Commentary

Which children are in danger when screaming parents storm school board meetings?

Religious right activists turned out to storm a school board meeting to protest calling students by their name and demand pupils not be taught something that isn't offered in the district.
Religious right activists turned out to storm a school board meeting to protest calling students by their name and demand pupils not be taught something that isn't offered in the district.Photo: Screenshot

Ssshhhh, the adults are shouting and the problem is, our children can hear us.

“Saint Michael, the archangel, defend us in battle, be our protection against the wickedness and snares of the Devil, may God rebuke…..and we humbly pray, through thou…and heavenly hosts, and by the power of God, cast into Hell all Satan and all the evil spirits who prowl about the world, seeking the ruin of souls.”  ~Mary Beth Style, Fairfax County citizen, accidental exorcist 

Related: Court denies student lawsuit alleging LGBTQ protections cause ‘distress’

Was this religious rebuke delivered at a local tent revival? No, this individual used her two minutes in front of the Fairfax County School Board to exorcise representatives, not all of whom share in her religious beliefs, from the “evil spirits” inspiring their non-discrimination policies for LGBTQ young people.

Style often cites her background in social work, as she traffics in long-debunked pseudoscience about LGBTQ young people, not for a moment detecting the irony of her expressing concern for the “mental health” of children, just before she performed an exorcism on school board members.

Style is a frequent flier to board meetings and media, disseminating her anti-LGBTQ message for all who are forced to listen, and confirming the biases of those who share her views.

Before each public comment session in front of the school board, the board chair reads rules of engagement, which includes this request: “Speakers should be respectful and observe decorum in their statements, avoiding profanity, inappropriate gestures, shouting, and comments that run counter to the spirit of the letter of the school district’s non-discrimination policy.” 

While most commenters followed the guidelines, others went entirely off the rails.

The topics addressed by members of the community ranged from pro- and anti-science positions on COVID-19, expanding virtual learning, and a recent special education study that was upsetting to leaders in the Special Education PTA board. Yet as concerned, and pained as many of these speakers were, they were able to maintain composure and not brazenly violate the county’s non-discrimination policies. 

Two others joined Style’s holy crusade and addressed the School board on September 27. Adrienne Henzel, who doesn’t have children attending FCPS schools, who identified as a Fairfax County taxpayer and former teacher in the district stated, “I am here to protest the use of Fairfax taxpayer’s money in a campaign to normalize homoerotic material, promoting books that graphically depict homosexual acts.”

Her concern was centered around two books, specifically, Gender Queer, by Maia Kobabe, and Lawn Boy, by Jonathan Evison. She also objected to a “Drag story hour” at McLean Public Library, which I was sorry to have missed. 

Since the meeting, I have read both books, and neither book contains porn or pedophilia.

I was triggered by the accusation made by parents at first, although knowing in the back of my mind, that this is a common trope used to demonize LGBTQ people, but having two children in the district, I wanted to be certain nonetheless, so I ordered the books.

Evison, the author of Lawn Boy, spoke with the Washington Post and said he has received death threats since a parent in a Texas meeting condemned his book in early September. The passage about which parents are concerned depicts an adult talking about a sexual experience he’d had as a fourth-grader with another fourth grader.

This is not pedophilia. As a survivor of pedophilia myself, the harm caused here in this accusation isn’t only to LGBTQ people, but also to those of us who have been traumatized by this crime. I resent it. 

Kobabe, a non-binary, asexual individual describes eir journey to gender identity in Gender Queer. I found the book fascinating. Even though I’d had none of the experiences shared by Kobabe, I finished the book knowing much more about gender-expansive identities and feel I’m better for it.

Again, there is no pedophilia in the book. There is also no porn.

In an interview with the Washington Post, Kobabe said of the offending graphic, “the image is based on an ancient Greek pottery cup that shows ‘a courting scene’ and is on display at a museum in Oxford, England. Greek classical art and culture in high school marked the first time I can remember learning about LGBTQ+ people and it left a big impression.”

I don’t find the cartoon depiction of a sexual act between same-sex people on an ancient Greek pottery piece offensive. I’m also not naive enough to believe any of my children, once in high school, had not seen or been exposed to any sexual content. And if I brought my children to the same museum in Oxford England, they’d see the same piece of pottery.

It’s perfectly fine to depict what’s normal to people who differ, so young people feel represented, and those outside that identity can learn, as I did reading Gender Queer.

I am not a person with any LGBTQ identities, but I do relate to LGBTQ folk, as a neurodivergent person and as someone who colors outside the lines of neurotypicality. In fact, neurodivergent people identify with LGBTQ identities at double the rate as neurotypical people, so as a neurodivergent rights activist, I understand LGBTQ rights are in fact, also neurodivergent rights.

I hate the word, “normal,” to describe people who are straight or cis as much as I hate it when used to describe neurotypical people. For me, being a neurodivergent person is normal.

Broadening the scope of materials accessible to young people to include all kinds of people isn’t harming anyone. It’s not only healthy to be represented and seen but also healthy as a society for those inside the margins to understand the life experience of those outside them. 

The last speaker, to opine about the books cleared the room, literally. After shouting and reading passages from the books which offended her, the whole crowd started shouting, and school board members were forced to delay the meeting until it settled down.

Stacy Langton, a former actress and mother at home with six children, shouted both books “contain pedophilia, sex between men and boys,” “porn,” and contain, “violent nudity.” She proceeded to read very loudly some of the more mature scenes, meant for young people in high school to a meeting that had young children present.

She became an online, overnight sensation, interviewed on FOX, and local right-wing radio WMAL, on O’Conner and Company, and made it clear her intention isn’t to stop at just these two books. Langton and her cohorts intend to eradicate all LGBTQ content from Fairfax County School libraries. She claims she is not homophobic. We must define it differently.

To prepare for this piece, I watched all of Langton’s appearances on the right-wing martyr circuit and found it stunning that not one of them fact-checked her claims about these books or authors, nor were either of the authors contacted for one of these segments to defend their work. 

FCPS has acquiesced to the histrionics, or maybe the exorcism was successful, because both books have been removed “for further review.”

But this isn’t about two books or authors, or the entire collection of LGBTQ literature in Fairfax County libraries. This is about marginalizing LGBTQ young people in our schools.

Langton tweeted that “our children are in danger” in Fairfax County Schools, seemingly unaware that homophobia and transphobia place LGBTQ students nationwide in grave danger, and every national segment on which she appears, places even more children in danger. 

The one thing on which I can agree with her is that, indeed, children in Fairfax County are in danger. We simply disagree on which ones. 

I’m worried about the bullying with which LGBTQIA+ young people are relentlessly bombarded because I know the trauma, self-harm, and suicide data for this vulnerable population.

  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10 to 24.
  • LGB youth seriously contemplate suicide at almost three times the rate of heterosexual youth.
  • LGB youth are almost five times as likely to have attempted suicide compared to heterosexual youth.
  • Of all the suicide attempts made by youth, LGB youth suicide attempts were almost five times as likely to require medical treatment than those of heterosexual youth.
  • Suicide attempts by LGB youth and questioning youth are 4 to 6 times more likely to result in injury, poisoning, or overdose that requires treatment from a doctor or nurse, compared to their straight peers.
  • In a national study, 40% of transgender adults reported having made a suicide attempt. 92% of these individuals reported having attempted suicide before the age of 25.
  • LGB youth who come from highly rejecting families are 8.4 times as likely to have attempted suicide as LGB peers who reported no or low levels of family rejection.
  • 1 out of 6 students nationwide (grades 9–12) seriously considered suicide in the past year. 
  • Each episode of LGBT victimization, such as physical or verbal harassment or abuse, increases the likelihood of self-harming behavior by 2.5 times on average.

I asked Robert Rigby, an FCPS teacher, and co-president of FCPS Pride about the impact of the visceral hatred we’re witnessing against LGBTQ students, teachers, staff, and parents in school board meetings, and he stated, “It is not just about the books, ‘obscenity’ in our libraries, or these books in particular. It is about including marginalized communities in our schools.”

“Other books, including some about Black students, Asian students, Muslim students, immigrant students and of course LGBTQ students are now under the gun. This tactic of targeting literature about marginalized populations reappears every few years. Why here and why now?”

We do have an election next month here in Virginia, and much of the hysteria at local school board meetings is led by known Republican operatives and funded by deep-pocketed GOP benefactors. There’s no shortage of reporting on the Tea Party 2.0 occurring at school board meetings nationwide. 

The chilling piece of the resurrection of the Tea Party is they’re not screaming at other adults about taxes or denying people access to healthcare this time, but have hijacked our school boards and are weaponizing children to exploit the emotions of people who hold regressive views towards Black, brown, LGBTQ, and even disabled people.

We are seeing the Republican strategy unfurled here in Virginia as the hysteria breaks into fights, yelling, screaming, exorcisms, and tears. All they’re fighting for or against harms marginalized children most.

Critical Race Theory has not been proposed in any K-12 school systems, nor is it being taught anywhere, but the racial epithets, regressive policies, and curriculum they want will harm Black and brown children most. Their rejection of the term “inclusion” most harms disabled children, as does their refusal to wear masks and vaccinate. Disabled people are dying at the highest rates, hence the refusal to mask or vaccinate in schools threatens disabled children most. 

And further, public exorcisms and book burning of all LGBTQ materials in our school libraries send a clear message to LGBTQ students that they’re disgusting, that the lives they lead are filthy and they need demons cast from them. 

As the adults are shouting, young people are listening and hurting, and here’s what they’re saying…

I spoke with one student who wanted to remain anonymous, who said, 

I haven’t met a single LGBTQIA+ person who isn’t depressed in FCPS. How can I possibly learn when me and my friends are constantly anxious about our rights being taken away? People need to stop using our existence to score political points.

and another:

As a Queer student in FCPS, it’s so disappointing to see an unchangeable part of me become a political talking point. I just want to attend a safe school, where I can learn and be who I am. To be able to attend an inclusive school though, I have to speak up at school board meetings to protect my basic human rights. Adults, including school board members, need to step up and unequivocally say that we belong.

and yet another, who wanted me to share they are 14, 

I’m really afraid. I thought things were getting better for us at FCPS. Nobody knows what I am. I wish I wasn’t what I am. Every single day, I wish I wasn’t this thing so many think is so gross. I hate myself. 

The book burners tell us they are worried about the safety of children, yet given the self-harm and suicide rates of LGBTQ youth, given the homelessness and sexual assault data, the children in the gravest danger by this homophobic and transphobic rhetoric are LGBTQ young people. 

I’m all for fighting the power. I’ve stood at the podium at school board meetings, raging. I filed a federal lawsuit against my son’s school district for disability discrimination. My fight though was to protect children from actual harm.

That’s my fight now too. Our LGBTQ children are in grave danger in Fairfax County, and nationwide, and I’m not okay with that. I’m not okay with weaponizing hatred and ignorance about LGBTQ people to win elections.

As an Episcopalian, a religion that affirms LGBTQ people, I’m angry when people use God as a cudgel to bludgeon LGBTQ people, especially when teenagers are telling me they’re afraid and self-loathing. 

The Trevor Project estimates an LGBTQ person between the ages of 13-24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the United States. As co-founder of the Neurodivergent Liberation Coalition, and member of the Virginia Disability Caucus, I am profoundly concerned for the trauma being inflicted onto LGBTQ children in my district, and the hate being reported nationally as coming from Tea Party 2.0.

It may be a new iteration, but it’s the same game, exploiting marginalized people for political gain.

I hope it won’t take a suicide to stop the vicious homophobia and transphobia being spewed from the podiums at school board meetings nationwide. 

Keep the books; cut the mic on the haters; keep our children alive. 

Books aren’t dangerous. Trauma can be lethal.

If you want to support LGBTQ young people in Fairfax County, they are holding a rally at our school board meeting on October 7th, 2021 at 3020 Gatehouse Road in Falls Church VA. The rally starts at 6 PM, and the meeting is at 7 PM.

TrevorProject.org also has a 24/7/365 hotline for LGBTQIA+ young people who are afraid or have lost hope. Don’t leave us; you matter to us. 1.866.488.7386

Jennifer Litton Tidd is neurodivergent, a human rights activist, and co-founder of Neurodivergent Liberation Coalition. She lives in the DC area with an amazing husband and four children. She’s a creative who loves to read, write, and agitate, not necessarily in that order. 

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