In May, Tennessee’s legislators came very close to passing a bill that make it a misdemeanor for teachers of K–8 students to talk about homosexuality. Dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay Bill,” queer activists were unsurprisingly upset about its progress through the General Assembly and state Senate, although it hasn’t been made law yet. Across the country, in California, new Governor Jerry Brown just signed into law a curriculum requirement that textbooks in his state include the contributions LGBTQ people* have made to society. With these large gaps in philosophy regarding how we talk (or are prohibited from talking) and think about queer people, what are the consequences for future generations of Americans? And is there anything to interpret from these moments of contradistinction?
We’ve been talking about “red states” and “blue states” since the 2000 election, when everything hinged on one famously split state, Florida. We’ve talking about the urban/rural divide in the United States for centuries, especially when it comes to wondering about how those differences in population density seem to matter so much for an individual’s understanding of her world and the people in it. We’ve debated states’ rights versus federalism since before we were even an official country, so I don’t propose here that these distinctions between Tennessee’s bill and California’s law is any new hay to chew, except for the starkness of their difference.
Let’s talk first—and hopefully briefly—about textbook production. When I worked for Silver Burdett & Ginn (many of us learned to read using Ginn books), it was explained to me that school boards or larger jurisdictions would “adopt” a certain textbook for use in their public schools, after some evaluation period. Maybe they’d pick a science textbook from Houghton Mifflin, or SB&G, or MacMillan, and then the publisher celebrated. At SB&G, the editors of a particular textbook subject would jog through the halls ringing a silver school bell and calling out the name of the latest customer—I kid not.
For years the biggest buyer was Texas, and there were often two versions of every textbook from every publisher—one for Texas schools, and one for everyone else. Because it was the 800-pound gorilla, it threw its weight around accordingly, insisting on specific changes in language and content, even back in the 1980s before conservatives were as rightward-leaning as they are today. That a state like California will now demand new content in its history and other textbooks will not be a huge problem for publishers, because they already customize their products. But it may exacerbate the differences between what a child in Texas learns about our country and what a child in California picks up. See, Texas has already asked for wholesale changes in its textbooks in recent years, voting solely along party lines to make more than a hundred changes to social studies, history, economics, and science textbooks, in order to address what some view as a left-skewed academic environment. Meanwhile, four in ten Americans believe in a strict understanding of creationism over evolution.
Divisions between textbooks aren’t the only measure of the attitude gap. Bullying and reporting bullying vary widely from state to state, and many LGBTQ youth advocates worry that if a bill like Tennessee’s passes, it will only undermine efforts to decrease violence against sexual minority and transgender students. If one environment heralds the queer community and one makes it verboten, what happens to future generations of LGBTQ kids? In a greater context where some states allow same-sex marriage or civil unions, some have protections against discrimination, and some states, like Virginia, forbid any contracts at all between queer partners, or like Florida, prevent a same-sex parent from adopting their partner’s child, what happens as these children grow up to assert themselves as adults?
If we believe that closeted queer people are less likely to advocate for themselves, more prone to depression and suicide, more likely to hold anti-queer attitudes, and less likely to report discrimination and violence, then we need to think carefully about the increasing distance between the states on LGBTQ-related issues and laws. The very idea of “community” is challenged when people’s experiences vary widely enough that they don’t see easy connections to each other. More than ever, queer people need to find avenues to connect to and support each other, pushing through the differences along race, gender, and class that have pulled us apart in the past. If these gaps between protected and non-protected, accepted and not accepted are growing wider, we can presume that the consequences will be more dire for individuals on the short end of the stick. For a child who goes through school never hearing about any kind of human sexuality except heterosexuality, and who can’t speak to a teacher or guidance counselor about her own feelings, or why she’s being picked on by classmates, the margins become one of only a few places for her to exist.
Because the conditions of existence are getting more challenging for LGBTQ youth in many sections of the country, we need to reach out with programs like gay-straight alliances, Make It Better, and the Trevor Project, as we work to convince our elected leaders that anti-gay bills aren’t good for their children, the country, or a smart use of their time in their voting chambers.
*The law specifically also includes contributions made by disabled people, but this aspect of it has not been nearly as well reported.