“Parental Rights in Education” laws are a form of child abuse

Florida don't say gay bill, student walkouts, Florida, Ron DeSantis
Photo: Nadine Smith

Tuesday, June 7, a large van from the Broward County Florida public school department drove up in front of the Stonewall National Museum and Archives in Fort Lauderdale. In the van, Broward County school officials had filled boxes of children’s books on LGBTQ themes taken from county classrooms and school libraries for donation to the museum.

While county officials claimed the donations were the result of their attempts to clear shelves and office space for the accumulation of other subject matter, it is no mere coincidence that Florida’s so-called “Parental Rights in Education” law, called by opponents as the “Don’t Say Gay” law, was to take effect weeks later on July 1.

Passed primarily by Republicans in the state legislature and signed into law, the new law reads in part:

“Classroom instruction by school personnel or third parties on sexual orientation or gender identity may not occur in kindergarten through grade 3 or in a manner that is not age-appropriate or developmentally appropriate for students in accordance with state standards.”

So then, where did the Broward Country School District donate its children’s books on the sexual orientation of heterosexuality or the cisgender gender identity: books like the classic Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty or the more current How to Get a Girlfriend (a step-by-step guide written for boys ages 5-6)?

Of course, school officials did not scour its book collections to prune its early education book collections that discuss or imply heterosexual and cisgender characters, themes, or images since, as the assumption infers, heterosexuals do not have a sexual orientation and cisgender does not represent a gender identity.

School contexts, as reproductions of the larger society, function on an overarching system of heteronormativity and heterosexism in which “heterosexual” is promoted as “love” while “homosexual” and “bisexual” are reduced and seen only as “sex,” and “transgender” means “sick.” And together, “LGBTQ” represents in the public imagination the image of pedophiles, predators, recruiters, and in the current language of the political right, “groomers.”

Since January 2021, Education Week has found that 42 states have either introduced bills in their legislatures or have taken other actions that would ban the teaching of Critical Race Theory or restrict how educators discuss racism, sexism, and LGBTQ issues in the classroom. Sixteen states have already imposed these restrictions.

Florida has positioned itself at the tip of the spear to cut and bleed to death school curricular materials on topics of race, gender, and sexual identity.

For example, the Florida House has imposed new restrictions on how race is discussed in schools, colleges, and workplaces. The bill went to Governor Ron DeSantis’ desk for approval.

A measure labeled “Individual Freedom” recently passed on a party-line vote; it connects with DeSantis’ demand for a “Stop WOKE” Act, which diminishes what he terms liberal ideology that impacts the teaching of history in schools and circulating throughout corporate diversity training.

Currently, as well, states are proposing legislation to restrict transgender rights in athletics or in accessing some health services, and others to limit overall LGBTQ protections, especially in schools.

At least 12 other state legislatures are now appropriating the Florida model and are considering similar “Don’t Say Gay” laws. These states currently include Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Iowa, Louisiana, South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Tennessee, and Ohio.

Before signing the bill, DeSantis stated at a press conference that teaching kindergarten-aged kids that “they can be whatever they want to be” was “inappropriate” for children.

“It’s not something that’s appropriate for any place,” he said, “but especially not in Florida. We will make sure that parents can send their kids to school to get an education, not an indoctrination.”

Since Republicans have no genuine policy positions to offer, they are dredging up all the hateful and terrifying stereotypes they can muster to promote fear in the hearts and minds of potential voters. By banning discussions of race, gender, and sexuality from classroom discussions, they are igniting a culture war for their own political ends.

What these Republicans are doing amounts to a form of bullying. And we must hold these state legislators who are banning discussions of LGBTQ and racial themes in the classrooms responsible for this further marginalization and for the harassment and possible violence that may result.

Several forms of social oppression came together in these increasing number of laws in extreme ways, primarily heterosexism, cissexism, racism, and adultism — the latter defined by John Bell as “behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement.”

One of the litmus tests by which a society can be judged is the ways it treats its young people, for this opens a window projecting how that society operates generally.

Within an adultist society, adults construct the rules, with little or no input from youth, which they force young people to follow. Even the terminology our society employs to refer to youth betrays a hierarchical power dynamic.

For example, we refer to young people as “kids,” a term originally applying to young goats. By referring to youth as farm animals provides adults cover in controlling and maintaining unlimited power over humans. (We must treat and respect animals better than we do as well.)

Of course, parents and other adults have the inherent responsibility of protecting young people from harming themselves and being harmed by others, and of teaching them how to live and function in society within our ever-changing global community.

In Freudian terms, we must develop a balance between the individual’s unrestrained instinctual drives and restraints (repression) on these drives in the service of maintaining society (civilization) and sustaining the life of the individual.

We as a society, nonetheless, must set a line demarcating protection from control, teaching from oppression, and minimal and fundamental repression from what Herbert Marcuse terms “surplus repression” (that which goes over and beyond what is necessary for the protection of the individual and the smooth functioning of society, and enters into the realm of domination, control, and oppression).

Adultism, heterosexism, cissexism, racism, and all the other forms of oppression individually and in combination operate as a continuum from subtle to extreme.

Regarding adultism, this continuum includes adults ignoring or neglecting young people, to statements like “children should be seen and not heard,” “You’re too young to do that,” and “Just grow up,” to to “When you are living in my house, you follow my rules,” circumscribed or qualified love, corporal punishment, eviction from home, to sexual and other violent assaultive actions.

To withhold important information age-appropriately across the grades and across the curriculum can be considered a form of surplus repression. I see it as a form of child abuse.

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