By Arishita Gupta (‘20)
On February 18th, 2020, the Board of Education was confronted with the issue involving the education of LGBTQ history during its monthly meeting. A panel of five parents, Rihab Dahy, Mariam Gandour, Nermeen Beshai, Ashley Abdelhamak, and Hanan Toma shared their concerns and objections to the aforementioned topic being taught in South Brunswick schools during the “Public Comments” portion of the meeting.
Though the LGBTQ curriculum has been taught in the South Brunswick School District for years, their comments came as a response to a bill, denominated as NJS1569, that was signed into law by Gov. Phil Murphy on January 31, 2019, and will take full effect at the beginning of the 2020-21 school year.
According to the bill NJ S1569, “A board of education shall include instruction on the political, economic, and social contributions of persons with disabilities and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people, in an appropriate place in the curriculum of middle school and high school students.”
By ratifying this law, New Jersey has become the second state in the country to require LGBTQ and disability history as part of the school curriculum after California. NJ S1569 serves as a mandate that the boards of education of all districts must enact their policies and procedures as to what material is chosen and taught about the disabled and LGBTQ communities.
The panel consisted of South Brunswick mothers who had children in various schools in the system. The complaints shared commonality in their provided reasons, such as the removal of parents’ right to teach their kids according to their beliefs, parents having the final say in what is taught in school, and students having the right to opt-out.
Opting out involves the parents’ request to not let their child participate in class discussions for what parents consider sensitive topics. As of today, 35 states and the District of Columbia are required by law that parents be given the option to do so regarding sex education. New Jersey is one of the states to have such legislation.
While these parents did bring up some valuable points, their opinions are likely to be based on misconceptions about what schools are required to teach.
Beshai said “ LGBTQ education violates classical education, so then rather instead of focusing on academic education, students will be taught how to analyze the LGBT community” and that the school will use this law to “teach [her daughters] that they don’t have to be girls, that they may be boys, and that a family doesn’t just have to be a mom, dad, and kids. It can be different.”
However, SBHS does not encourage children to change their gender or sexuality. There are no laws, no classes, or schooling that covertly indoctrinate children into the community, and that is certainly not the function of this bill. Additionally, there is a lack of the statement implicating the requirement for children to “analyze” the community in the bill as Beshai framed it. The idea of analyzing the existence of a community as if it were a specimen or piece of literature sounds outlandish.
Abdelhamak said, “the LGBTQ advocates have transitioned from a group seeking validation and equal rights to a group putting an agenda to normalize their lifestyle,” and that it is inappropriate to force “students to listen to details about LGBTQ sex or to see graphic images.”
This justification is fueled by misinformation. Again, there is nothing stated in the SBHS curriculum, NJ S1569, or the New Jersey education system that forces children to observe or be taught graphic sexual details about both queer or heterosexual relationships. This implies that the state is now requiring students to watch LGBTQ pornography, which is simply untrue.
The idea that this curriculum is trying to normalize the LGBTQ lifestyle is interesting to consider as cisgender and heterosexual lifestyles are more normalized. The word “straight” itself ostracizes the LGBTQ community as it implies abnormality and deviation from societal norms And learning about this history, yes, does normalize the community’s existence, a process that is inevitable and natural.
Abdelhamak’s objection to teaching about historical contributions of the LGBTQ community is that “if their contributions are noteworthy, it’s fine to mention the contribution but their sexual orientation need not be mentioned. It’s irrelevant.”
Unfortunately, the fact that this debate still exists and that this bill had to be written to defend such education is just one of many reasons that sexuality and identity are incredibly relevant to their contributions. The fact of the matter is that the doors the LGBTQ community had to break down to contribute to society and pave the way for others were the same doors that were wide open for cisgender and heterosexual people. Their contributions and efforts in society were constantly hindered on the sole basis that they identified a certain way.
The discussion continued as Gandour questioned, “Isn’t school supposed to be by default, a safe place for every student? Aren’t children taught from elementary school to be kind to one another? To be tolerant? To respect each other’s differences? Aren’t there already anti-bullying laws already in place?”
Unfortunately, the reality of life is that people are excluded for being different, whether we want to acknowledge it or not. Right now, the best thing that we can do is learn to respect our differences, instead of discriminating because of them.
Abdelhamak said, “If I respect someone, I don’t have to agree with them. I don’t have to say that something is normal to be respectful.”
There is no way to demonstrate that calling someone or some people “abnormal” has regard for their feelings, wishes, or rights. No one deserves to be ostracized, discounted, or ridiculed because of who they are or how they identify. That is not respect.
Others seemed to have difficulties grasping what rights they have as parents, especially in public education. Dahy, Beshai, and Abdelhamak discussed concerns about the protection of religious practice provided in the first amendment.
Specifically, Dahy mentions that they have the right to “practice [their] faith,” and that they shouldn’t be “forced to accept or show agreement to practices against [their] faith.”
The right to religious freedom is indeed protected in the first amendment which includes the Establishment Clause. This clause mandates that the government cannot establish a religion, nor pass laws that favor one religion over another. In a public school like SBHS, the curriculum cannot panhandle to any religion because it agrees or disagrees with what is taught. The only way to get that type of education is to attend a private school or be homeschooled as the curriculum can bend to religious or parental views.
Beshai said, “Parents should have the final say in their children’s education.”
However, there is no statement in the New Jersey state law, the federal law, or even the U.S. Constitution that declares parents having the right to control their children’s education. While parents do have the right to be heard through voicing their concerns, the final say on what is taught or discussed in schools belongs to the Department of Education, Boards of Education, and the teachers themselves.
All this being said, the parents did bring light to some points that are more agreeable than others. In the middle of her questions, Gandour asked “Do you need a rainbow decal on a classroom door to differentiate your classroom from others? Are classroom doors that don’t have the decal not inclusive? And not safe?”
And to be fair, there is a truth in this. Though the decal is just a small rainbow triangle in the rectangular window of a classroom door, its sparse presence does imply that only certain areas in our school are safe. If we want to argue that our school is accepting of everyone, especially to defend this curriculum, it seems less hypocritical to either have the decal on all doors or none of them. Another valid point that two individuals raised is the exclusion of conservative voices in Central Jersey and especially in the South Brunswick area.
While Gandour discusses her son’s experience in school, she mentions that “he senses a clear vibe. If you don’t agree with a certain lifestyle, you had best keep that information to yourself. Bullying in a sense, to get on board with this social movement or else bear the consequences.”
This is, whether the population wants to admit it, very true. Because of where we live, we’re all expected to be liberal and nothing else. And I’m sure we’ve all witnessed or experienced it: whenever a conservative voices their opinion, people take turns ripping into their argument and shutting them into silence. And while we may not agree with what they have to say, we also can’t force them to stay silent on their beliefs, because we eventually forget that they exist until events like this polarize us more.
As Abdelhamak put it, “Even though some voices are louder than others, we should all have a voice, even conservatives. We all matter.”
The state’s promotion of the LGBTQ inclusive curriculum is meant to make a historically-marginalized community more visible and respected for what they have done and how they have succeeded. We cannot change the mentality of an entire population, but we can do our best to make those who are marginalized feel accepted for who they are. It is the small things like teaching about successes or showcasing the possibilities for marginalized people that prove how much representation of such members of society can impact their self-respect and esteem. It is time that this representation takes to our schools so that teens and children from a young age can see what roads are open to them.