Religious Right Takes Bathroom Fight Back to Schools after Defeat at Capitol
After failing to pass a “bathroom bill” at the Legislature, religious-right conservatives target LGBT-inclusive policies at schools.
On Monday, Allan Parker stood outside the San Antonio Independent School District’s David G. Burnet Center and asked everyone gathered to imagine Caitlyn Jenner’s dead body.
Not that Parker wants Jenner dead or anything. But, he clarified, just think of how befuddled police would be by the discovery of her corpse. Parker, a lawyer and president of the San Antonio-based Christian legal advocacy group The Justice Foundation, mused: “Bruce Jenner, who calls himself Caitlyn Jenner, would be identified as a white male in the police report by his DNA. That’s what he is. He is not a woman. He’s a white male dressing as a woman and using a woman’s name.”
What any of that has to do with the San Antonio school district, which conducts its board meetings inside the Burnet Center, underscores the religious-right fears that animated Texas’ recent legislative season.
Lawmakers this year proposed no fewer than two dozen bills aimed at restricting the rights of LGBT Texans. In June, Governor Greg Abbott signed into law a measure that critics say allows private, religious-based adoption agencies to turn away LGBT parents. A so-called bathroom bill to police public restroom access for transgender Texans became a defining issue in the Legislature, but with overwhelming opposition from schools, police officials and big business leaders, the more moderate House refused to pass it. As House Speaker Joe Straus told the New Yorker’s Lawrence Wright, “I don’t want the suicide of a single Texan on my hand.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, that defeat, Parker and other activists are still hunting for bathroom battles. It makes sense they’d look for them in schools. After conservative Christian groups such as Texas Values killed LGBT protections in Houston with the rallying cry “No Men in Women’s Restrooms” in 2015, they zeroed in on schools with trans-inclusive policies. When Fort Worth ISD issues guidelines for faculty on navigating gender issues, Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick demanded that the superintendent resign and called the conflict a “modern day come-and-take-it moment.”
On Monday, Parker and others said they weren’t protesting trans-inclusive bathroom policies but rather six words — “sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression” — that the SAISD board added to its existing non-discrimination and anti-bullying policies last month. Parker called it “a blunt legal instrument to introduce transgenderism to all the children in the district.”
But Ruby Polanco, a senior from the district’s Young Women’s Leadership Academy who led a petition to update the policy, says the change was to protect students, teachers and staff from being bullied or fired because of who they are. She wanted SAISD to conform with other large districts across the state in cities like Houston and Austin, which have for years had LGBT-inclusive policies. Polanco told the board that the other side “pushed fear, lies and their politicized agenda.”
Patti Radle, president of the SAISD board, began Monday’s meeting by warning everyone that trustees weren’t used to standing-room-only crowds, pleading with them to be respectful at the mic. Then someone tried to shout her down as she explained that the district’s new non-discrimination policy doesn’t affect restroom access. As activists got up to speak, some insisted the new policy was a kind of anti-bathroom bill in disguise that would “allow men in women’s restrooms” across the district. Others waved signs declaring “Our Children Are Not SAISD Property.” It’s unclear if any of them actually have children in the district. (I couldn’t find anyone who did, but one woman says her grandchildren “will be in SAISD” someday.) Some of the protesters told me they didn’t live in San Antonio.
Like Sharon Armke of Dripping Springs. “I feel like the children are being recruited into the gay community,” she told the Observer. Non-discrimination policies that ensure fair treatment of LGBT students “will lead to brainwashing and child abuse,” she declared. “It will normalize these kinds of ideas and force kids to think it’s OK.” Armke says she got involved with Texas Values when the group descended on Dripping Springs ISD last year after the district started letting a third-grade trans girl use the girls’ bathroom at her school. Tears welled up in Armke’s eyes when she talked about “poor boys who grow their hair out, start wearing a dress, and become fully brainwashed.”
SAISD isn’t the only Texas school district where Christian conservatives are fighting LGBT-friendly policies. A group calling itself Concerned Parents of Austin claimed a sort-of victory last month when they announced that Austin ISD was doing away with the Human Rights Campaign’s training program for LGBT-inclusive schools, which has already been taught to staff at 24 AISD campuses at last count. Caryl Ayala, an AISD teacher of 11 years, says she quit her job at the district last year because of the training.
“It really normalizes transgenderism and homosexuality,” she told the Observer. The group’s website informs readers about the “sex ed/LGBT agenda” and warns that “the sexual revolution is now entering our preschools and kindergartens.” AISD disputes that its new diversity training, which the district calls All Are Welcome and plans to roll out this spring, is a departure from the Human Rights Campaign curriculum. In an email, AISD spokesperson Tiffany Young called it “an expanded program … with the ultimate goal of providing a safe and inclusive learning environment for all students and families.”
Ayala and her group still consider it a win, even though they don’t think it goes nearly far enough. Ayala told the Observer she thinks anything that creates a learning environment that “normalizes an LGBT lifestyle” is inappropriate. “You don’t have to be a parent of faith to believe that you should be in charge of what your child learns at school.”
Outside SAISD’s board meeting, Texas Values’ policy analyst, Nicole Hudgens, blamed the raucous display on moderate Republicans in the Texas House. She insisted all of this could have been avoided had the Legislature just given them their bathroom bill. “This could have been stopped by Speaker Straus,” she said.