Do young children need to be protected from transgender teachers?
Ryan T. Anderson thinks so. And in his argument, he joins a long conservative tradition of insisting on special culture-war protections for children.
Anderson, a prominent voice in the anti-gay-marriage coalition, argued recently in the pages of the National Review that transgender teachers would force young people to wrestle prematurely with issues of sexuality and gender identity.
His argument came in the context of his opposition to the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), a bill that would make it illegal for some employers to discriminate against gay or transgender people.
In Anderson’s opinion, this is not the latest civil-rights bill. Sexual identity and gender identity, Anderson argues, are self-identified and self-defined, unlike race.
Perhaps most compelling, Anderson thinks, this bill might force elementary schools to employ men who used to be women, or women who used to be men. It would force children, Anderson says, to know too much too soon.
As he put it,
Issues of sex and gender identity are psychologically, morally, and politically fraught. But we all ought to agree that young children should be protected from having to sort through such questions before an age-appropriate introduction. ENDA, however, would prevent employers from protecting children from adult debates about sex and gender identity by barring employers from making certain decisions about transgendered employees.
Although ENDA includes some exemptions for religious education, it provides no protection for students in other schools who could be prematurely exposed to questions about sex and gender if, for example, a male teacher returned to school identifying as a woman.
Anderson’s argument about age-exemptions for culture-war issues echoes a traditional theme among educational conservatives. On the issue of evolution, for example, many conservative intellectuals of the first generation of fundamentalists argued that evolution could fairly be taught, but only at the college level.
As I argued in my 1920s book, this seemingly moderate view was held by some of the most vituperative anti-evolutionists.
William Jennings Bryan, for example, the Bible-believing man-of-the-people who stood up for the Bible at the Scopes Trial, repeatedly insisted that evolution should be taught, but with proper regard for the intellectual maturity of students. In colleges, it should be taught as an influential theory about the origins of life. But in primary grades, students must not be taught that evolution was the simple and only truth.
Even the hot-headed polemicist T. T. Martin, author of the relentless Hell and the High Schools, didn’t insist that evolution must be utterly banned from all schools. In a 1923 speech, Martin suggested a new set of “graded books, from primary to university.” These books could introduce evolutionary ideas gradually, until at last for the most mature students the books would present “fairly and honestly both sides of the Evolution issue.”
As Anderson’s recent argument about transgender teachers makes clear, the notion that young people in school must enjoy special protection from threatening ideas still has punch in today’s culture-war debates. Conservatives have long insisted that children must be protected from premature exposure to issues of sex and origins.