In a speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, presidential candidate and reactionary bigot Pat Buchanan predicted a “Culture War” for the heart and soul of America. He predicted dire consequences against reproductive freedom, equality and tolerance regardless of sexual orientation, and popular culture that promoted a society governed by “secular humanism”. He demanded prayer in public schools, criminalizing abortion, and hostility to any kind of acceptance or tolerance of LGBTQ persons. Today, that struggle between the forces of reactionary bigotry and support for progressive values is being waged throughout the country, especially in local politics with regard to acceptance of the LGBTQ community in public schools.
Progressive activists for economic and social justice have always by tradition favored more democratic participation from citizens at the local and grass roots level. In the United States there has been a tradition of citizen involvement and participation in the management and policies governing public school districts. Citizen activism, especially from parents with children in public schools, is generally viewed as something favorable to be encouraged by supporters of democratic participation and involvement for elections and vocal input at public school meetings. However, progressive activists should never assume that citizens who participate in democratic elections at the school board and local level do so with the aim of pursuing policies that address important issues involving the pursuit of economic and social justice. Often, as is the case in many parts of the US, citizen participation when motivated by intolerance and bigotry has been destructive to progressive goals of achieving justice for the poorest and most vulnerable groups in American society.
Throughout the United States in recent years there has been a growing movement among homophobic bigots at the grass roots and local level to prevent any curriculum in public schools that teaches tolerance and understanding of LGBTQ issues. Some states have passed laws that restrict or eliminate entirely any reference to LGBTQ history or community. Most notably the State of Florida passed a law popularly known as “Don’t Say Gay” which prevents teachers in Florida schools from teaching about or even discussing issues that relate to the LGBTQ community. In all parts of the US conservative reactionaries and bigots have established their own groups to advocate for an anti-LGBTQ agenda in public schools, at local school board meetings and other public venues. Following the lead and exploiting the issues raised by these grass roots organizations, reactionary politicians at all levels of government are using the issue of “parents rights” to oppose any consideration of LGBTQ issues in school curriculums in the same way racist politicians used “state’s rights” to justify opposition to the civil rights movement.
New Jersey is one of the most progressive states in the nation, with a political establishment that is very solid for Democrats and very favorable to issues that affect the LGBTQ community. In 2019, New Jersey became the second state in the country to pass a law that mandates a sex education curriculum for public schools in grades 5 through 12 which includes addressing issues relevant to the LGBTQ community, especially young people who are gay and very vulnerable to bullying and harassment because of their orientation. Several prominent advocacy groups for the LGBTQ community have been actively involved in developing lesson plans for the new curriculum that would effectively teach public school students about the need for diversity, inclusion and tolerance.
However, even in a very solid “Blue” state like New Jersey, there is very significant backlash, motivated by homophobia, religious bigotry and ignorance, against the new curriculum and its implementation in public schools, coming mostly from suburban, rural districts which are predominantly white and Conservative Christian. At the local, grassroots level there is an upsurge in citizen activism and participation, especially at local town meetings and school boards. Largely funded by religious conservatives, various groups have formed throughout the state to oppose any curriculum that teaches public school children about tolerance, diverse lifestyles, and inclusion..Several groups of homophobic parents and religious bigots have organized to actively oppose and lobby school board members to stop or severely restrict implementation of the new curriculum. Groups with names like “Moms For Liberty” have used the issue of “parental rights” in much the same way that groups in southern states like the Ku Klux Klan used the cover of “states rights” to oppose any implementation of court decisions and civil rights legislation in the 1950s and 1960s. Some groups of homophobic parents and religious bigots have been successful at intimidating local school boards, librarians and even teachers to remove books that these groups claim are “pornographic” and harmful to children, even though these books do nothing more than teach kids about accepting diversity and respect for other people regardless of their orientation. And in one school district, homophobic parents were successful at intimidating school board members to require that teachers notify parents if their child exhibits “gay” tendencies or other gender identity issues.
With elections for school board coming in November, for the first time in many years these elections have become much more significant and have received much closer attention from local and even national media. This is especially true in New Jersey where there is so much controversy and opposition to the new state-mandated curriculum. Various groups throughout the state, especially in rural and suburban districts where there is a large number of religious conservatives and reactionary bigots, are organizing to run teams of candidates for local school boards who will actively oppose and even prevent implementation of the state curriculum.
Opposition to the new LGBTQ-friendly has become extremely intensive in one New Jersey town, located in the southern part of the state which is a mix of rural and suburban communities that are predominantly white and very conservative Christian. This is the same town where the Mayor expressed his opposition to the new curriculum, at an official town hall meeting over which he was presiding, that gay people were “an affront to Almighty God”. At the next town hall meeting when a handful of protesters showed up, the Mayor got overwhelming support from community residents who attended the meeting. Anti-Gay hysteria was very evident among citizens who participate in town meetings and oppose any efforts to promote tolerance and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. This hysterical bigotry and hostility to the LGBTQ community, and the state curriculum in particular. was fed by tremendous amounts of misinformation, lies and deception spread by anti-Gay activists, especially on social media where there is no process for checking the truthfulness of anti-Gay hostility to the new curriculum.
Hostility to the Gay community was even more pronounced at meetings of the local school board, some of whose members also adopted an anti-LGBTQ stance in opposing the state curriculum. In one school district the anti-Gay opposition was in fact successful at delaying implementation of the new curriculum at their meeting to approve a school budget for the new year. Misinformation, disinformation and “fake news” about the curriculum, and a sexualized version of the “Domino Theory”, greatly enhanced the opposition. In voting against the curriculum, one school board member explained, “I have made it very clear last year, and this year, that I will never vote for an oversexualized curriculum where anal sex and masturbation will be discussed with children. If this passes, the next push will be pedophilia and bestiality. I won’t be part of that. The delay in approving the school budget over opposition to the new curriculum meant that there was a strong possibility schools would be closed until a new budget was approved. Fortunately, a budget was approved at a subsequent school board meeting to open the schools by only one vote.
The school board elections are in November. Religious Conservatives, homophobic bigots, and reactionary political groups are organizing at the grass roots level, especially local school district elections for school board, to motivate their followers in large enough numbers to elect school board members opposed to the new curriculum and who will refuse to implement it even though the state mandates. As well as school board there are elections for state legislature, if Republicans seize control they will be able to effectively block the new curriculum. Republican candidates in competitive districts are using opposition to the curriculum for fundraising and voter turnout. As in other states throughout the country Republicans are hoping that homophobic bigotry and anti-LGBTQ bias will help generate turnout for them to win this November.
The lesson here for progressive activists and for those who wish to promote a more tolerant, inclusive and accepting society, is that with participatory democracy or “majority rules” we can’t assume that citizen participation will always lead to the best outcome. Democracy defined is “Tyranny of the Majority” which in many cases, even in a relatively progressive state like New Jersey, can work against promoting progressive values when a majority of residents in many communities, especially white and conservative Christian, are opposed to any attempt to promote diversity and tolerance for LGBTQ students in public schools.
The upcoming elections in November, especially for school board members in competitive districts, will be a test to see if there is enough support for the LGBTQ-friendly curriculum to implement in hundreds of school districts throughout the state. Failure to elect school board members willing to implement the new curriculum as designed by various LGBTQ advocacy groups and approved by the New Jersey Department of Education will mean that political and community leaders will be much more hesitant to embrace the concept of promoting tolerance and diversity in public schools, especially for LGBTQ students. There is no doubt that in many communities there is very significant, if not majority support, to oppose implementation of the new curriculum. Therefore, turnout in these very competitive districts will be essential to obtain political victory and commitment to implement the LGBTQ-friendly curriculum in public schools. If pro-LGBTQ voters turn out in sufficient numbers they may be able to compensate for those anti-LGBTQ voters who do not turn out and vote. School board elections are historically of little interest to the vast majority of voters, that is why turnout in competitive districts is so important. In some communities. The key to victory is not majority turnout, but turnout by a minority of voters who actually will provide a majority of people who did vote. In many districts, a minority that comprises the majority of voters who actually vote will make all the difference. Defeat for the new curriculum in a significant number of districts would be catastrophic politically for those who support a greater acceptance of the LGBTQ community, and especially to provide and atmosphere of tolerance and diversity in public schools for LGBTQ students.
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