Lesson in bigotry: Conservatives take over the classroom to pull us closer to a gender-less dystopia

We already teach kids gender and sexual orientation every day — but we don't have to teach hate

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 16, 2022 1:13PM (EDT)

Rear view of large group of students raising their hands to answer the question on a class at elementary school.
 (Getty Images)
Rear view of large group of students raising their hands to answer the question on a class at elementary school. (Getty Images)

In a piece that couldn't be better designed to cause Democratic panic that Republicans are winning the culture wars, Politico published an alarming poll on Wednesday that supposedly shows over half of Americans support Florida's draconian new "don't say gay" bill.

"A slim majority of U.S. voters who were polled — 51 percent — support" the bill, explains the article detailing the results of a Morning Consult poll, "while 35 percent are opposed."  

Scary stuff indeed, especially as Republicans are using the debate over this new law as an excuse to revive tired, homophobic myths accusing LGBTQ people of being pedophiles who recruit children. Closer examination of the actual questions, however, suggests that the people being polled simply don't understand the issue. Using the same loaded language as the original bill itself, the poll asked people if they support the "[b]anning the teaching of sexual orientation and gender identity from kindergarten through third grade."

Under the circumstances, it's no wonder that respondents mistakenly pictured teachers giving detailed instructions on how to be gay or trans in class, or conjured up images of teachers giving sexual instructions to 5-year-olds. That is exactly what the right-wing culture warriors who thought up this bill want people to imagine. 

RELATED: The secret plan behind Florida's "don't say gay" bill: Bankrupting public education

In reality, however, the classroom discourse the bill is addressing isn't nearly as titillating as Republicans want you to believe. As Ian Millhiser at Vox explained, the law is so vaguely written that "no one actually knows the full extent of the behaviors it forbids." A lesbian teacher, Millhiser explains, may be bullied out of mentioning her wife in passing. Or a teacher could be sued for allowing a kid with same-sex parents to talk about his family to other students. Indeed, that is the point of the law: To intimidate teachers from even acknowledging the existence of LGBTQ people.

The situation is even screwier than that. As lawyer Jill Filipovic explains at CNN, the bill only speaks broadly of "sexual orientation or gender identity." And, as she notes, "heterosexuality is a sexual orientation and 'male' and 'female' are gender identities." A strict reading of the law wouldn't just ban a lesbian teacher from mentioning a wife. It would ban a straight teacher from mentioning a husband. It would also ban teachers from calling kids "boys and girls." It would bar kids from playing with gendered toys, like Barbies or G.I. Joes. It would also forbid any storybook or movie — including almost everything ever made by Disney — that features a heterosexual romance. 

In other words, if we read the law literally, it would create the kind of gender-less dystopia that conservatives are always claiming liberals want, where any acknowledgment of maleness or femaleness is erased entirely.

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The truth of the matter is that every waking minute of every day, we are collectively "instructing" children on the subjects of gender identity and sexual orientation. Everywhere kids turn there are lessons about gender and sexual orientation, from toy aisles divided by gender to the existence of words like "mom" and "dad." Or even those much-ballyhooed pronouns. Every time you call someone "he" or "she" in front of a child, you are instructing them on gender identity and how to discern what gender category people belong to. Every time kids go to a wedding or see a couple kiss or read a happily-ever-after ending, they are being instructed on sexual orientation. All this is done without being sexually explicit, regardless of what right-wing culture warriors say. 

But, of course, while the law technically bans any acknowledgment of anyone's gender or sexual orientation, there is no doubt that it will only be enforced to force LGBTQ people and their children into the closet. Disney movies with straight couples will still be shown, while "Heather Has Two Mommies" will likely be censored. That's because the enforcement mechanism at the center of the law is civil action which allows parents to sue teachers and schools for perceived violations of the law. The only people who are shitty enough to do that are right-wing bigots. Florida Republicans are betting, correctly, that liberals are too decent to sue teachers for technical violations of the law, such as reading storybooks that feature straight weddings. 

RELATED: Florida Republicans revive deadly "queers recruit" myth with passage of "don't say gay" bill

Unfortunately, what these polling results show is that most people haven't stopped to consider that "straight" is a sexual orientation or that every time you use a pronoun or words like "boys" and "girls" around children, you are instructing them on gender and sexual orientation. It's very much like the right's misuse of the term "critical race theory," which sounds very scary to some folks until they find out that Republicans are talking about banal lessons such as "the civil rights movement happened" and "slavery was bad." Phrases like "gender identity" and "sexual orientation" cause far too many people to think about genitalia and having sex, and not the day-to-day way we live out gender and sexual orientation in the way we dress, what we call each other, and whether you have a "husband" or "wife." 

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It's arguable that liberals do share some of the blame for this confusion, by skipping the step where we actually explain these concepts to the public in plain English, rather than falling back on jargon that can be so easily exploited by right-wing demagogues. Polling shows that when these issues are discussed in straightforward English, public opinions veer much more to the left. For instance, when CBS polled voters and asked them about bans on books that depict slavery or the civil rights movement, most voters vehemently disagreed with censorship. It's only when confusing jargon about "critical race theory" is in the mix do people turn reactionary. 

The Florida "don't say gay" law is not about shielding small children from sex talk. It's part of a larger program, orchestrated by the Christian right, to turn schools away from education and towards indoctrination. Specifically, what they want to indoctrinate kids into is a far-right worldview. They want to teach kids that LGBTQ people are perverts who deserve to be thrown out of normal society, white supremacy is the natural order of things, and women's role is subservient to men. As Salon's Kathryn Joyce has been reporting, they are crafting misleading school curricula, built often on outright lies, meant to replace any kind of meaningful education. And they want taxpayers to pay for this fascistic indocrination. 

Read more on Hillsdale's war on schools

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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