LGBTQ issues are a flashpoint in CA school races

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday October 26, 2022
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Lisa Disbrow is a candidate for the Contra Costa County Board of Education. Photo: Courtesy the campaign
Lisa Disbrow is a candidate for the Contra Costa County Board of Education. Photo: Courtesy the campaign

Across California this election season LGBTQ issues have become a flashpoint in school board races. Policies aimed at fostering a safe environment for LGBTQ students, particularly transgender youth, have come under attack, while out candidates have faced homophobic broadsides.

It is another manifestation of the concerted attack right-wing groups, Republican lawmakers, and conservative parents have launched across the country to forbid the teaching of LGBTQ curriculums in schools, ban LGBTQ books from libraries, and require trans youth, especially girls, to play on school athletic teams based on the sex they were assigned at birth, contend LGBTQ advocates.

Despite the Golden State's liberal reputation, and state legislators enacting a host of laws addressing the rights of LGBTQ students enrolled in public schools, the national debate over such policies hasn't bypassed California. And the enactment of the pro-LGBTQ legislation by school district leaders continues to be lackluster.

As the Bay Area Reporter's online Political Notes column reported this month, of the 118 of the state's 343 unified school districts that took part in the Equality California Institute's 2022 Safe and Supportive Schools Report Card, 48% had yet to adopt LGBTQ+-inclusive textbooks or other instructional materials for history and social studies classes at the high school level. And nearly half (47%) of the districts have schools without a gender neutral restroom facility available for students not located in a nurse's office or faculty lounge.

Samuel Garrett-Pate, managing director of external affairs for the statewide LGBTQ advocacy organization, told the B.A.R. that EQCA is working with the California Teachers Association and the California Federation of Teachers to elect school board leaders "who are going to be champions for all students, including LGBTQ students," this year and in coming election cycles.

"These folks are running for offices in which they would actually have control over how a school board implements policies related to protecting students from bullying, harassment, and discrimination," said Garrett-Pate. "This is not something we are gonna be able to deal with overnight. It is not an issue that is going to be resolved in one election."

Tiffany Woods, a married transgender mom of three school-age children who is the LGBTQ caucus co-chair for the California Democratic Party, told the B.A.R. that more attention needs to be paid to school board races, which are down-ballot contests that often don't get much media coverage.

"School boards are a battleground," she said. "We know Republicans have targeted them."

The attacks against LGBTQ school policies are often cloaked in "parental rights" arguments, noted Woods. But rarely are the rights of LGBTQ parents considered, she noted.

"If my kids decided to come out regardless as LGBTQ or not, I want them to be educated at school in a safe environment. I don't want them to be in an environment that is anti-LGBTQ," said Woods. "So why do their parental rights trump my parental rights? That is what they are trying to do."

LGBTQ leaders in the Sacramento region recently admonished Natomas Unified School District board candidate Megan Allen for using a transphobic trope at a public forum and claimed providing gender-neutral restrooms at schools make students feel awkward.

At the October 12 candidate forum Allen told the audience that she is "fine with one gender-neutral restroom on campus, but I do not want them across campus, because there are lots of reports that's how girls get raped."

The Stonewall Democratic Club of Greater Sacramento called on Allen to retract her comments and asked her to specify if she supports trans youth receiving "justifiable accommodations" on their public school campuses. According to the club, Allen stated in a reply to it that her "comments are specifically about the safety of young women and how facilities can be exploited, by anyone, in a manner that does not promote safety. As a mother of two school-aged children, it's very important for this dialog to occur publicly and in a sincere and apolitical manner."

Stonewall leaders criticized Allen for what they saw as a "non-apology." Woods told the B.A.R. her comments not only crossed a line but also are not based on facts.

"Trans people are the ones harmed in bathrooms not cisgender women, not teenage girls. In fact, we have seen videos in which teenage girls are attacking a trans girl or boy in the bathroom," she said.

In Contra Costa County a candidate for a seat on the countywide Board of Education, Lisa Disbrow, is running on a parental rights platform. On her campaign website she specifically calls out schools for teaching children that they can "be trapped in the wrong body," use drugs and surgery to "change their sex and become another identity," and that their "sex is not biologically determined at conception but is fluid."

"Parents and taxpayers object!" declares Disbrow, a Moraga resident who retired as a kindergarten teacher because of her objections to the COVID protocols adopted by school officials, particularly mask requirements for her students. "Parents of different faiths, backgrounds, and values do not want these views taught to their children. As parents they have the right to oppose the undermining of their family values, their child-parent bonds and beliefs."

As for the schools, Disbrow contends they should be educating "our diverse student populations" solely in academic matters. In a phone interview with the B.A.R., she said her beliefs are rooted in First Amendment rights.

"I think everybody who wants to speak out and share their thoughts and views should. I am for more speech, not less," said Disbrow, noting that Americans live in a "pluralistic society" with "many different views on critical and controversial issues. I think we all have a right to our perspective."

When asked if she believes trans kids don't exist, as some conservative leaders have argued, Disbrow responded that the issue is "complicated. We have people who believe in unlimited genders and that should be... that is their reality.

"And you have people who go, 'No, male or female only.' You can present many different ways, unlimited presentations, feelings, thoughts, but the biology is pretty firm," she continued. "So what we are stuck with is very complicated settings regarding children."

As for the issue of gender-neutral bathrooms in schools, Disbrow said a better solution would be to provide more individual bathrooms that people could use by themselves.

"I know people don't want to have ... dads, moms, kids don't want to be in a restroom with someone who is trans but physically the other sex," she said, "so I think we have to have options. I think we need to have more individual bathrooms."

Disbrow acknowledged that parents "who believe in unlimited genders" don't want to see "their children feeling uncomfortable or slighted. Neither do I."

Nonetheless, education leaders need to consider "what is the purpose" of school when it comes to setting policies and adopting instructional plans, Disbrow told the B.A.R.

"Is it to deal with the social issues and theories and political ideas or is it to focus on the more academic side of schooling?" she asked. "It is not on these social theories, and parents aren't willing to give up their rights over their children. So we have to figure this out."

Ryan LaLonde is running for a seat on the Alameda school board in the East Bay. Photo: Courtesy the candidate  

In Alameda County, gay married dad Ryan LaLonde has been targeted with homophobic comments as he seeks a seat on the Alameda Unified School District board. He and his husband, Chris Moody, have their 14-year-old son, Farber Moody-LaLonde, enrolled in the East Bay city's schools.

LaLonde has prominently featured his family in his campaign, and in an ad running on Facebook. A number of people have left bigoted comments on the ad, from "sorry, I only vote for heterosexual candidates" to "voting for someone because they are or are not sucking dick when they have one... is just weird."

"I leave them on there because I want people to see homophobia still exists in our community," said LaLonde, who grew up with lesbian moms and is aiming to become the first out LGBTQ person elected to the school board.

A stay-at-home dad and artist, LaLonde has also been told he should be disqualified from serving on the school board because he has depicted men wearing leather in some of his works. One of his opponents has also spoken out against LGBTQ curriculums and ethnic studies taught in the classroom.

"Having someone in leadership who doesn't think you should exist as a student or you should be talked about or your history talked about, and for that someone to have a bully pulpit to say that over and over again, can have a negative effect on LGBTQ students," said LaLonde, who chairs Alameda Unified's LGBTQ Round Table for parents, students and staff. "We don't need that type of leadership or policy focus."

No longer 'outliers'
Candidates staking out such anti-LGBTQ positions are no longer "outliers," said Woods, or relegated to more conservative sections of California. She said they feel emboldened to express such views even in the Bay Area as they have seen candidates and political leaders across the country successfully run on such a platform.

"They are parroting false ideology. We have seen it here in the state and at the national level: trans people are the boogeymen. It is a coordinated national attack," said Woods. "With school boards there is a whole move to take over school boards and demonize trans kids, demonize gender-affirming care and any LGBTQ education."

She was critical of national leaders for not pushing back harder on "the attacks and the lies" that are being waged against trans youth and LGBTQ education issues. Media attention to the issue has also been wanting, contended Woods.

What is concerning, said Woods, "for me, for Stonewall, and for everybody paying attention, it is this blatant lying and it is a much more aggressive attack. These candidates have decided, 'Oh, if we run on this, we can win.' They are not outliers anymore. They are really taking on what we have seen across Florida and other conservative states, with the success of the anti-trans legislation and attacks on drag queen story hour, and they are going full bore, full throttle."

EQCA's Garrett-Pate warned. "We can't afford to sit back and allow these right-wing extremists to spread vile, hateful misinformation about our communities."

Recent years have seen more LGBTQ parents, educators, and young people seek school board seats and other education elected offices. And the November 8 election could mark significant progress in terms of out representation in such positions.

As the B.A.R. has previously reported, Amie Carter, Ph.D., is set to become Sonoma County superintendent of schools due to her opponent dropping his bid. The gay married mom will double the number of out county superintendents in the state, as lesbian San Mateo County Superintendent of Schools Nancy Magee was unopposed this year as she sought a second term.

Nick Resnick is a trans man running for a seat on the Oakland school board. Photo: Courtesy the candidate  

In the East Bay transgender dad and educator Nick Resnick could become the first trans member of any school board in the state if he wins election to the District 4 seat on the Oakland Unified School Board. He would also be its first out member and could double the number of trans male elected education officials in California should Cabrillo Community College Board of Trustees member Adam Spickler win his reelection bid in Santa Cruz County.

"Nick is a great leader and someone who brings visibility to the trans community as both a parent and an educator," said Garrett-Pate. "He has experience not just around making sure our schools are safe and supportive for LGBTQ students but also making sure every child has the ability to succeed and feels welcome in school."

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