CA schools czar Thurmond fights anti-LGBTQ policies

  • by Matthew S. Bajko, Assistant Editor
  • Wednesday September 6, 2023
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State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond will be honored by the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club at its Pride Breakfast. Photo: Courtesy CA Dept. Education
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond will be honored by the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club at its Pride Breakfast. Photo: Courtesy CA Dept. Education

With conservative-led school boards throughout California adopting policies he considers harmful for LGBTQ students, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond has become a vocal advocate for protecting their rights to privacy and a safe learning environment. In recent months he has shown up at school board meetings and news conferences to denounce the growing attacks against LGBTQ youth.

Thurmond, a straight ally and former state legislator from the East Bay, is contending with how to counter the anti-LGBTQ school policies being championed under the banner of parental rights by a host of groups across the state. They run the gamut from banning books by LGBTQ authors or textbooks covering LGBTQ subjects to requiring that school administrators out transgender and nonbinary students to their parents without their consent.

His office issued guidance to school districts explaining that it believes, based on legal rulings, students have a right to privacy as it relates to their sexual orientation and gender identity. He convened a hearing this summer to ensure textbook publishers are adhering to state laws requiring schools teach about LGBTQ history by producing classroom materials inclusive of often-underrepresented groups.

He issued a joint letter dated June 1 along with Governor Gavin Newsom and Attorney General Rob Bonta to school leaders laying out why it is unconstitutional to remove books from school libraries. And to mark the start of Pride Month that day, Thurmond gathered with his staff, fellow elected officials and LGBTQ advocates to raise the Progress Pride flag for the first time at the headquarters of the California Department of Education in Sacramento.

Meanwhile, Thurmond has worked with gay Assemblymember Corey Jackson, Ph.D. (D-Perris) to craft legislation aimed at ensuring school districts are not removing certain books from classrooms or libraries because they address such topics as race or sexual orientation. His office launched an investigation of the Temecula Valley Unified School District in Riverside County after its school board rejected a social studies textbook because it included supplemental information about the late gay San Francisco supervisor and civil rights leader Harvey Milk. (Faced with a steep fiscal penalty threatened by Newsom, the board members later reversed course.)

"We are not trying to take away local control or the rights of parents. We are just saying that banning books has a negative effect on our kids, especially if someone is trying to ban books in order to discriminate against LGBTQ students or students of color," said Thurmond in a recent video interview with the Bay Area Reporter.

In July, at the behest of LGBTQ students, Thurmond showed up at a meeting of the Chino Valley Unified School District board to speak out against its adopting a forced outing policy. His being ejected from the meeting generated wide media coverage about the issue, while Bonta is now suing the school district over the policy. (A judge issued a temporary restraining order against the district Wednesday.)

"We know a forced outing policy is dangerous for our students," said Thurmond, pointing to the fact that many youth end up homeless because their parents kicked them out of their home after learning they were LGBTQ.

The issue could end up going before the state's voters if conservative parent groups are able to qualify a measure on next November's ballot that would explicitly say that school districts can forcibly out transgender students to their parents or legal guardians without their permission. As the B.A.R. reported last week, it is one of three measures aimed at restricting the rights of trans students being eyed for the 2024 general election.

"I think it is important to acknowledge this is a political movement that is intended to stamp out any conversation about the needs of LGBTQ-plus kids," said Thurmond. "It is a political movement that says students of color don't have the right to learn about the contributions of their ancestors. Even though these things we call inclusive education help students of all backgrounds do better educationally."

It comes as Thurmond, who easily secured a second term last November in marked contrast to his close contest in 2018, is now mulling a gubernatorial bid in 2026. His actions this year on behalf of LGBTQ students have not gone unnoticed, with the East Bay Stonewall Democratic Club honoring Thurmond with its Ally Award this Sunday at its Pride Breakfast fundraiser titled "Protect Trans Kids!"

"I am deeply honored to receive their award," said Thurmond.

Ryan LaLonde, a gay father who is the LGBTQ political club's secretary and membership chair, attended the flag raising ceremony that Thurmond and his staff held in June in his capacity as an elected member of the school board in the city of Alameda. He told the B.A.R. that prior to the recent battles over LGBTQ school policies, Thurmond had long been an advocate for LGBTQ students.

"During his tenure, Superintendent Thurmond has been on the forefront of making sure our LGBTQ+ students are respected, supported and celebrated and most recently been a fierce advocate for our California trans students," said LaLonde. "Tony is the perfect example of a leader stepping up to safeguard the progress we have made for our queer students and make sure the hateful forces behind the backlash don't win."

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