our presentation.

Shortly after seeing it, the parent posted a message on the Friends of Dexter Schools Facebook page warning of a conspiracy and spreading disinformation. We were effectively outed. But rather than hide, we decided to share our experiences as a family and provide accurate information to set the record straight.

That’s not an easy decision to make, and every parent has to weigh a lot of factors before considering it. The dangers are real, for everyone in the family. In our estimation, however, the greater danger was the effect on our son if he were forced to go stealth after living authentically for so many years.

By summer of 2016, we were spending every spare moment advocating for the transgender and L.G.B.T.Q. community. Little did we know, things were about to get much, much worse for our community after the presidential election in the fall.

In neighboring Grass Lake Michigan, another family with a transgender son was outed. The harassment began with opponents tagging the family in social media. Then community members organized the Concerned Parents and Taxpayers of Grass Lake and launched a petition to prevent the child from using the boys’ bathroom. In partnership with the conservative law nonprofit Alliance Defending Freedom, they threatened to sue the school if they didn’t reverse the policy allowing the child to use the bathroom that matched their gender identity.

Conservative media framed the sudden uprisings of enraged conservative families against school boards as a spontaneous movement. It was anything but spontaneous. It turns out the Alliance Defending Freedom’s threats to sue Grass Lake Schools was not only part of a statewide strategy, but also part of a national strategy that also included groups like Moms for Liberty. Denying trans students the right to use bathrooms matching their gender identity and banning L.G.B.T.Q.-inclusive books and curriculum are two fronts in this staged battle.

My hometown of Dexter Michigan had a series of school board meetings about showing a video reading of the book I Am Jazz to elementary schools.  The book explains in simple terms the journey of a young transgender girl and her quest to become her authentic self.

Jazz Jennings is a young woman who has become an activist for the L.G.B.T.Q. community. Her story has empowered millions of children and adults. She is also a frequent target of the right. The American Library Association listed I Am Jazz as the thirteenth most banned and challenged book of the last ten years.

The video included various local officials, students and community members reading I am Jazz. It included two of our own kids, our then twelve-year-old daughter and ten-year-old trans son. The year was 2018, and I had come to one of many heated school board meetings to speak in defense of transgender children finally getting an opportunity to have their stories shared with peers and to see themselves portrayed, not as satanic abominations, but regular kids who are just trying to find their place and survive in this world like everyone else.

A local church organized protests outside the school board meetings and spoke during the board meetings to let the board know the extent of their outrage. Ultimately, the school offered an opt-out option to appease parents who opposed the reading.

Similar scenes played out in Saline Michigan. Under the auspices of parental rights, the anti-trans Saline Parents group urged its members to file official complaints about I Am Jazz with the state. Churches have by far been the loudest and most misinformed sources of disinformation of all the groups I’ve seen protesting L.G.B.T.Q. inclusive education.

Our public schools and educators are always on the front lines of battles to make our schools more inclusive. They’ve seen it all, from tearing down the systems of racial segregation, to providing equitable opportunities for female students and students with physical challenges, to creating safe learning environments for L.G.B.T.Q. students.

Books, curriculum, and open discussions about race, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, culture, autism, disabilities, and all other differences is key to creating those safe spaces. It replaces fear with understanding and fosters trust where there was once only suspicion or uncertainty. It builds connections and heals divides. This is the power of storytelling.

Ruby Bridges-Hall said, “As a child, I never quite understood the power of a story until I found myself at the center of one that catalyzed and emboldened a movement.  Today it is so important that our children learn to believe in the power of their stories and know what a force for change they can be.”

There is still much confusion about what it means to be transgender. The purpose of Jazz’s children’s book and the readings is to share one transgender child’s experience and hopefully open some hearts and minds.

Any time we do these readings, we expect questions. And some tension. Tension ensues whenever we challenge the status quo and it’s a reflection of the level of understanding we have as a society. But if we don’t share our stories, our children’s experiences and struggles are subject to misinterpretation. Misinterpretation can lead to fear and anger and, increasingly, violence.

In September 2023, PEN America issued a report called Banned in the USA: The Mounting Pressure to Censor. Their research found that 3,362 books were banned in public schools during the 2022-23 school year marking a 33% increase over last year. The report states that, “Hyperbolic and misleading rhetoric about ‘porn in schools,’ ‘sexually explicit,’ ‘harmful,’ and ‘age inappropriate’ materials” has led to the removal of “thousands of books covering a range of topics and themes.” The report adds that bans overwhelmingly target books on race or racism or by and about characters of color, as well as books with L.G.B.T.Q. identities.

A vocal minority is pushing censorship despite widespread opposition to these efforts.  The Public Religion Research Institute and Brookings Institution found that 88% of Americans, an overwhelming majority of the country, are against the book bans.

Despite those numbers, so-called parents’ rights groups have proliferated. Their efforts to restrict access to books and take over school boards works in tandem with an ever-growing legislative infrastructure that favors far right bills.

PEN America reported a 250% increase in “educational gag orders” introduced into state legislatures. A “gag order” is defined as “efforts to restrict teaching about topics such as race, gender, American history, and L.G.B.T.Q. identities in K–12 and higher education.” We have arrived at a moment in which librarians are being threatened with prison time and fines for distributing banned books under new obscenity laws.

Under the aegis of parental rights, conservative groups like Moms for Liberty are descending on schools located near their chapters. Founded in Florida in 2020 to fight COVID-19 mask and vaccine mandates, they shifted their mission to focus heavily on getting books removed from public libraries and schools.

Although they don’t self-identify as a religious nonprofit, Moms for Liberty spokeswomen are explicit about their faith.  They espouse a white Christian nationalist world view and believe that society’s institutions should reflect and reinforce those beliefs. The Southern Poverty Law Center has designated Moms for Liberty as an extremist group. Several group members have appeared at protests alongside the Proud Boys.

Moms for Liberty boasts 285 chapters in 45 states. Their exponential growth is not an organic grassroots evolution, as the group would like people to believe. They are supported by well-funded conservative organizations like the Heritage Foundation and closely tied to Republican politicians, most notably Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. Their emphasis on the idea of traditional American values is a dog whistle for Christian nationalist ideology and also stems entirely from unproven and unprovable supernatural beliefs.

At a House Committee on Oversight and Reform hearing, which was held in response to the crisis, Ruby Bridges herself testified that the children’s book “Ruby Bridges Goes to School,” was one of the books challenged the most. The book tells the story of her experiences as the first Black child to integrate a New Orleans elementary school.

It’s worth noting that not all challenges are reported to the American Library Association, meaning the number of targeted books is likely higher. The assault is even leading some schools and libraries to remove books proactively to avoid conflict with parents. In conservative states like Texas, Florida, and Missouri, some libraries are leaving the American Library Association because of the organization’s anti-censorship stance.

Ultimately, this is a quest for control. The attacks on our educational systems and libraries in the name of religious freedom and parental rights is but a thinly veiled attempt to control access to knowledge. An informed citizenry, after all, is our greatest defense against tyranny.

As historians have noted, Florida’s legislative actions mirror those of a burgeoning fascist state. If conservatives can shape the way that children in America learn, they can whitewash the history of slavery and racism in this country and erase the presence of L.G.B.T.Q. people.

This disturbing trend continues. Stemming from one parent’s complaint, a St. Petersburg Florida elementary school banned a Disney movie of Ruby Bridges’ story last month. A G-rated movie about a 6-year-old Black child was deemed too offensive for white students even older than her.

Christians have long promoted the teaching of Christian doctrine in K-12 schools, either by allowing educators to practice their beliefs in school or by using public funds to subsidize private Christian schools. Christian nationalists, however, have their sights set higher. They advocate for the extinction of public education altogether.

Following the lead of Governor DeSantis in Florida, public education is under fire in red states around the country. Legislation is being passed that bans books, teaching materials, and even discussions about L.G.B.T.Q. identities, as well as any hint of social and emotional learning, social justice, culturally responsive teaching, and content that gives a more accurate depiction of African American and Native American life, past or present.

The legislation signed by DeSantis has been introduced at the federal level by Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene. Conservative justices of the Supreme Court have also been active, ruling that public funds can be used to support religious-based education and permitting prayer in school and at school functions.

The attack on public education by evangelical Christians is not a new strategy. It began with the landmark Brown versus Board of Education 1954 Supreme Court decision. Some people may be surprised to hear that Christian nationalism as we know it today is deeply rooted in white supremacist ideology. That landmark decision legally ended racial segregation in public schools and prompted enraged evangelical leaders like Bob Jones and Jerry Falwell to establish their Christian schools.

In the 1960s, a wave of private Christian schools was launched with the express purpose of banning the admission of black students and preserving racial segregation. Their curriculum continued the indoctrination of white supremacist and Christian values in K-12 and post-secondary colleges and universities.

Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, their schools unapologetically violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty University were two of the largest white-only schools in the country, and the key to their success was their tax-exempt status as church-related organizations.

When the I.R.S. began investigating Bob Jones University, the university was defiant. At least, that is, until the I.R.S. moved to terminate the university’s tax exemption and access to public funds.

Evangelical Christian leaders were incensed at being forced to end racial segregation, but they now had a bigger problem. They needed to ensure that their tax status would be protected at the highest levels of government. They needed a new way to rally evangelical voters.

Paul Weyrich, a conservative political activist and devout Catholic, worked closely with Jerry Falwell to rebrand the evangelical movement, coining the term Moral Majority. As Dr Carol Anderson points out in her book, “One Person, No Vote,” Paul Weyrich founded the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization responsible for architecting voter suppression legislation. Legislation, which Dr Anderson notes, “spread like a cancer throughout the United States” and continues to resurface, as witnessed by today’s Jim Crow 2.0 legislation.

Although the Moral Majority and later the Religious Right brands faded over time, the movement did not. It only moved underground as it prepared for its next rebranding as Christian nationalism.

Christian nationalism was funded and organized by wealthy families like the DeVos’ and Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green, among others. They are major players in conservative politics and well rewarded for their loyalty, as witnessed by Betsy DeVos’ term as Education Secretary under Trump.

DeVos’ tenure was characterized by her relentless assault on public education. In her term as Education Secretary, her efforts were focused on rescinding protections for trans kids and advocating for public funding of private Christian schools.

Through powerful organizations like the Alliance Defending Freedom, book bans are being forced upon public schools and libraries across the country. Legislation is being passed in red states that criminalize gender-affirming healthcare, whitewash history of Black identities, erase L.G.B.T.Q. identities from schools and public spaces, and deny Civil Rights protections for L.G.B.T.Q. Americans in education, employment, and housing.

In 2023, Marjory Taylor-Greene introduced a bill in Congress that would make it a felony nationwide to provide gender-affirming care on a minor and considers it one of her top priorities. It would also prohibit the use of federal funds for gender affirming care, prohibit qualified health plans from including coverage for gender affirming care, and prohibit institutions of higher education from offering instruction in gender affirming care.

As reported by N.B.C. News, if elected Trump pledged to prioritize that bill and even expand the scope to prevent federal agencies from promoting sex and gender transition at any age. He made it clear his policies would be extended to education and threatened “severe consequences” for any educators who “suggest to a child that they could be trapped in the wrong body.”

Trump also vowed to create a “new credentialing body for teachers” to regulate what is taught about race history, and to “promote positive education about the nuclear family, the roles of mothers and fathers and celebrating, rather than erasing, the things that make men and women different.”

It should be obvious by now that we are in a fight for our lives and those of future generations. Conservative Christian leaders have mastered the weaponization of religion – and that is precisely why we must take that weapon away.

While I believe young people are in general more likely to challenge the conservative Christian ethos, we cannot underestimate the ability of conservatives to sway young voters through Christian messaging. Founded in 2012 by Charlie Kirk, Turning Point USA targets young conservatives on college campuses. The organization became a feeding tube of sorts to supply young, mostly white male conservative voters to Trump’s 2016 campaign. In recent years, however, Turning Point has devolved into a white Christian nationalist youth party that radicalizes young people with anti-Black, anti-L.G.B.T.Q., and antisemitic messaging.

After George Floyd’s murder, for example, Kirk gave a speech condemning Floyd and calling him a “scumbag” who wasn’t worth all the attention. This year, Kirk has openly attacked Dr King, falsely accusing the civil rights leader of promoting violence. Kirk also endorses a conspiracy theory about the 1964 Civil Rights Act, claiming it was an attempt by Black Americans to subvert the Constitution and install “permanent D.E.I. type bureaucracy.”

Another Turning Point conspiracy theorist, Jack Posobiec, had this to say at the 2024 Conservative Political Action Conference:

“Welcome to the end of democracy. We are here to overthrow it completely. We didn’t get all the way there on Jan. 6, but we will endeavor to get rid of it.”

Organizations like Turning Point are indoctrinating young people with radical anti-democratic teaching aligned with conservative talking points. Like other Christian nationalist messaging, it is dressed up in Biblical language and music intended to stir up feelings of God, family, and country.

Stephanie McCrummen, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, reported on Mercy Culture, one of the fastest growing churches that is actively working to build the Christian American Kingdom. She described their culture this way,

“It is a world in which demons are real, miracles are real, and the ultimate mission is not just transforming individual lives but also turning civilization itself into their version of God’s Kingdom: one with two genders, no abortion, a free-market economy, Bible-based education, church-based social programs and laws such as the ones curtailing L.G.B.T.Q. rights now moving through statehouses around the country.”

Churches like Mercy Culture indoctrinate young people with sermons advocating for spiritual warfare against demonic forces, which are of course represented by liberals and anyone who rejects their supernatural claims. These calls for spiritual warfare feed into the Holy War narrative that is used to justify oppression and violence against Black and L.G.B.T.Q. communities.

These tactics have proven very effective in generating the kind of fear and rage that gets Christian voters to the polls and enables conservatives to push legislation through state houses. At the current pace, anti-trans legislation will disenfranchise a generation of trans and L.G.B.T.Q. youth, just like the restrictive voting laws in many of those same states will disenfranchise a generation of Black youth.

This is a very slippery slope we are on. And we’re sliding headfirst into a fascist Christian theocracy.

Peter Tchoryk

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