Anti-LGBTQ laws introduced in New Jersey state legislature

New Jersey State House in Trenton file photo 2019

New Jersey joined Colorado, Illinois, Maryland, New Mexico, Minnesota, and California in protecting trans health care this year. Gov. Phil Murphy signed an Executive Order establishing New Jersey as a “safe haven” for transgender health care.

New Jersey put this executive order into effect to counteract Sen. Ed Durr’s (R-Gloucester) legislation. Durr’s proposed anti-trans health care bill would prohibit minors from receiving medical care. This includes hormone replacement therapy and elective surgeries and would penalize medical providers who provide such care with jail time. Similar legislation is also sponsored in the U.S. Congress by U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.).

Along with this bill come six other anti-LGBTQ bills introduced into this legislative session. The bills predominantly target LGBTQ youth, education, and healthcare for trans youth.

While it’s unlikely any of the anti-LGBTQ bills introduced will pass into law, in our state, they follow along with a trend of anti-LGBTQ policies being considered in school districts throughout the state.

LGBTQ advocates and New Jersey public school teachers are concerned about the dangers these bills represent. New Jersey has some of the strongest LGBTQ protections in the country.

Garden State Equality Deputy Director Brielle Winslow-Majette tells the magazine that “New Jersey is a state that believes in equality.”

“Through that, legislators [should continue to block] these bills that have been introduced in the state of New Jersey [to ban] health care, or sports, or education.”

Winslow-Majette is speaking about two pieces of legislation that are both called “The Fairness in Women’s Sports Act.”

These companion bills propose forcing trans student-athletes to participate in sports teams that go against their gender identity. Similar laws with the same title have passed the state legislatures in Idaho, Florida, and Arkansas. In New Jersey the bill’s primary sponsors are Assemblymen Gregory McGuckin and John Catalano, both Republicans from Ocean County.

In February, Colts Neck’s Board of Education tried to rush an anti-trans policy that is still under consideration by some. The policy would segregate trans students from cisgender students. This may be the case in eight states including Oklahoma, Idaho, and Kentucky, but in New Jersey it’s illegal.

The Garden State is one of 20 states with full LGBTQ protections, and in 2018 became the 11th state in the nation to issue guidance on transgender students to schools intended to promote a safe and successful learning environment.

Gov. Murphy passed the LGBTQ-inclusive curriculum bill in 2019. The law states that “a board of education shall include instruction on the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, in an appropriate place in the curriculum of middle school and high school students.”

“In terms of the inclusive curriculum, there are 600 districts in the state of New Jersey and there are districts right now who are not enforcing inclusive curriculum, or are not teaching our students inclusive curriculums in their schools. And I’m looking to see that we come up with some kind of consequence for that,” said Winslow-Majette.

According to state law, the LGBTQ health curriculum is optional. However, the standard inclusive curriculum in social studies, English and language arts, and other subjects is not optional.

Still, school districts like Millstone Township have axed their health curricula. In some instances, teachers are required to teach “the basics” of sex education. Parents are expected to address the rest without guidance.

Chris Canella, a social studies teacher in Essex County, says these bills are an “attempt to stop dialogue.” He also doubles down that anti-LGBTQ acts by school boards throughout the state are illegal.

Essex is home to Glen Ridge, whose public library fought against introduced book bans. The library won with the help of Glen Ridge United Against Book Bans, an LGBTQ-inclusive advocacy group.

As a teacher, Canella says his students are struggling, and that the LGBTQ club meetings are shrinking.

“It’s just not going to be safer for students,” said Canella. “And I’ve seen that talking to some of my colleagues statewide, the students, in particular in districts where there have been issues, expressed that they’re just not comfortable with what’s going on and it makes them not comfortable with having conversations with teachers who are willing to engage them and to support them.”

Some proposed related bills state that if a parent of a student enrolled in a school district objects to a learning material that is part of the curriculum on the basis that the material is “harmful” they can withdraw the child from the school district. Upon withdrawal, parents can enroll the child in a nonpublic school. The proposed bill says any health-related or historical curriculum regarding gender identity, gender expression, and sexuality is equal to “harmful.”

Legislators are introducing other, similar “parents’ rights in education” bills. One includes Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), who has sponsored a bill called the “Children Innocence Protection Act.”

What about teachers’ rights as educators? Well, Canella says that LGBTQ teachers are “the center of attention in the political world. I think obviously, we’re here for students. Our main job is to make things safe for students. But as a union representative, too, I also want to make sure that my members and the folks that we represent are safe as well,” said Canella.

Public school special education teacher Andrea Levine agrees. “I think that people aren’t really paying attention to states like New Jersey because of the protections we have, or the optics of New Jersey as a state with full LGBTQ protections. And yet still, legislators are introducing numerous bills that pose threats to those protections as we know it,” said Levine.

Levine added that while legislators are “prioritizing discrimination over truly doing their jobs” they’re neglecting the issues students are facing. “My own colleagues, other teachers I work with, are very concerned about backlash from parents. I said: ‘I understand that, but that’s not my main concern. My main concern is one of my students taking their life,’” Levine said.

Right now, 41% of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered attempting suicide, according to The Trevor Project’s 2023 U.S. national survey on the mental health of LGBTQ youth.

Levine urges all people living in New Jersey to show up to their neighborhood’s BOE meetings. Canella and Winslow-Majette have a similar urgent call for action. The two leaders believe New Jersey elected officials must codify into law transgender student guidelines for school districts, found in SB 3067, which was signed into law in 2017 by former Gov. Chris Christie. This way, Canella says, districts know “we are not going to have this.”

Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.