If You Don’t Teach about It, Will It Go Away?

Nothing is touchier than teaching young kids about sex. A new bill in South Dakota’s state senate illustrates the painfully deep culture-war divide we face on this topic. Progressives like me think teaching young kids about sexual identity and gender identity can save lives and create a more equitable society. Some conservatives think it warps minds and turns children into homosexuals or transgender people. But just like evolution and US history, the real divide isn’t over what to teach, it’s over how to teach it. The real issue, as always, is not sex or evolution or history, but TRUST.

Here’s what we know: A bill in the South Dakota senate would simply prohibit schools from teaching elementary students about transgender identity. It’s brief:

No instruction in gender identity or gender expression may be provided to any student in kindergarten through grade seven in any public school in the state.

This is the first bill of this sort, but it joins a group of similar bills about teaching sexual identity. As the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reports, those laws, sometimes called the “no-promo-homo” laws, are in effect in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas. They prohibit teaching positive messages about homosexuality to young students.

And, as SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, it’s the “positive” part of the subject that is the trickiest. As we’ve seen in these pages time and again, conservatives mobilize to block certain books and ideas that hope to teach children that homosexuality is perfectly natural and wholesome.

PACE 1107

Image from PACE 1107.

But it’s not the case that conservatives don’t want their children to learn about homosexuality. In fact, even the most ardent fundamentalists teach their children about sexual identity and gender identity. The staunchly conservative Accelerated Christian Education curriculum, for example, includes a lot of information about homosexuality. For example, children will read the following:

Some people mistakenly believe that an individual is born a homosexual and his attraction to those of the same sex is normal. Because extensive tests have shown that there is no biological difference between homosexuals and others, these tests seem to prove that homosexuality is a learned behavior. The Bible teaches that homosexuality is sin. In Old Testament times, God commanded that homosexuals be put to death. Since God never commanded death for normal or acceptable actions, it is as unreasonable to say that homosexuality is normal as it is to say that murder or stealing is normal.

Now, this is a fairly extreme attitude toward homosexuality; most conservatives wouldn’t want their children learning this sort of idea either. Accelerated Christian Education is only popular among a certain subset of religious conservatives. However, when even those most anti-gay-rights conservatives teach their children explicitly about homosexuality, we see that the problem isn’t the topic, but the approach.

The problem, I think, for many conservative activists is a deep and abiding mistrust of how schools will teach young children about these issues. Conservatives (not all, but it gets repetitive to keep writing “some,” so I’ll shorten it from here on out to “conservatives”) worry that schools will indoctrinate young children with pro-gay, pro-trans messages.

To be fair, those fears are well-founded. Most educational programs that I’ve seen really do hope to foster a sense that homosexuality and transgender are healthy ways to be a person. To cite just one example from my adopted home state of Wisconsin, activists staged a reading of the controversial book I Am Jazz in order to help trans students feel “safe and accepted.”

Indeed, the intention of such books and curricula is precisely to help young people see sexual identity and gender identity in a non-traditional light; the goal is to help everyone accept non-traditional gender identities and sexual identities as healthy and normal. The kind of gender-identity education I support doesn’t just teach students neutral facts about gender. It really does hope to help young children see sexuality and gender identities as variable.

i am jazz

What should children learn about gender identity?

And, to be double fair, if the shoe were on the other foot, I would protest as well. That is, if children in public schools were learning ACE’s message about homosexuality, I would do everything I could to block it.

In South Dakota, and likely in other states soon as well, conservatives are hoping to ban a topic they can’t control. They worry that any instruction about transgender issues will turn into an attempt to indoctrinate young minds. They fret with good reason that progressives hope to get young children to accept non-traditional gender identities and sexual identities. In the end, conservatives don’t trust the public schools to teach their values, so they simply block certain topics altogether.

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Kids: You’re Not Really Gay

What should conservatives tell gay kids?  One writer suggests that kids should learn that they’re not really gay.  But that writer, Michael Hannon, also wants us to tell non-gay kids that they’re not really straight.

Hannon’s original argument suggested that the construction of the notion of sexual identities in the nineteenth century doomed conservative Christians to a double danger.  First, it led some people to identify as homosexuals.  According to Hannon, such an identity enshrines sinful behavior as the core of a person’s identity.  To Hannon, anyway, it seems there is no moral way to have sex as a homosexual, since gay marriage is not for him a moral possibility and sex outside of marriage is immoral.

But heterosexuality is just as bad.  By allowing conservatives who identify as heterosexuals to rest satisfied that they had the “right” sexual identity, heterosexuality left people clueless about the abundant dangers of the entire idea of sexual identity.

In other words, if I understand him correctly, Hannon hoped religious conservatives would take their argument up one level.  Instead of suggesting that homosexuality was sinful and heterosexuality was not, Hannon wants us to recognize that the concept of a sexual identity—any sexual identity—was deeply problematic.  As he elaborated in a recent follow-up, Hannon argued that the real goal of religious people must not be Hollywood’s marriage-as-happy-ending, but a more complicated goal of spiritual friendship.

This is not the usual semi-hysterical “homosexual agenda” talk we hear from some religious pundits.  Over and over, conservative activists have warned that “sneaky” homosexuals are using public schools to infect young minds with gayness.  Hannon is making a much more subtle argument.

To be clear, Hannon does indeed think that homosexuality tends to promote sinful behavior.  As he put it,

Self-describing as a “homosexual” tends to multiply occasions of sin for those who adopt the label. . . .  Whereas the infusion of the theological virtues sets the Christian free, identifying as homosexual only further enslaves the sinner. It intensifies lust, a sad distortion of love, by amplifying the apparent significance of concupiscent desires. It fosters a despairing self-pity, harming hope, which is meant to motivate moral virtues. And it encourages a strong sense of entitlement, which often undermines the obedience of faith by demanding the overthrow of doctrines that seem to repress “who I really am.”

But this is not the only problem of sexual identities.  Too many conservatives, Hannon charges, accept heterosexuality as a healthy sexual identity.  They yearn for boy-meets-girl and scorn boy-meets-boy or girl-meets-girl, but in essence such conservatives miss the point.  Encouraging young people to understand themselves as primarily sexual beings—gay or straight—puts too much emphasis on sexual identities entirely.

What should young people hear about sexual identities?  Neither that they are inherently gay nor straight, Hannon says.  Rather, that sex is part of humanity, but never should make up the core of a person’s identity.

Critic John Corvino doesn’t buy it. According to Corvino, Hannon seems to be

asking for something much more difficult for us moderns to imagine: a world without sexual orientation as we understand it. Yet it’s hard to see how to avoid the closet as a necessary first step toward this goal. Worse, one worries that aiming for this goal would at most achieve a disastrous middle ground: a world where orientation categories were still salient but where the taboo against voicing them would leave those with same-sex desires lonely and miserable.

How about you?  Do you think Hannon’s argument has legs?  Can religious conservatives get out of their culture-war pickle by moving away from a condemnation of homosexuality and instead to a broader distaste for sexual identities as a whole?

 

 

Help! My Teacher’s a Girl Now!

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.”

Martin's Booth at the Scopes Trial, 1925

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.