Despite actions taken federally to prevent discrimination against transgender students in schools, political action group Oregon Moms Union and Republican gubernatorial candidate and Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam have expressed concerns that the "woke left" is forcing curriculum about gender identity and sexual orientation on children.
Stan Pulliam, and his wife, MacKensey, who is the Moms Union leader and co-founder, have also publicly argued against allowing transgender students to use bathrooms that align with their gender identity.
At the national level, the U.S. Supreme Court recently established a precedent by maintaining a lower court's decision saying school boards cannot force transgender students to use restrooms based on their gender assigned at birth.
Last June, the U.S. Department of Education issued a notice that expanded Title IX protections to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
"The Supreme Court has upheld the right for LGBTQ+ people to live and work without fear of harassment, exclusion and discrimination — and our LGBTQ+ students have the same rights and deserve the same protections," said U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a statement he made in June 2021 as he directed the Office for Civil Rights to enforce Title IX protections of students from all forms of sex discrimination.
"Today, the Department makes clear that all students — including LGBTQ+ students — deserve the opportunity to learn and thrive in schools that are free from discrimination," Cardona added.
Rallying around Oregon
MacKensey held a press conference on March 28 with Kori Haynes, an aspiring state representative from Happy Valley. During the event MacKensey argued that parents need to know what's happening in schools and should have a voice on curriculum decisions.
Haynes expressed disappointment with the North Clackamas School District — specifically the Oregon Trail Elementary School where her child is enrolled — over an alleged lapse in communication with parents.
Haynes said the school did not notify her of a lesson about gender identity and sexual orientation given to her child's fifth-grade class. The lesson revolved around an illustration depicting a "Genderbread Person," which is a drawing of a gingerbread person with explanations of all of the different types of gender identity and sexual orientation.
Haynes argued that she should have had a choice — as a parent — to allow her child to opt out of that lesson.
On April 10, Oregon Moms Union promoted its April 11 rally in Salem calling for this transparency. In the Facebook post, the group said: "All students deserve to feel safe and supported in their school, but parents also deserve a say in what is being taught to their kids," then also posted a graphic reading "Boys don't belong in girls (sic) sports or bathrooms. Teach facts, not feelings." Asked about the Facebook post by Pamplin Media Group, the Pulliams offered their explanation.
In recent ads for his primary gubernatorial campaign, Stan has argued that parents aren't, but should be, given the choice on whether their children are educated on gender identity and sexual orientation.
"If kids are too young to spell gender identity or sexual orientation, they're probably too young to learn about it," said a post on the Mayor Stan for Oregon Facebook page.
"As I've continued to talk about transparency in school curriculum, my team has been hearing more and more stories from around the state about radical woke curriculum being pushed on young kids. It's become clear just how big a problem we're dealing with," he said.
In response, there were several comments supporting his position, but also several opposing him. One person said to Pulliam: "My 2YO can understand someone's pronouns as much as their name. I'm sorry you find it so difficult. Maybe give your kids a bit more credit."
Pushback for basic rights
Stan has seen pushback from educators and civil rights groups like Basic Rights Oregon.
"Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, a Republican candidate for governor, seems to be using old-fashioned culture-war tactics to distinguish himself from a crowded field," an April 13 statement from Basic Rights Oregon said. "Pulliam is doing this by driving transphobic vitriol toward trans youth — a population uniquely vulnerable to suicide, self-harm, houselessness and abuse."
State education leaders say curriculum that acknowledges and affirms gender diversity isn't radical, rather, a component of ensuring all students feel safe and seen at school."
The Oregon Department of Education sets statewide guidelines for learning about sexuality and health, starting in kindergarten.
"Instruction must use inclusive materials, language and strategies that recognizes different sexual orientations, gender identities and gender expression," said Marc Seigel, communications director for ODE. "This requirement, as a part of the required core content area of health education, is critical for all students to feel seen, supported and safe."
Seigel went on to say, "Beyond teaching healthy communication, boundary setting and emotional literacy, sexuality education must also include content on gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation to ensure LGBTQ2SIA+ inclusion."
The requirements are included in Oregon's health education standards and guidelines for schools, which require comprehensive sexuality education to be taught from kindergarten through 12th grade.
While the Pulliams and political groups like Oregon Moms Union have argued that kindergarten is too young to learn about gender identity, Oregon education officials say many students are already exploring their own gender identity at that age, or have non-binary or transgender parents or relatives.
The Oregon Health Authority's 2020 Student Health Survey, which polls students in sixth, eighth and 11th grades, show 8% of Oregon students polled are transgender, gender-expansive or questioning.
"Young people begin to understand their gender as early as kindergarten, or even before. It is critical that all students, regardless of gender, feel safe, seen and affirmed in school," Seigel said. "Additionally, because many students come from families with parents or caregivers who are transgender or non-binary, it's important that everyone in a school community treats everyone, and every family, with respect and dignity."
Seigel points to three decades of research that shows teaching about and affirming differences and empathy works to prevent violence, assault and bullying.
In fact, the North Clackamas School District, which Haynes was claiming hadn't informed parents about an impromptu lesson on gender identity and sexual orientation, said the lesson in question was held in direct response to real harm caused to students in a measured way, and not in an effort to "be sneaky" about curriculum.
"When negative behaviors that hurt or exclude students arise in a school setting, school staff step in to address the needs and restore the classroom or school community. That's what happened in this situation," the North Clackamas School District wrote in a statement. "A group of students in a particular grade level were using derogatory language referring to the gender and sexual identity of fellow students. The school principal and school counselor addressed that behavior in multiple ways, including classroom discussions at that grade level about acceptance, gender and sexual identity."
Dissent from students, residents
While many members of Stan's Republican base reside in Clackamas County, others in the county have expressed dismay at the candidate's "war on woke."
"I am proud to live in Clackamas County. We are ideologically diverse, compassionate and committed to inclusivity," said Happy Valley-based political activist Brian Fitzgerald. "While I may have an optimistic view of our county, there are others who prefer to denigrate and bully sexual minorities. One such group is the Oregon Moms Union."
On March 30, the Oregon Moms Union made national news with an article in Newsweek under the headline "DeSantis Joined by Oregon Parents in Push for School Curriculum Transparency."
Fitzgerald said the article highlights the "insidious" effects (Florida) Gov. Ron DeSantis' actions are having in Oregon.
"The Moms Union is red-faced that the North Clackamas School District has addressed bullying and is promoting an equitable and diverse school environment," Fitzgerald said. "Instead of talking about testing, graduation standards or school budgets, they wax ineloquently about the genderbread person. Why was the genderbread person taught? There was anti-trans bullying. The North Clackamas School District had to act. There was no indoctrination, no attempt to subvert traditional morality, whatever that means in the 21st century."
Leaders of Sandy group Students Advocating for Equality (SAFE) have also responded to the mayor's recent comments and proposed agenda on gender identity and sexual orientation education, voicing concern.
"Mayor Stan Pulliam's recent comments regarding his Pulliam Parental Rights in Education Plan, that he wants to implement if he becomes governor, are extremely bigoted and transphobic," said Amaya Peralta, SAFE co-manager and a junior at Sandy High. "He wants to implement a 'DeSantis-style' plan that has originated from hatred and will harm the livelihood of youth, specifically LGBTQ+ students."
"As both a local organizer and an LGBTQ+ individual, I am afraid of what Mayor Pulliam's plans would do to the youth. I am afraid of what this would implement for the future and how this 'Education Plan' would hurt the community. The education plan will not 'protect students from indoctrination,' it is an excuse to silence LGBTQ+ voices and make them feel unwelcome," Peralta added.
SAFE co-manager Jesse Nava expressed similar concerns,
saying as is, Oregon's current educational standard "allows all members of our community to feel safe and welcomed."
"We are in a time where race, sexual orientation and identity need to be talked about," she said. "If we put restrictions on resources for our students, the safety of our children will be at risk. Not only is Pulliam challenging the education system, but all individuals who have benefited from the acceptance of LGBTQ+ and health resources."
Nava, 18, a trans woman and Sandy High School senior, said in her time in the Oregon Trail School District, she has worked to educate staff about gender identity and sexual orientation.
"As a member of my community, and an openly trans student, I have experienced firsthand what is wrong with the approach to LGBTQ+ matters. Our problem lies with the inclusiveness about queer topics and resources," Nava added. "If students were to see staff and adults more educated on LGBTQ+ matters, students (would be) more likely to open up and feel safer. If we updated our sex curriculum to provide the resources students need, schools would be a safe place for all groups of people.
"Since my enrollment at Sandy High, I have had staff and administrators, unknowingly ask me inappropriate questions about my identity and sexual orientation. If we provided the solutions needed, not only students but staff, can feel safe in a place they call school. The solutions are here; as communities we need to come together to make change, not ignorance. Ignorance is not a virtue of perseverance when all we need is justice. The justice needed is to stop ignorance and start educating."
Stan and MacKensey Pulliam both denied allegations that they are anti-LGBTQ in response to statements they've been making about Oregon school curriculum.
However, the Pulliams agreed that MacKensey's Moms Union and Stan's "War on Woke" gubernatorial slogan are pushing against some "very similar topics," in that they share the values of parental notification and transparency in Oregon school systems.
"There are a lot of parents who don't want teachers to talk with their kids about sex in kindergarten," she said.
When asked about the need to talk with young kids about inappropriate touching from sexual predators, MacKensey said that "parents should still be notified" of these types of lessons.
Salem-Kaiser's school district recently updated its transgender policies to align with state and federal laws, prompting a Moms Union rally. Asked about the federal appeals and Supreme Court cases that have already decided the bathroom issue, she said, "I feel like this is going to cause a lot of disciplinary issues for teachers who are already overwhelmed."
She could not name a case involving a child going into an opposite sex's bathroom and causing disciplinary issues.
Stan said he supports the recent controversial legislation in Florida, and as governor, would push for similar legislation in Oregon.
"There have been court rulings on the bathrooms, but there haven't been rulings on whether parents should be notified about school curriculum," he said.
MacKensey defended the Pulliams' notion that Oregonians should push back against federal court rulings on bathroom legislation.
"We haven't had these policies in schools for long, but this is something that could happen," MacKensey said. "We're not worried about a child who is transitioning or who is trans causing issues in a bathroom. We're very much in support of LGBTQ children, and they should have a safe environment in schools."
On this last point from MacKensey, the SAFE leaders, like Brinna Reynoldson, who identifies with she/they pronouns, agree; LGBTQ children should have a safe environment in schools. However, they see a different path toward creating that "safe environment."
"This is just the beginning. Our nation has struggled with racism, homophobia, transphobia and more since its founding. People like Mayor Pulliam are not rare; there will always be someone using misguided values to 'protect their children,'" Reynoldson said. "Which is why groups like SAFE have popped up; we are tired of those ignorant ideas. We can help future generations through open education, talking about the LGBTQIA+ community, not through a 'DeSantis-style' of education. Our elected officials will be the ones to start that change, so it's essential we elect the right ones."
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