I’m a former teacher and an openly gay man. Before I ever stepped foot in the halls of Congress, I spent the 1980s and 90s working in California public schools, and I can tell you: we’ve been here before. What Republicans are trying to do to our students and public education will send us back 40 years.
When I began my career in the 80s, California was just a few years out from a defeat of the Briggs Initiative — a piece of state legislation that would have banned all openly gay and lesbian teachers from working in California public schools. I was a high school student when that proposition was debated and listened to state legislators talk about how such a ban was necessary to “defend our children.” They claimed that the presence of LGBTQI+ teachers and the mere discussion of LGBTQI+ topics was an effort to “recruit” children into the “homosexual lifestyle.”
In the four decades since we’ve come a long way with LGBTQI+ rights – but the rhetoric is just the same as it was 40 years ago. Today, in a frenzied effort to create new culture wars targeting the LGBTQI+ community, anti-equality politicians are staking the health, well-being, and safety of our educators and our children on their messaging campaigns.
More specifically, anti-equality Republicans are asking families, teachers, and students to carry the cost of their political gain and turning a blind eye to the myriad of other consequences that will come from enacting anti-LGBTQI+ laws through Congress in addition to the legislation sweeping through state legislatures.
As we approach Harvey Milk Day this month – named in honor of an LGBTQI+ civil rights hero that spearheaded the charge to defeat the Briggs Initiative – I’ve been thinking about a quote of his from the campaign against the anti-gay laws that swept the country in the 1970s:
Openly LGBTQI+ role models are far more numerous today than when I first began teaching, and our language is constantly expanding to describe the beautiful array of identities and experiences that exist. Educators, parents, and community advocates are publishing books that help LGBTQI+ kids see themselves represented, educate their peers, and put tools in the hands of teachers.
At the same time — and likely directly in response to this progress — I listen to my colleagues use their platform in the House of Representatives to use the same tactics that State Senator John Briggs tried back in the 1970s: using fear to whip up a moral panic for political gain.
In the first education-related bill that the Republicans have brought to the Floor this Congress, they chose to use committee time and taxpayer dollars to pass H.R. 5, the “Parents Bill of Rights,” through the House of Representatives, a bill which opens the door to book bans and would require schools to forcibly out trans youth, even if it puts them in harm’s way. In the name of preserving the rights of a small but vocal minority of parents, H.R. 5 places further bureaucratic burdens on teachers and further marginalizes an already vulnerable group of students.
As a teacher, I can tell you the cost of these kinds of insidious measures on children.
When I was training to be a teacher in the late 80s, I remember the vicious and relentless bullying that a transgender student of mine went through. I know of instances where students were outed by staff and faced severe punishment at home. Later in my career, I learned of one student who was viciously beaten by his father and transferred out of the district after his family was informed that he had been caught being physically affectionate with another boy.
As a Member of Congress, it’s my job to support the most vulnerable members of our community. We must focus on making our children feel safe and supported so that they can reach their fullest potential. We must tackle the crises in our education systems that threaten safety and support in our schools including underresourced teachers, the youth mental health crisis, gun violence, and gaps in educational equity. As a member of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, and a Co-Chair of the Congressional Equality Caucus, I will continue to use my position to do just that.
It is time to advocate for the real needs of our students and to stop playing politics. Politicians with a platform, teachers with lived experience, activists brave enough to speak out, and those who fight for full equality in this country must speak up.
LGBTQI+ students deserve to know that elected officials aren’t working against them, but rather working to ensure they can be successful in the future.
I think about my former students all the time. I may no longer be their teacher, but I’ll never stop fighting in the halls of Congress for their right to receive an education in a safe and affirming environment.
Rep. Mark Takano, a Democrat from California representing the state’s 39th district, is co-chair of the Equality Caucus.