Anti-LGBTQ Nonsense Sucks Up AISD Oxygen

Texas Values, Concerned Parents of Texas sow fear and misinformation


Naomi Wilson at an anti-hate crime rally in February (Photo by Jana Birchum)

After sitting through 14 speakers insisting that teaching children to respect people of all sexualities and gender identities would threaten the very fabric of society, Naomi Wilson was fed up. The trans activist attended the Austin ISD Board of Trustees meeting on Monday night, Aug. 26, to speak in support of changes to the district's Human Sexuality and Responsibility curriculum, including updating language used in lessons for students in grades 3-8 to reflect a modern, inclusive understanding of gender identity.

Wilson rose and began chanting, "Trans lives matter," expressing the emotions she had stifled until that point, and was approached by AISD police officers planning to escort her out if she did not leave on her own, which she did – reciting the ages of 16 young trans women like herself who have been killed in 2019 alone. Outside, she told the Chronicle, "I'm just so tired of these arguments that seek to completely delegitimize my entire existence. I have been living my whole life as who I am. ... It should not be comfortable for them to be that much of a bigot. They see us as the predators, when in fact, we are the victims."

Back inside the boardroom, trustees struggled to regain control as tensions rose between supporters and foes of the LGBTQ-friendly sex ed curriculum. One woman troubled by the changes required medical attention from EMS; at another point, Education Austin President Ken Zarifis scolded the "Concerned Parents," telling them, "This is what happens when bigots share their hate." Eventually, Board President Geronimo Rodriguez called a recess to allow time to cool down.

The turmoil came as a surprise to many at Monday's meeting, as the new curriculum, which is still being finalized by district staff, was not on the trustees' agenda and isn't set for approval until October. Still, more than half of the 40 attendees who signed up for public comment came to talk – and mostly complain – about sex education; at least three confirmed to me that they have no family members attending AISD schools.

Over the past six months of community engagement on the new sexuality curriculum, Concerned Parents of Texas were present to sow fear and misinformation but had always been outnumbered by supporters of the update – not to mention the thousands who endorsed the changes in a districtwide survey. Their larger and louder presence this week reflects the increasing involvement of the statewide anti-LGBTQ group Texas Values, which has inserted itself squarely into this local issue.

At a meeting last week with about 40 community members, as documented in a recording obtained by the Chronicle, Texas Values leaders offered misleading and false information about the intent and content of AISD's curriculum, which is based on the National Sexuality Education Standards. The local standards, approved unanimously by trustees in February, offer a comprehensive approach in which students learn about healthy relationships, the effects of social media on self-image, and medically accurate terminology.

Initially, the district planned to purchase a lesson program called Get Real to teach the new standards, co-written by the Plan­ned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, but Senate Bill 22 from this year's legislative session prohibits such partnerships with Planned Parenthood. Instead, AISD staff will write the lessons for grades 3-8, which will remain focused on abstinence as required by Texas law. Parents with concerns can opt out of any lesson or the entire curriculum once it reaches the classrooms later this school year.

At the recorded meeting, Texas Values Vice President David Walls accused AISD of wanting to "keep parents in the dark" about the changes despite the district's extensive engagement program, which included a survey sent to all AISD parents and guardians, three community meetings before the board's February vote, and four open-house workshops since, as well as the trustees' own discussions of the new curriculum. ("Concerned parents" have complained about the survey not offering them an option to reject the changes outright, although they may have failed to follow its instructions for doing so.)

Walls characterized the curriculum as a way to teach students "to start questioning who they are at a foundational level," adding, "Is there anything more dangerous to be taught to a child than to take the single most biological reality about who they are, and to cause them to start questioning that? It is the overarching goal ... to push a radical worldview that I fundamentally believe is dangerous." Texas Values Policy Director Nicole Hudgens told us that the group plans to continue "alerting" parents to the changes and encouraging them to email their disapproval to the school board (she claims 1,600 messages have been sent thus far).

The trustees feel differently. "Our transgender students feel they are in danger, so it's more important that we provide a welcome and safe curriculum for them," Trustee Ann Teich told the Chronicle. On Tuesday, Rodriguez told us that public comment was unlikely to sway the board. "At AISD, we expect a culture of dignity and respect, one that is welcoming and inclusive of every individual person, especially those that are marginalized," he said. "I hope that our actions show we are respecting every individual as a human being endowed with dignity."

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Austin LGBTQ, Austin Independent School District, Naomi Wilson, Austin ISD board of trustees, Human Sexuality and Responsibility curriculum, trans lives matter, Education Austin, Ken Zarifis, Concerned Parents of Texas, Geronimo Rodriguez, Texas Values, National Sexuality Education Standards, Get Real, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Senate Bill 22, David Walls, Nicole Hudgens, Ann Teich

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