A few years ago, the yearbook staff of a suburban Houston high school finished the project late in the fall semester, including a full-page feature on the high school’s Pride club, a support group for LGBTQ students.
When the 2018-19 yearbook arrived at administration for final approval, the principal noticed the addition and made a controversial decision: parents of every student on that page would need to sign a permission slip.
The slips, which were sent to parents without the students’ consent and for no other school club, caused a commotion, according to Cameron Samuels, a club member and then a freshman.
Samuels, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, was not photographed and thus avoided the trauma. They saw how it shook and disturbed some of their classmates, however.
‘Don’t Say Gay’: states try to limit the influence of LGBTQ people
The Texas controversy is one of many flashpoints in the national divide between LGBTQ advocates pushing for greater acceptance and conservatives opposing what they see as a radical shift in what children are taught or exposed to in the classroom.
According to the non-profit Movement Advancement Project, 19% of LGBTQ people live in states that restrict discussions about queer people or issues in schools.
The backlash against LGBTQ rights is gaining traction across the country, particularly in red states where cultural wars over education have propelled Republicans to election victories. However, the Biden administration’s proposed changes to Title IX, a federal statute that protects against gender and sex discrimination, may put a stop to the movement.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation in March prohibiting the mention of sexual orientation or gender identity in school curriculum. Since then, about a dozen other state governments have passed or proposed similar legislation, dubbed “Don’t Say Gay” laws by opponents.
DeSantis has defended the legislation, officially titled Parental Rights in Education, as giving parents more control over their children’s education.
“We will ensure that parents can send their children to school for an education, not indoctrination,” the governor stated last spring.
In April, Texas Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick declared that enacting a similar law is a “top priority.” Patrick was re-elected for a third term in November, making him president of the state Senate and in charge of the legislative agenda.
Texas may soon overtake Florida in terms of limiting LGBTQ curriculum in public schools. While Florida law prohibits the teaching of sexual orientation or gender identity from kindergarten to third grade, a bill recently introduced in the Texas legislature would extend the prohibition to eighth grade.
“Our children’s sexualization must end. Over the last year and a half, parents and taxpayers have spoken out loudly. The message is that radical ideology is no longer tolerated in the classroom, especially when it comes to inappropriate or obscene content “GOP Rep. Jared Patterson, the bill’s sponsor, issued a statement.
Alabama, Ohio, and Louisiana are among the states that are leading the anti-LGBTQ charge:
Alabama’s state legislature passed what began as a “bathroom bill,” prohibiting transgender students from using the bathroom of the gender with which they identify. The bill, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey in April of last year, came to include additional restrictions on sexual orientation or gender identity discussions up to fifth grade.
Ohio lawmakers have proposed legislation to prohibit LGBTQ-related instruction through third grade.
Louisiana: A similar bill was rejected by the state’s House Education Committee last year, but it was later revived by conservatives. The bill, which has been tabled for this year’s legislative session, would prohibit these discussions until the eighth grade and teachers from discussing their own identities until the twelfth grade.
Title IX is a federal pushback from the Biden administration.
However, these state initiatives may face federal opposition soon. On the 50th anniversary of Title IX last summer, the Biden administration proposed Title IX expansions that would strengthen LGBTQ student protections.
In that case, so-called “Don’t Say Gay” legislation would be in conflict with federal law, violating the new, more explicit definitions of sex discrimination and stereotyping, according to Sandra Hodgin, Founder and CEO of Title IX Consulting Group.
“Federal regulation takes precedence over state regulation,” Hodgin asserted. “State regulators would have to figure out how to put whatever they want in place in order to work with federal (requirements).”
A large portion of the burden would fall on the schools and districts in red states. Local officials would have to revise policies to be in line with federal guidelines while navigating any discrepancies, according to Hodgin.
“Right now, several school districts are reaching out to people like me to figure out, ‘Okay, what’s the middle ground? ‘What should we do?’ ” said Hodgin, who is hired by campuses to provide Title IX compliance advice. “They don’t want to lose federal funding worth millions of dollars.”
According to Deputy Press Secretary Vanessa Harmoush, the Department of Education intends to release the finalised amendments in May.
Samuels expressed hope that any changes made would result in real safeguards for students in their home district.
“I hope that districts like Katy and every other district in Texas will respect the rights of queer youth just as they would any other law,” the student said.
Communities in transition are at the epicentre of the cultural divide.
Katy, a suburb about 30 miles west of Houston, is similar to many once-agrarian communities across the United States that have been transformed by urban sprawl. Though these towns have long outgrown their farm-town status as a result of rapid growth and diversification in the last decade, a persistent undercurrent of conservative beliefs has exacerbated cultural divisions within the community, according to Samuels.
“It’s that debate about what it means to be an American. What is it like to be a Texan? “How can we solidify that with traditional values, which often exclude the diversity that we actually (have) as a country, state, or community?” said Samuels, now 18 and a first-year student at Brandeis University in Massachusetts.
According to Austin Davis Ruiz, communications and marketing manager at the Montrose Center, an LGBTQ advocacy group and community centre in Houston, no local district has spoken out against the proposed Title IX changes. However, he stated that there is still “anti-LGBTQ sentiment in Houston suburbs.”
Last school year, as a senior, Samuels acted as an advocate to protest a district internet filter that blocked access to LGBTQ-related websites on school computers.
They recall standing alone in front of a room of adults “spewing bigotry” at one board meeting. According to Samuels, the discussion that evening included book banning, with some parents urging school libraries to remove LGBTQ stories or books teaching critical race theory.
Despite Samuels’ efforts, websites such as the Trevor Project — an organisation dedicated to LGBTQ suicide prevention — are still blocked for Katy students in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to high school senior Logan McLean at a recent school board meeting.
She claimed it exemplified “Katy ISD’s hostility to LGBTQ+ students.”
Katy ISD did not respond to a request for comment from USA TODAY.
Some suburbs are hostile to “gay things.”
The conflict has spread beyond the boundaries of schools. Last September, Katy’s First Christian Church hosted an all-ages drag bingo, which drew a swath of angry protestors, including members of the far-right extremist group, the Proud Boys. The backlash continued in online posts and messages in the days and weeks that followed.
“I had no idea humanity could hate as much as I saw on all those social media posts,” Rev. Heather Tolleson said.
Another all-ages drag event drew a similar reaction a month earlier in another Texas neighbourhood nearly three hundred miles north. The Barrel Babes Drag Brunch in Roanoke, a Dallas-Fort Worth suburb, was met with conservative protestors and leftist counter-protestors, both of whom were armed and clashed outside the local distillery and grill.
Tolleson’s church in Katy has made waves in the community for being “intentionally open and affirming,” as she describes it. They provide LGBTQ ministries and programmes such as Transparent Closet, which provides clothing and accessories to young people who are exploring their gender identity.
However, some Katy residents would prefer that “gay things” like this stay within Houston city limits, rather than in their suburban backyard, according to Tolleson.
“So many of the comments were, ‘not in Katy,'” she said of the event’s social media reaction.
Tolleson said that members of First Christian Church frequently attend Katy school board meetings to advocate. She does, however, see many young students, including Samuels, standing up for themselves or their peers.
“The students there are not saying what their parents are saying,” Tolleson explained.