"Father Knows Best": Anti-LGBTQ Legislation and the PatriarchyRoundup
tags: gender, conservatism, Ronald Reagan, sexuality, patriarchy, LGBTQ history, history of the family
Judith Levine is the author of five books and countless articles exploring politics, policy, and public emotion, especially at the intersection of sex and justice. She lives in Brooklyn, NY and a small town in northeastern Vermont.
It goes without saying that “don’t say gay” legislation is harmful to children. Laws like the one recently enacted in Florida—which, among other things, prohibits elementary schools from encouraging “classroom discussion about sexual orientation or gender identity”—will be most painful for children who identify as LGBTQ, or whose parents do. Similarly, the kids slapped in the face by legislation that disallows mention of “critical race theory” in schools—meaning discussion of race or structural racism now or in American history—are students of color, immigrants, and other racial or ethnic Others.
Of course, the omissions and distortions these laws effect will harm all students in their states. They will also terrify teachers into silence and encumber school administrations with so much procedural rigamarole that they’ll have little time left to teach. The consequences reverberate nationally, “for both American education and democracy,” states PEN America’s report “Educational Gag Orders: Legislative Restrictions on the Freedom to Read, Learn, and Teach.” Where the laws have been enacted—at publication in September 2021, there were eleven in nine states—they are already “distorting the lens through which the next generation will study American history and society and undermining the hallmarks of liberal education that have set the U.S. system apart from those of authoritarian countries.”
Cleverly, the right has appropriated the left’s language of harm to claim that it is safeguarding students from discrimination and trauma. For instance, a rule adopted by Alabama’s state education board prohibits classroom discussion of “concepts that impute fault, blame, a tendency to oppress others, or the need to feel guilt or anguish to persons solely because of their race or sex.” Translation: no white, straight, or cisgender child should be troubled by injustice against their nonwhite or non-straight peers, and no student should be induced to reflect on their own responsibility to challenge this injustice.
In evincing students’ bruised feelings, these laws echo the historic justification for censorship: that certain words, images, and ideas might harm children. Given this ancestry, then, it is striking that the titles of these teacher-surveillance bills omit a seminal word: “child.”
For example, Florida’s law is named “An act relating to parental rights in education.” Mississippi, Missouri, and other states have proposed what they call parents’ “bills of rights.” Hawaii’s legislation posits a “fundamental rights of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, healthcare, and mental health care of a minor child”; similar or identical language appears in laws across the country. The bills mandate “educational transparency,” which means that schools must provide parents information about nearly everything they do—including curricula, textbook and library acquisitions, exams, surveys, invited speakers, and records of interaction with school nurses or counselors. Armed with this information, parents are licensed not only to opt their kid out of a given activity but also to report or sue teachers engaging in it.
The imperiled subject of “don’t say” legislation, in other words, is the parent. If the child’s interest is mentioned, it is inserted as a kind of subordinate clause. The syntax of Louisiana’s latest bill expanding parental prerogatives indicates how awkward the fit is: “[P]arents have the right that a school shall not discriminate against their children by teaching them that they are currently or destined to be oppressed or be oppressors based on their race or national origin; and to provide for related matters.”
The elision of children’s interests and parents’ rights is not just bad grammar, however. It is an expression of conservative “pro-family” ideology, which posits the family as an indivisible unit where everyone’s interests are unanimous. Within this fantasy resides what law professors Anne C. Dailey and Laura A. Rosenbury call a “romantic vision of parent-child unity.” As in any relationship, disharmony may arise, but the Christian fundamentalism that overlaps the parental rights movement does not countenance it. “Children, obey your parents in all things,” the Bible commands. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” In Christian fundamentalist families, usually with the wife’s enthusiastic consent, the family speaks with one voice, and that voice is the man’s.
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