Anti-LGBTQ groups continue to oppose LGBTQ inclusion

Warren County's LGBTQ Support & Social Meet-Up

The LGBTQ community has always been an “other” to mainstream society. That’s implied with any group considered a minority in America. However, between the late 1960s and now, LGBTQ Americans have seen several waves of both near-peak acceptance and hate-filled rejection. And this current wave is starting to mirror a dark history of anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.

Last year, in March 2022, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis passed the state’s infamous “Don’t Say Gay” bill, HB 1557, which prohibits “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity in certain grade levels or in a specified manner.” And while modern anti-LGBTQ legislation has for sure existed prior to this bill, HB 1557 seemingly kick-started a chain of anti-LGBTQ education-based legislation now regularly popping up around the country.

“It’s a contemporary version on these older attempts to annul homosexuality,” Lillian Faderman, author of The Gay Revolution, said in an interview with NBC News. “In the present environment, you can’t go after homosexual teachers anymore. We have too many allies. And so Florida has found another way to do it by this ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, which doesn’t go after homosexual teachers precisely. But the idea is the same. That is, that homosexuality is a pariah status, and it shouldn’t be discussed in the public schools.”

As Faderman said, the tension between the LGBTQ community and conservative beliefs on shielding children from them is far from a new movement. In fact, the idea that children need to be “protected” from queerness is actually what built the foundation of the first-ever opposition to the gay rights movement — the Save Our Children campaign.

Save Our Children was a political coalition formed in 1977, unironically also stemming from the state of Florida. The campaign was spearheaded by celebrity singer Anita Bryant, who, along with fellow Christian fundamentalists, opposed a legislated Miami-Dade county ordinance that banned discrimination in areas of public accommodation, housing, and employment based on sexual orientation.

The claim Bryant and the Save Our Children campaign made was that by banning sexual orientation-based discrimination, the county was infringing upon the Christian fundamentalist’s right to teach and preach biblical morality, or the ethics taught in the Bible. The coalition was particularly fixated on barring LGBTQ people from teaching or influencing the youth, hence the group’s name.

“The overwhelming majority of the constituents of Dade County are against this moral issue, and in particular, that it concerns our children,” Bryant said in an interview featured in the documentary Anita Bryant – Save Our Children Campaign. “The organization which we formed, after the courtroom hearing, says it all — save our children. We do not want our children subjected to this kind of a role model.”

Sound familiar?

The rhetoric used by Bryant and the Save Our Children campaign back in the 1970s could easily be mistaken for speeches made at debates happening in school board meetings or committee hearings in the 21st century. Today, however, parents and legislators are not claiming they’d like to “save” the children from the LGBTQ community, but “protect” them from it.

Opposition to LGBTQ themes in school settings has slowly become a heated topic of discussion in New Jersey ever since the state adopted a newly revised version of the Student Learning Standards for Comprehensive Health and Physical Education (NJSLS-CHPE) in 2020. The idea that educators are “indoctrinating” children with “leftist, LGBTQ ideology” has led both conservative parents and legislators to combat conversations held in the classroom, in the name of protection.

However, this debate over New Jersey’s revised sex education curriculum didn’t initially start out with prominent concerns over the LGBTQ community. At first, disagreements began with debates on the age at which children should learn about certain topics related to sex and gender.

“…the tension between the LGBTQ community and conservative beliefs on shielding children from them is far from a new movement… the idea that children need to be “protected” from queerness is actually what built the first-ever opposition to the gay rights movement — the Save Our Children campaign…”

Early in 2022, Union County released a sample of the educational material elementary teachers planned to implement to teach students about topics such as gender identity, sexual orientation and human anatomy. One particular exercise, which involved the use of blue, pink and purple color cards to explain how gender is allocated in society and how gender is a feeling, received outrage from local politicians.

“I truly think New Jersey has lost its damn mind,” Republican State Sen. Holly Schepisi of Bergen stated in response to the online circulation of the curriculum. “Many [of the lesson templates] are completely overboard with cringy detail for young kids and some go so far as unnecessarily sexualizing children further.”

The notion that the new curriculum is sexualizing children became a sensationalized worry for conservative parents. However, given the lack of proof that children were being taught explicit and inappropriate lessons, defenders of the curriculum, including State Sen. Vin Gopal, suspected that conservative politicians were purposely inflating the situation.

“We have seen a large amount of disinformation that has been done in an organized effort by professional political consultants and politicians, who should know better, trying to say that school districts and teachers are teaching pornography and different types of sex acts and other things to grade-school kids,” Sen. Gopal said in an interview with NJ Spotlight. “Yet, we’re not seeing it pointed to an actual school district that it’s happening.”

The conflict over education only grew hotter. Over the course of 2022, school board meetings across the state became debate stages between parents and educators arguing over who has the “right” to teach children about sex and gender-related topics. With each meeting, the conversation morphed from the belief that lessons were too “sexual” for children, but now, lessons and policies are too “queer,” and the children need “protecting” from it.

On Sept. 8, 2022, a group of about 100 Ocean City residents gathered across from City Hall at Mark Soifer Park for an hourlong combination political rally, sex education protest, and Christian revival meeting. There, Rev. Gregory Quinlan, the president and executive director of The Center for Garden State Families, based in Parsippany, spoke to the crowd, condemning homosexuality and claiming state programs, such as the revised sex education curriculum, are “grooming children for sex traffickers.”

The ties between conservatives denouncing New Jersey’s revised sex education curriculum and denouncing sexual orientation discussions in classrooms have only become blurrier as we entered 2023. In March of this year, Ocean City board members Robin Shaffer, Liz Nicoletti and Catherine Panico — the same board members who gained their seats for opposing the curriculum in November — proposed a resolution titled “Protecting Our Children,” which was another attempt at fighting the adopted revised curriculum.

Given that two-thirds majority was needed for the resolution to pass, the “Protecting Our Children” resolution failed.

So far this year, other attempts to “protect our children” from LGBTQ ideas have come down to a vote. In some cases, they are barred, like in Glen Ridge, when a group called Citizens Defending Education attempted to ban six LGBTQ-themed books from the school’s library. In other areas, they prevail, like in Washington Township, where LGBTQ ‘safe space’ stickers were removed on the concern that they promote favoritsm of LGBTQ students.

Like the Save Our Children campaign — which, given its success, encouraged other counties and states in the 1970s to develop their own anti-LGBTQ groups to overturn discrimination bans — the current language promoting the idea that children need protection from the LGBTQ community is spreading.

What started as disagreements in classrooms, has led to bills and other pieces of legislation being passed in some states that ban the mention of sexual orientation and/or gender- affirming pronouns in school settings. And while in New Jersey, the idea that kids need protection from LGBTQ themes remains centered around a sex education curriculum, it may not be a surprise, say activists, if the “protect our children” rhetoric continues to metastasize.