Commentary

How the extreme right is weaponizing bigotry to campaign in Virginia

Parents stand outside a school board meeting to protest transgender students
Parents stand outside a school board meeting to protest transgender studentsPhoto: Jennifer Litton Tidd

Conservative activists, well funded by dark money, have galvanized screaming parents who are ready to remove all LGBTQ books from our county’s school libraries and incinerate them. The saga continues.

For me, being both cis and straight, with my cis and straight family, I can just show up at a school board meeting and report on events, then get into my car and drive home and not feel the inexorable soul-crushing trauma of the hatred being spewed at the podium at these events. I can drive by the activists on the roadside out front, as they giggle and wave, with their viciously hateful signs, as people in cars pass by honking their horns in support.  

Related: Wonder Woman has jumped into the battle over transgender rights & she’s not holding back

Golly; isn’t hatred fun? From what I could see of them, they were having a splendid time together.

These parent groups have been basking in national media attention and on local right wing radio. Yet, with all that media coverage, they only managed to inspire a few dozen nuts to a protest outside, most of whom do not have children attending our schools. It doesn’t matter how many people laughed, waved signs, honked, or shrieked though. This is all a show for these folks. With a page pulled from the same tired playbook, equating LGBTQ relationships to “porn” and “pedophilia,’ along with disparate issues like Critical Race Theory, and mask mandates, the narrative they’re using in our public meetings to ignite a national movement is getting traction. They’re not warrior Moms fighting for policy change though, they have a reactionary agenda that’s tightening the polls in the Virginia state races.

62% of Virginians just polled by a CBS news/YouGov, report that school curriculum on race and history will be “a major factor” in their choice for governor in November. 

They keep accusing the school board of “being too political,” whenever the Board works on measures to strengthen equity, inclusion, and non-discrimination policies. My family is directly impacted by inclusion, as we are a majority neurodivergent under our roof. I am a neurodivergent rights activist, but none of this has ever been “political” for me. I am fighting for our lives, literally.

When we fight for equity, inclusion, or non-discrimination policies for Black, Brown, disabled, and LGBTQ people, we are constantly accused of playing politics by the right. Because for them, fighting against equity, inclusion, and nondiscrimination of vulnerable populations, is in fact political. This isn’t a new movement rising up however, this is Republican Campaign Strategy 101 since forever.

They’ve lost every election in Virginia post-2016 largely because of suburban voters, so here is their strategy to marshall suburban voters this cycle. 

Oh, how they love to talk about how angry they are. They’re outraged about critical race theory, which is an anti-racist collegiate level curriculum never taught in any Virginia schools and never proposed to be taught here. But it really enrages them nonetheless.

One woman stood to fiercely oppose mandated masks, as she cried out that people who wear them are dying from carbon dioxide poisoning. I wish I was kidding.

And the hollering and finger-wagging over two LGBTQ book titles carried in four of our high school libraries… They have no porn or pedophilia in them, but FOX says they do, so it must be true. I’ve read both, neither has porn nor pedophilia.

Several speakers were threatening legal action and engaging the Virginia Attorney General. This is the circus of the absurd to which our school board meetings have devolved. Where are the adults in the room?

Pride Liberation Project, a student-led LGBTQ rights organization in Fairfax County, held a rally in front of the school board meeting on the 7th. They should have been able to simply enjoy the celebration of the LGBTQ+ history month resolution the school board was going to pass, but after the book-burning scandal erupted at the last meeting, it became less of a celebration and more pain inflicted onto LGBTQ children, on a day that that should have been affirming.

All twelve school board members voiced support for the LGBTQ community writ large in our schools and I wish the meeting ended there, but it didn’t.

Every batshit accusation imaginable was spewed by conservative activists at the lectern. From Marxism to the gay agenda, to indoctrinating our children, masks kill, the left hates America, baseball, and apple pie. It’s all so predictable.

As unfunny as it all is, I couldn’t stop myself and started laughing. That’s part of my own brain chemistry, when faced with extreme emotion, often my response is reactive or inappropriate. With the national media coverage from this,  every podium-pounding audition for 15 minutes of fame on FOX, was more bombastic than the last, so, many of us laughed. Except none of it was funny.

Students hold signs as parents protest that LGBTQ students are being treated equally
Students hold signs as parents protest that LGBTQ students are being treated equally Jennifer Litton Tidd

But the sicker and more deranged the speaker was, the more my body convulsed in laughter. I wanted to scream out, “You’re attacking children,” but I laughed instead. I was angry and felt helpless sitting behind an extraordinary group of diverse and LGBTQ students, all quietly sitting there, enduring one bigoted slur after another.

The students were the adults in the room. I felt sick and angry. 

This group of parents and wretched stragglers FOX dragged in, led by known conservative activists, exclaimed they aren’t domestic terrorists, just moms, as they cited Merrick Garland’s memo on the threats to school administrators, board members, teachers, and staff. They claimed any parents questioning curriculum to schools have been labeled by the Biden administration as “domestic terrorists.” That of course is not true, and yet another falsehood perpetrated by the right-wing media to deputize faux warrior moms, as they commiserate in their imagined victimhood.

But the story wasn’t inside the meeting. What moved me most that night were the young activists from Pride Liberation Project, voices not heard by the hate-la-palooza festival out front.

One young person spoke about the hypocrisy of removing only LGBTQ literature when plenty of their reading has heterosexual relationships, sex, and even rape. Another student leader named Aaryan spoke, citing LGBTQ data from this county. I’ve heard all the terrible statistics about LGBTQ pain, but always assumed that’s mostly in other places because we’re more enlightened here? Except the data belies that misconception.

In the last Fairfax County Youth Survey, this data was self-reported by 8th, 10th, and 12th LGBTQ grade students:

  • 17% of teens in Fairfax County identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or questioning. 
  • 21% of LGBTQ students have been bullied in the last year; 70% of the bullying was by non-LGBTQ youth. 
  • 50% of LGBTQ children experience depressive symptoms.
  • 25% have been sexually harassed.
  • 32% have considered suicide. (almost tripling the rates of non-LGBTQ)
  • 14% have actually attempted suicide. (almost quadrupling non-LGBTQ)

In the commentary on the findings from the survey it was noted, “Data from the Youth Survey reinforces decades of research that shows that when youth have protective factors in their lives, they do better in lots of different areas. Having just three protective factors dramatically reduces the likelihood that youth will engage in risky behaviors.”

Another salient point made by LGBTQ students, was the group assembled to celebrate the LGBTQ history resolution, and affirm our LGBTQ children, was the only group that had students.

I realized as Aaryan spoke, that it wasn’t the first time I’d encountered him. In June, I tuned into a Zoom meeting with school board member Abrar Omeish.  She’d gathered student leaders from many different marginalized populations with the district’s equity advisor to allow students to engage her and ask questions about their respective groups. As the Mom of an autistic son, I wanted to see if equity included neurodivergent student voices. I also wanted to express my hope that the new neurodiversity advisor the county is considering hiring will be a neurodivergent person. 

What struck me first in the forum was the bullying of Omeish, a Muslim school board member who wears a hijab. Omeish is one of the board members the book burners are trying to extricate via recall. But quickly, I was more horrified that adults were parked in this online student forum, bullying minors. Aaryan asked thoughtfully:

“I kinda wanted to pivot a little bit to a different issue. Specifically, 2020-2021 has become the worst year in recent history for anti-LGBTQ+ attacks according to the Human Rights Campaign. So far–this number is only going to go up in the next couple weeks. 17 anti-queer bills have been enacted by state legislatures and in our neighboring school district, a teacher recently testified that he would intentionally misgender his elementary school transgender students. Given these attacks, particularly against transgender women of color, what are you doing specifically to ensure transgender students are actually accepted in this county?” 

In the comments below, parents began sexualizing a young man because he asked a question about violence against LGBTQ people. He’d not uttered a word about sex or sexuality. As a student leader at Pride Liberation Project, he wanted to know how the school system would protect LGBTQ students from harm.

All of us who belong to groups of people to whom people are resolutely opposed to our existence share these fears. How do we stay alive?

Adults in the comments under the Facebook live event expressed outrage over student activism, sneered and mocked children voicing concerns. I found the bullying of students perverse and realized there is no low to which these “child safety advocates” would not stoop for their regressive agenda, including online bullying of minors. 

But it’s not just children they’re bullying. Karl Frisch, FCPS’ only gay school board member, was not one of the three school board members initially targeted by the recall efforts, but since the LGBTQ book hysteria has erupted, the comments to him on his Twitter account have devolved into a fetid cesspool of anti-LGBTQ vitriol and threats. The stalking and harassment of Frisch, above all the other board members since the LGBTQ book frenzy, perfectly illustrates the craven homophobia in this mob with pitchforks and torches and radiated out by their media.

The right doesn’t care about parents, books, education, or school boards. They’re cynically exploiting hatred of LGBTQ, Black and brown people, and fear of science to win in Virginia in November and beyond.

It’s all just politics, right? Maybe we just need to out-strategize them you say?

Except it isn’t. It’s only just politics for the hateful hordes hijacking our school board meetings. I’m terrified of the long-term impact on our children this campaign will have. Those already on the margins, already in endangered groups will only be in greater danger. 

My favorite speaker in the meeting was Alana. She started out by saying, “I’m a student of a Fairfax County school currently.” As she began speaking of her experience in school, numerous adults began heckling and mocking her, yes, the child protection activists decided to not be protective of this child. Someone shouted out to her that she’s a liar, to which she turned and responded, “why are you calling me a liar? I’m a student.”

Yet the adults, who’d spent the meeting shrieking about not being heard, to school board members captive and patiently listening to their insults and absurd lies, were interrupting a minor, not hearing her, not letting her speak. Alana again turned as the bullying continued, and said, “Are you really bullying a 17 year old girl right now?”

Once the school board chair was forced to stop the jeers and mockery of a student, Alana continued, “It’s just ridiculous, all of you don’t know what it’s like to be a high schooler in Fairfax County at this time; You don’t know what it’s like to be treated as a highschooler at this time. You don’t know what it’s like to have to hear these ridiculous things, to be taken back from us when we’re trying to move forward with this; we’re trying to move forward.”

Thank you for your courage Alana, and I’m sorry our world is filled with regressive receptacles of rage.

Nelson Mandela once opined, “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” These parent groups are revealing their souls, and what they’re revealing is monstrous. As one who is concerned with the safety of children, this malicious movement makes me furious. 

In the mockery of Alana, they exposed themselves for precisely what they are, and it’s not child safety advocates, because adults who are concerned with the safety of young people don’t publicly mock them. 

Thank you Alana for illustrating the point better than all the reporting has yet, including my own. It’s time to move forward. LGBTQ children exist in Fairfax County. 17% of our children are LGBTQ and it’s time to listen to them, to be one of their “protective factors,” because we love them and support them by stocking our school libraries with award-winning authors like Maia Kobabe and Jonathan Evison to whom they can relate. 

I’ll never forget a sign I saw in San Francisco at an ACT UP rally in 1987, “Be careful who you hate, because it may be someone you love.”

Alana has family who loves her, so does Aaryan, so do all the students in the Pride Liberation Project. They’re amazing humans, and far more dignified and composed than any of their adult detractors.

I remember another mantra from ACT UP as well, Silence = Death. Removing LGBTQ voices from our libraries is a form of silencing, and with one in two LGBTQ students in our district who are depressed, with four times the suicide rate, how much silencing must these kids endure before it equals death?

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