Susan J. Demas
Updated, 12:38 p.m., 9/11/23
While right-wing groups like Moms for Liberty have emerged as a potent political force in the latest chapter of the decades-old “parental rights” movement, parents of LGBTQ+ children and children of color say their rights are being marginalized even further and hope to spark a wake-up call that the nation’s public education system is being harmed in the process.
In Michigan, as in districts across the country, far-right activists have used the “parental rights” banner to try and achieve a list of goals, including halting any discussion of racism by labeling it critical race theory; banning books that often discuss LGBTQ+ issues as being pornographic; and preventing teachers from even acknowledging gender identity or sexual orientation issues with students.
The common thread in many of these conflicts with school districts is that the rights of parents to control the content of the material their children are exposed to are being violated, or otherwise diminished.
For Nicole Kessler of Birmingham, president of the Michigan Parent Alliance for Safe Schools (MIPASS), the idea that parents have been deprived of the ability to provide input on their child’s curriculum is simply not true.
“Parents already have a plethora of rights as it relates to the education of their kids, and most of our school districts are quite happy to work with parents, she told the Michigan Advance. “If there is content in a class or in a library that you don’t want your child to access, most school districts are more than happy to accommodate that kind of request.”
Kessler, who has one child in college and a 12-year-old in Birmingham Public Schools, said parents across the state and across the country are being wrongly told that they don’t have those options.
“Parents are being told that their kids are being fed all sorts of questionable material at school and exposed to things like that, and that’s just not accurate,” she said. “But they’re trying to remove access to things that they think are inappropriate for their children from all children, and that’s where I think calling themselves a parental rights group kind of challenges my brain a little bit because, go ahead and control the content your child has access to, but my neighbor has no business controlling what content my child should have access to.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), has designated Moms for Liberty as an anti-government group, noting the organization’s use of social media to target teachers and school officials, advance conspiracy propaganda, and spread hateful imagery and rhetoric against the LGBTQ+ community.
In a statement to the Michigan Advance, Travis McAdam, senior research analyst, and Rachel Carroll Rivas, deputy director of research, reporting and analysis for the SPLC’s Intelligence Project, say the main narrative of Moms for Liberty, and other anti-student inclusion groups, is that public education and educators are part of a conspiracy to indoctrinate children with radical Marxism.
“They push these ideas through tactics like lobbying for book bans and changes in curriculum that erase the lived histories and presence of Black, Brown, and LGBTQ+ people,” McAdam and Rivas said. “Public schools aren’t just about learning certain subjects. They are also where kids learn and practice the civic virtues needed for our society to function. Kids practice getting along with each other and respecting people from different cultures and experiences. These types of values run counter to what Christian Nationalists want – a society run by and for a small segment of Christians they deem worthy.”
They also note that while anti-government extremist groups like Moms for Liberty began assembling under the guise of “moms” and “parents,” they’re not representing most parents or most people’s views on education.
“Anti-student inclusion groups maintain antigovernment ideals and use radical, extremist tactics to attack diverse students and inclusive education,” said McAdam and Rivas.
A request for comment from Moms for Liberty about this story was returned with a statement from co-founders Tina Descovich and Tiffany Justice.
“Moms for Liberty now has members in 285 chapters in 45 states across the country,” they said. “Our members have diverse backgrounds. We have parents from every racial, religious, economic and sexual orientation background; and they all want the same thing — to have a role in their child’s education in public school. This is a unifying principle for Moms for Liberty. We believe every parent deserves a role in their child’s education. Children do not belong to the government — they belong to their parents. It is that simple.”
Justice also told the Daily Wire that the SPLC’s designation was “false and libelous.
“‘We’re not threatening to do it, we’re going to do it if we feel that we have an ability to do that,’ Justice said. “Defamation is a hard claim in court, but it is certainly affecting our chapters and hurting our chapters all over the country, and intentionally so is the point [sic]. And it’s totally unfounded.”
The content being questioned in schools is no longer confined to that found in books or as part of the curriculum, as several districts have moved to adopt so-called “content neutral” policies, often in reaction to right-wing activism targeting LGBTQ+ Pride flags.
Fowlerville Community Schools in Livingston County is one of those districts, having adopted a “content neutral” policy in July that only allows the American flag, state of Michigan flag and displays that promote athletics, post-secondary education or opportunities (such as universities or the military), or are part of a temporary unit of study.
However, many parents and teachers in the district contend that the policy, nearly identical to one passed in the nearby Hartland Consolidated School district in June, was created specifically to target Pride flags and stickers that some teachers chose to display.
One Fowlerville parent who feels his child’s welfare was disregarded by the decision is Jeff Matteson, the father of a 13-year-old trans girl, who, he told the Advance, was attacked at school in eighth grade after coming out.
“They need to actually address the issues of the violence that particular group is going through,” he said. “These aren’t flags that they’re making the kids salute. These are little one inch by one inch flags that specific trans and LGBTQ kids know, ‘Hey, this teacher at least understands me and will listen and understands what I may be going through,’ or at least would just sit there and listen, where I think other teachers will not.”
Advocacy group Stand Against Extremism LivCo says multiple transphobic and homophobic social media posts from district students were posted in the aftermath of the vote.
Matteson says the agenda from groups like Moms for Liberty surrounding gender issues completely ignores the experience and rights of parents like himself who are just trying to raise their kids as best as they can.
“I come from a very traditional, church-going Republican family, so it was something different,” he said about learning his child was trans. “But my love for my child isn’t going to change. I heard stories at the meeting a couple of weeks ago about a girl being abandoned by her parents. I don’t understand that.”
Matteson also can’t understand why allowing LGBTQ+ kids to have some small recognition that they matter and are loved is deemed to be such a threat by his local school board. He has seen first hand how even a small gesture of understanding can make all the difference, recalling how he and his wife began to use their child’s preferred pronouns and new name.
“This was more for her than for me,” he said “I thought, ‘You know what? Let’s do this’ because this isn’t that hard or a big deal, and let’s see what this does with her therapy. How does she feel about herself? Does she feel better? And it’s hard to deny that I see she feels better about herself. These kids suffer for that decision [to come out]. I don’t know how many people would choose to do that just as a game.”
Kessler adds that calling these school policies “content-neutral” is a misnomer as they are targeting specific content and are anything but neutral.
“If we’re talking about flags or stickers or clubs, what are they really having issues with? It is the LGBTQ+ clubs and flags and stickers and badges and whatever else they’ve come up,” she said. “That’s the real issue. And so by adopting a content-neutral policy, the only thing that gets changed is that those items are removed and subsequently a small portion of the student and teaching community is marginalized. I think we’ve come a long way in the last few decades in becoming outwardly supportive and more inclusive in our schools and elsewhere, and I really think these content-neutral policies have the potential to set that back.”
Another parent who can’t understand the right’s fixation on how parents of LGBTQ+ children raise their families is Julia Pulver, a career nurse and patient advocate who now works as an expert nursing consultant after two unsuccessful runs as a Democrat for office in 2018 for state Senate and in 2020 for state House.
In July, former Michigan GOP Co-Chair Meshawn Maddock, who is married to state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), posted a tweet in which she referred to Pulver’s children as “incredibly sad and messed up,” adding, “Democrats like them are willing to sacrifice their own children.”
Pulver and her husband, Ben Pulver, have been outspoken advocates for the LGBTQ+ community, which includes three of their four children, a trans son, a cis son and two non-binary kids.
Pulver responded by noting Maddock’s legal woes and speculated that likely played a role in the attack on her kids.
Maddock is one of 16 Michigan Republicans charged with submitting false electoral votes in December 2020 in support of former President Donald Trump. Each faces multiple felonies including election law forgery, and conspiracy to commit election law forgery.
However, Pulver also noted the irony of the attack on her children coming from Maddock, who says she’s a proponent of parental rights.
“The entire ‘parents’ rights’ movement from Moms for Liberty and all of that sort of right-wing Republican ilk has always been just a complete misnomer,” she said. “It’s not parents rights; it’s only certain parents rights. It’s the parents that we agree with who want to tell all the other parents how they can parent their kid. They want to tell all the other parents what their kids can and can’t read, and what their kids can and can’t look like or call themselves, or only certain parents get to tell the teachers how they get to interact with their students. It’s only been certain parents’ rights over all the other parents, if they were being fully honest with what their objectives were.”
While Pulver has no plans at the present to get back into politics, she said she will absolutely remain outspoken and unwavering in her support of her kids and the entire LGBTQ+ community, as she has for her entire life.
Pulver believes what she and other LGBTQ+ advocates are saying sound more reasonable to the majority of the public than homophobic attacks.
“So that’s my hope, is that other people can just be like, ‘You know what? Maybe it is creepy. Maybe it is really super creepy that Republicans are focused so much on minor children’s genitals and maybe there’s something wrong with them — not me or my kids.’”
Some students say the right-wing attacks on school curriculum have had a chilling effect on the classroom environment.
Jaden Guo is an 18-year-old LGBTQ+ student who graduated in June from Rochester Community Schools. They served as president of their school’s student-led Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) club for two years and helped establish a GSA at all of the district’s schools.
“It was very apparent when you hear all these outside noises, especially from our trustees who support Moms for Liberty initiatives, it created a very unhealthy environment,” they told the Advance. “I noticed my teachers were definitely more cautious with their approaches to more sensitive topics, especially when you had a book that had maybe just one LGBTQ character. Like even just teaching those books that have LGBTQ characters and marginalized communities involved in them, even if it only has one bare mention of it, it really set them … like they’re walking on nails. They were very anxious about teaching that.
“We actually have a lot of teachers as well who were scared of even being recorded by the students. If they say something that makes a student uncomfortable, it really created an environment where teachers were scared to sort of be honest with themselves and also what they were teaching.”
Guo said the effort by one particular group of parents to emphasize their preferences over all others also creates an atmosphere of hostility that ends up impacting already marginalized students.
“I will say though, when you have a lot of this hate coming from groups such as Moms for Liberty, many peers noticed that we saw an increase of homophobic slurs in classrooms or just in private discussions that we eavesdrop on, or just seeing more overall harassment or bullying from other students. So like I said, it really does have a tremendous impact on the student body as a whole,” they said.
That experience only reinforces for Guo the importance of having a place within school districts, like GSAs, where these students can have some measure of safety and recognition.
“I want to say right now, a GSA is so important because of that support piece,” they said. “People are still very naive to the idea that, ‘Oh, LGBTQ people … we’re in 2023, it’s OK.’ No. LGBTQ people are still facing significant discrimination. That support piece is needed because, still an unfortunate large part of our LGBTQ student body don’t have supportive families, or they still feel unsafe because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Guo notes studies that have shown that GSAs can reduce the likelihood of an LGBTQ+ student having more anxiety or depression, which in turn helps lower their risk for suicide and self-harm.
“But when you have Moms for Liberty hate coming in, it’s going to shift the environment a little bit. But I have seen that in our schools, where we have these GSAs for the first time in all the schools, it also encourages more discussions,” they said.
While the parental rights movement has been focused on LGBTQ+ issues in the last couple of years, some parents note that it is also hostile to accurate education about issues surrounding race.
Much of the renewed movement’s initial focus in 2020 and 2021 was against “critical race theory,” a college-level theory which is rarely taught in K-12 schools and the New York Times’ “1619 Project.”
Danielle Atkinson is a mother of six and the founding director of Mothering Justice, a Detroit-based grassroots policy advocacy organization for mothers of color in America.
“The difference between our group and Moms for Liberty, as an example, is that we believe that schools are a place of learning, and that teachers and educators are experts in their field, and we should trust them because they’ve been credentialed,” she told the Advance. “We should look to research as to how best to prepare our students for the future. And we know from evidence that we need to prepare our students in a way that they are able to interact with other people, that they understand other people’s perspectives and realities and that a rich understanding of history is really important.”
Atkinson also notes the conservative push to control education has a long history in America.
“It’s nothing new, right? This harkens back to the civil rights movement before, just the push and pull of control over what our children are supposed to be learning,” she said. “It’s funny because there was an article circulating about why we all learned square dancing in school, and it’s apparently because Henry Ford pushed through legislation because they wanted to combat jazz and the influence of jazz, which we all look back now and think is ridiculous, but in the time there was a culture war, and that’s what we’re facing right now.”
Atkinson said this current iteration of the culture war is centered around whether students should be protected from or exposed to historical knowledge that can be disturbing, but represents the reality of our nation.
“We want our children to be critical thinkers, and the world that these individuals want is a world in which their children are not exposed to anything controversial,” she said. “That their feelings are held in greater esteem and importance than living in a world where we have conflict. There are people that cause harm, and we need to prepare them for that.”
“Our rights matter, too, parents that have children of color and LGBTQ children,” continued Atkinson. “Yes, I am one of those who has both, but more importantly, I want my children to be prepared for the world they’re going to live in. And so I think that’s how we combat it. That’s how we fight against it, with administrators and teachers who were trained to prepare children to be critical thinkers, and you can’t be a critical thinker if you’re not presented with the reality of history and the things that we are dealing with in society.”
Atkinson said the idea that schools have this all-pervasive power to indoctrinate children completely ignores the role that parents themselves have with their kids.
“I know that my children, when they come home, we discuss all the concepts that they learn in school,” she said. “We put them into the context of what we believe as a family, what they believe as an individual, because they are individuals.”
Atkinson said she doesn’t agree with everything that her children are exposed to at school, but her job as a parent is to prepare them for the world outside her home.
“If they’re never faced with something that is opposite or different from their experience, they’ll never have the opportunity to grow that muscle,” she said. “So I feel sorry for these moms that want to just have such a small purview of what our children should be learning. We’re doing a disservice, not only to our children, but the educators that are trained in how to do this.”
Kessler concurs and said differences of opinion on parenting is not the issue, but how politics has allowed certain parents’ perspectives to be given priority in public education.
“Some parents are OK with their kids reading about topics that other parents aren’t. And that will always be the case,” she said. “But I fear that over time if we adopt legislation similar to what they’ve adopted in other states, particularly Florida, that it really sets up an environment that isn’t healthy in our public schools. And I am afraid that my children aren’t going to learn appropriate history or social studies or about how our government is supposed to function.”
While Atkinson said the current wave of activism is a “flavor of the season” embodied by a concerted effort from a group of political people to motivate a base, she cautions that sitting on the sidelines only emboldens the purveyors of that movement.
“I think people and the community and parents have to take it seriously,” she said. “They have to speak up for what they believe is right. If we do that, then I think we will prevail, and what I mean by prevailing is that our teachers will be trusted, that they will be able to teach our children a robust curriculum around things that reflect the communities in which we live. But we have to be working towards that and we can’t take it for granted that it will fizzle out.”
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