The expression “parents’ rights” triggers the reaction that, of course, parents should have the primary say over how their child is raised. But the notion deserves a second thought, because there are actually many ways in which we insist upon setting limits on parents to protect the well-being of children. Remaining confident in that limit-setting is essential to countering the latest—but hardly original—anti-LGBTQ2S+, anti-history campaign that dons the “parents’ rights” moniker.
In both the U.S. and Canada over the past several years, and even months, we’ve seen a rise in “parental rights” movements. Indeed, in the wake of their anti-abortion victories, social conservatives have declared “parental rights” the new banner under which they’ll try to turn back the clocks on our actual rights and freedoms.
But who are these “parents”? Not all of them are even parents themselves, let alone in the school districts where they’re seeking changes.
What “rights” do they believe they are entitled to? They are asking for changes that would actually deprive many others of rights, including basic safety in the classroom.
Do they have any respect for the parents who have different views from them? They do not, and indeed, these efforts come from an extreme ideology that seeks to impose its views on all families.
Under the banner of parents rights, conservatives have been trying to block gender-affirming care for trans kids, any teaching in schools whatsoever about the existence of LGBTQ2S+ people and any accurate history lessons that might make white kids feel “uncomfortable” about the very real and brutal things white people have done over the past 500 years of North American colonization. They want schools to out their trans kids so they can reject them at home and they want their teachers to have to hide their queer and trans identities. These anti-diversity attempts to discriminate and whitewash history carry the hallmarks of not only bigotry, but also creeping fascism under the banner of Christian nationalism.
In some ways, we’re seeing a natural backlash against society’s growing acceptance of gender equality and LGBTQ2S+ identities. Conservatives are fighting to make sure schools only teach their espoused—if not practised—beliefs that sex should only be reserved for monogamous, heterosexual couples who marry, form nuclear families and conform to misogynist gender roles.
But the parental rights campaign is also emblematic of conservatives’ efforts to chip away at progress in seemingly benign ways. Their anti-abortion campaigns in the U.S., for example, included incremental limits on access to abortion, from requiring hospital-admitting privileges to particularly wide hallways to transvaginal ultrasounds. Individually, these changes didn’t ban abortion, but they did make accessing abortion harder until abortion was effectively banned in some states well before the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. Small cuts to LGBTQ2S+ inclusion or minor changes to history lessons can add up over time until there’s little left resembling the inclusive policies or accurate curricula that these conservatives object to.
None of this is new. Campaigns on nearly identical issues have played out time and time again under the same banner of “parents’ rights.” A hundred years ago, parents were objecting to evolution being taught in public school biology classes, a controversy that culminated in what is often known as the Scopes Monkey Trial. When Tennessee passed its bill banning the teaching of evolution, failed presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan praised the governor for signing it into law, saying, “The Christian parents of the state owe you a debt of gratitude for saving their children from the poisonous influence of an unproven hypothesis.” As recently as 2005, U.S. courts have continued to wrestle with attempts to teach “intelligent design” (creationism in disguise) in public schools.
The first modern recurrence of a “parents’ rights” campaign emerged in the 1990s when New York City schools implemented a new “Children of the Rainbow” curriculum. In addition to featuring a new commitment to global diversity and racial inclusion, it also included a few books that discussed same-sex families, such as Heather Has Two Mommies and Daddy’s Roommate. The school system’s chancellor, Joe Fernandez, was also trying to make condoms available and to educate students about HIV transmission. Parents objected until Fernandez was ousted, and the publicity helped fuel a movement that grew throughout the ’90s.
That movement led to “parents’ rights” bills being introduced across the U.S. and in Congress, all of which aimed to curb what could be taught in schools, with a particular focus on sex-ed classes that were expanding beyond abstinence-only approaches. Most notably, Coloradans had the chance to vote directly on a “Parental Rights Amendment” to their state’s constitution in 1996, which would have added a new right for parents “to direct and control the upbringing, education, values and discipline of their children.” Voters rejected the amendment 57 percent to 43 percent, but the expansive language spoke to the chaotic possibilities of parents dictating every aspect of the inner workings of schools, to say nothing of libraries, bookstores and video stores that might offer content parents would hide from their kids’ eyes. (Florida passed a similarly worded law in 2021, and book bans across the U.S. remain on the rise.)
These efforts that originated in the ’90s have been paralleled by two other efforts to limit the impact of inclusive public schools: home-schooling and voucher programs. Conservative activist Michael P. Farris has spent decades building the conservative home-schooling movement, organizing conservative families to embrace pulling their kids out of school and instead teaching them at home with carefully designed curricula. Farris incidentally recently did a stint as head of Alliance Defending Freedom, the conservative legal juggernaut that has been drafting a lot of the “parents’ rights” bills while bringing countless legal fights challenging LGBTQ2S+ inclusion.
At the same time, conservatives have been fighting for vouchers and other systems that allow taxpayer funding to go to private schools that have religious curricula and discriminatory policies. Vouchers essentially give parents the funding that would’ve gone to a public school education, allowing them to instead pay it toward the private education of their choice. These voucher programs, or “school choice” efforts, which date back to parents’ objections to racial integration in the 1950s, seek to drain funding from public schools while ensuring that children—at least certain children—can receive their education in schools where the curricula—and population—can be more easily controlled. If conservatives can simultaneously demonize public schools, deprive them of funding and ensure their children receive sheltered educations, they can completely undermine and circumvent a system designed to teach all young people about the world they live in.
It can’t be forgotten that this latest campaign is also directly targeting school board membership. Conservatives are pushing to get extremists elected to local school boards in hopes of changing school district policies from within. If there are no private school opportunities and home-schooling isn’t viable, they still want to make sure they can control what students learn in public schools.
The “parents’ rights” resurgence of the past few years was no doubt fuelled by the advent of marriage equality and the growth of trans visibility and inclusive policies, but the igniting factor was likely the COVID-19 pandemic. From schools closing to implementing mask policies and vaccine requirements, conservative parents had a variety of motivations, however ill-informed, for speaking out. The intersection of anti-science views, bigoted views and the conservative instinct to dismiss the concerns of others in favour of your own preferences came into sharp alignment.
Another catalyst was also the racial unrest that was playing out at the same time after Minneapolis police officers murdered George Floyd in May 2020. Conservative activists like Christopher Rufo seized on the conservative backlash and support from Donald Trump to lead a campaign against racial inclusion in schools, targeting what they inaccurately called “critical race theory”—a real field mostly studied at the collegiate level. With motivations around COVID, race and LGBTQ2S+ issues, schools became a more prominent battleground than ever before. Matt Walsh, who has built a career out of promoting horrifically transphobic views, even rented a room in a Virginia school district he doesn’t live in so he could attack the local school board members in a publicity stunt.
What’s perhaps most disturbing is that those seeking to scrub diversity and inclusion from schools make no secret of how far they actually want to go. Increasingly, conservatives have also been targeting social-emotional learning (SEL), which helps students learn how to manage their emotions and engage in respectful social relationships with those around them. In other words, conservatives don’t just want to erase people of colour and LGBTQ2S+ people from the classroom, but they also want to limit how much students can even learn the basic skills of empathy.
It can seem conspiratorial to recognize the magnitude of conservatives’ efforts that are all underway under the guise of “parental rights.” They are fighting on all fronts to make sure schools are only safe and accessible for straight, cis, white, Christian students. Those students, in turn, can be inculcated with bigotry by never informing them or exposing them to anyone who has different experiences than they do. And for the queer students impacted, they will have no sanctuary from the rejection and abuse they may experience at home, nor the opportunity to learn about the welcoming places awaiting them in the world.
But that’s exactly what’s happening. This isn’t a movement about parents. It’s an anti-democratic Christian nationalist movement with a dangerous agenda, and schools are their primary target. They don’t want to protect kids. They want to control them.