Typically mundane, US school board meetings have become a platform for harsh rhetoric and partisan divides, particularly when it comes to LGBTQ issues and policies that inhibit freedoms for transgender students. From banning books that discuss gender and sexuality to requiring teachers to call students by their legal names, school districts around the country have approved policies that pose “extremely high levels of risk” to transgender students, according to a legislative researcher we spoke to. Still, results from the midterm elections show that not all Americans support them.
On November 8, students staged a walkout at a school in Conway, Arkansas to protest a set of policies targeting transgender students. Two weeks prior, the Conway School Board issued policies to regulate restroom usage based on students’ assigned sex at birth. The ACLU said the move could serve to “stigmatise” students and violate federal laws to protect transgender students in schools.
Three people were arrested while protesting a school board meeting discussing these policies the same day. Chants of “trans lives matter” erupted outside the meeting before the arrests.
A video shared on October 12 captured the school board meeting where officials approved the anti-trans policies. One speaker said that LGBTQ people “deserve death”.
“Those who do such things (speaking about gay people) deserve death”. This was spoken tonight at the Conway School Board meeting (and the members let him continue) just before the board chose to implement discriminatory bathroom policies against the trans community. pic.twitter.com/TtmQYcc464
— Jenny Wallace (@JennylovesCam) October 12, 2022
A video posted on Twitter on October 12 captured the harsh rhetoric about LGBTQ people at a school board meeting in Conway, Arkansas.
These scenes in Arkansas are far from rare. School board meetings all around the US have become platforms for debates over LGBTQ issues, with lawmakers proposing policies that would ban LGBTQ content in schools and regulate how students’ gender identities would be treated by teachers and administrators.
In some cases, the debate has turned violent. School officials have reported receiving death threats, while numerous people have been arrested for battery and disorderly conduct at school board meetings. The National School Boards Association has asked for federal help to counter violence and vitriol.
Local school board candidates – who are elected to determine educational policies and spending – were on the ballot in at least 24 states for the midterm elections on November 8. LGBTQ issues were centre stage in these races, with a record number of both LGBTQ candidates and conservative candidates who support anti-LGBTQ policies.
‘This has been a central issue in school boards across the country’
Erin Reed is an LGBTQ legislative researcher who tracks anti-trans policies around the US.
Across the country, I have been tracking school board hearings where anti-trans policies have popped up and they have gotten extremely contentious between Moms For Liberty (Editor’s note: a conservative organisation that lobbies for “parental rights” in schools, which in the past has campaigned against library books and school curricula that mention LGBTQ topics) groups and LGBTQ+ supportive groups of parents. Places like Gardner-Edgerton [Kansas], Conway School District [Arkansas], Loudoun County Schools [Virginia] and more have featured extremely vitriolic language and debate. This has been a central issue in school boards across the country.
Across the nation, school board meetings have attracted protests from students and parents on both sides of the debate.
In September, Connecticut parents complained about a classroom worksheet that included vocabulary terms such as “transgender,” “white privilege” and “indigenous peoples”.
At a school board meeting in Pennsylvania on October 25, parents debated whether a school should be required to inform parents if their child asks to be called by different pronouns at school.
In June 2021, a Loudoun County, Virginia school board meeting called to discuss policies to ensure that transgender students be “treated with dignity and respect” degenerated into chaos and arrests with crowds of parents gathering to oppose the proposition.
NEW VIDEO from inside the chaotic Loudoun school board meeting. 1/3 pic.twitter.com/tHDyzCz7KE
— Drew Wilder (@DrewWilderTV) June 22, 2021
A thread of videos posted on June 23, 2021 shows police arresting people at a school board meeting in Loudoun County, Virginia.
The controversy in Loudoun County didn’t end there – the school board race in one district in the county on the ballot this month was between an incumbent, an openly gay candidate, and a candidate who wants to ban books with LGBTQ content. On November 15, the race was called for Tiffany Polifko, the “parental rights” candidate who supports anti-trans policies. The county’s other district, however, elected a candidate who favours protecting trans students.
‘There has been a surge in policies that demand that teachers call parents if they suspect a student is transgender’
Reed explained the major anti-transgender policies being proposed in school districts:
The main policies we are seeing in schools are policies that force teachers to misgender their transgender students, as well as policies that force teachers to use a student’s legal name even in casual conversation if they wish to go by a different name. We’re also seeing a lot of policies that would ban transgender students from bathrooms that match their gender identities. Many transgender students are “stealth” meaning that nobody knows they are transgender, and these policies also seek to out those students. We are also seeing a growth of policies that seek to ban books on transgender and LGBTQ issues. Lastly, there has been a surge in policies that demand that teachers call parents if they suspect a student is transgender – this can be especially harmful in places where being transgender is not accepted, putting these students at risk of family violence. These policies put transgender students at extremely high levels of risk.
Other policies proposed in schools ban transgender students from playing sports or restrict open discussions about gender and sexuality in schools.
Here you can see GHS students walking out to protest the “don’t say trans” school board policy and other discriminatory practices. True Texas Project counterprotestors can also be seen. pic.twitter.com/IpA7qmsca0
— NewFaith46🏴🚩 (@Doomgal46) August 26, 2022
A video shared on Twitter on August 26, 2022 shows students from Grapevine High School in Texas staging a walkout to protest policies that discriminate against transgender students.
Policies like these are known to have significant effects on LGBTQ youth, particularly when it comes to their mental health. A 2022 survey by The Trevor Project, which focused on suicide prevention for LGBTQ youth, found that support from family and friends significantly reduces the suicide rate among LGBTQ youth. “School belonging” was considered among the major factors that can reduce suicidality among transgender youth in a 2022 study.
Transgender students being required to use a bathroom or locker room that does not align with their gender identity can lead to sexual assault and contribute to transgender students feeling unsafe. At least 75% of transgender students reported feeling unsafe at school, and 50% say they are unable to use the name and pronouns that they feel comfortable with, according to a 2015 survey.
‘There are signs that focusing on transgender students is not a 100% winning issue for the right’
Nonetheless, Reed believes that things have improved for trans students in school districts across the United States following the November 8 midterm elections. But while many conservative candidates who ran on anti-trans platforms lost their races, there is still a risk for students where those candidates came out on top.
We did see school board elections across the country that featured anti-trans candidates losing. It wasn’t a sweep, but there are signs that focusing on transgender students is not a 100% winning issue for the right, and many school districts are in a better place today than they were yesterday. Wake County [North Carolina] elected seven out of nine Democrats, a major anti-trans candidate lost in Arlington, Virginia, and in Lafayette, Indiana, the slate of anti-trans school board candidates all lost.
Florida and Texas likely got worse. Tennessee has also joined the fray, and Ohio continues to be at risk. I am concerned that even if things get better in some places, they will get worse for transgender students in these states. There, policies that forcibly out them, ban them from bathrooms, deadname and misgender them will probably continue to go forward.
In the midterm elections, 270 candidates were endorsed by Moms for Liberty. Around half of them won their races, according to the group’s co-founder.
The federal Title IX of the Civil Rights Act bans discrimination by sex and gender in American public schools. The US Department of Education has confirmed that this includes the rights of transgender students to be called by their chosen name and pronoun and the right to privacy regarding their gender identity.