Schools across the country are witnessing a surge in discriminatory policy and harmful rhetoric targeting LGBTQ+ youth—and unfortunately, southern California is no stranger to hate. Since the beginning of the summer, right-wing extremists have protested queer and trans inclusion at school board meetings for the Glendale and Los Angeles Unified School Districts. Over the same time span, the Chino Hills, Murietta, and Temecula Valley Unified School Districts have all adopted policies forcing teachers to out trans students to their parents.
These controversies are best understood as part of a far-right campaign to radicalize schools and strip away supportive resources for kids, and California parents say that it’s making their children feel vulnerable in schools they always assumed were safe places. Jane Owen, a Glendale mother who asked to be referred to by a pseudonym, has a child in second grade, and her youngest is entering Kindergarten this year. She is terrified to send her kids to school after attending a school board meeting on June 20 in which conservative protesters, many of whom didn’t have children in the district, clashed with supporters of the LGBTQ+ community over the district’s decision to recognize Pride Month. The violence followed a similarly raucous meeting exactly two weeks earlier, resulting in at least four arrests between them.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh, I’m fine. I’m in California. This is all happening in Florida and other places,’” Owen said, referring to the “Don’t Say Gay” bill signed by Gov. Ron DeSantis in March 2022 and the subsequent purge of LGBTQ+ books from school libraries throughout the state. “And then I find out that it’s literally happening in my school district. I didn’t realize how bad it had gotten until I saw a Pride flag swastika image being held up at the school board meeting. It really scares me. I don’t know who is a safe person anymore.”
Although the Glendale protests drew widespread media attention, the Los Angeles suburb isn’t the only district to be singled out by right-wing activists. Three people were detained by police on August 22 after an estimated 200 protesters marched from City Hall to the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in opposition to what organizers falsely alleged was the “indoctrination” and “sexualization” of students through LGBTQ+ inclusive curricula. In 2011, California became the first state in the U.S. to require that history courses include instruction regarding the contributions of queer and trans Americans. (Colorado and New Jersey have since followed suit.)
Terra Russell-Slavin, the Chief Impact Officer at the Los Angeles LGBT Center, said these protests set a distressing precedent, especially given that LAUSD is the largest school district in the entire country. More than 565,000 students attend the 782 campuses within LAUSD, which encompasses schools across L.A. County and the metro area suburbs.
“This is a nationally coordinated, field-tested effort to target and motivate the extreme right-wing base,” Russell-Slavin said. “They feel this a message that they will win on, and we have to counter that. The same people at LAUSD are the same people at Glendale. Now that it’s moved into LAUSD, all school boards and educational institutions are at risk—and if they succeed in California, they could succeed anywhere. It’s astounding how quickly this is happening, how dangerous it feels, and how threatening it is in nature. It’s making people in our community feel like they can’t safely be their authentic selves.”
I was thinking, “Oh, I’m fine. I’m in California. This is all happening in Florida and other places.” And then I find out that it’s literally happening in my school district.Jane Owen, a Glendale mother of two
How “Don’t Say Gay” Came to L.A.
Although the push to erase LGBTQ+ people from public education dates back to the Anita Bryant-led “Save Our Children” campaign in the 1970s, its modern equivalent took root following the enactment of Florida’s aforementioned “Don’t Say Gay” law and others like it. Since 2021, 11 states have enacted laws that prevent teachers from including LGBTQ+ subjects in their classroom lectures, including Alabama, Indiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Texas. The legislation is being coordinated by national lobby groups in an attempt to undermine public education and privatize the U.S. school system, in addition to riling up voters ahead of the 2024 presidential elections. Polls show these politically motivated campaigns are backfiring in a big way: An April poll conducted by Fox News found that 77 percent of voters are “concerned” about their local school boards banning books.
That hasn’t stopped conservatives from continuing to double down on their attacks on affirming LGBTQ+ education: As more than 500 bills seeking to strip away basic rights for queer and trans people were introduced across the country this year, Florida continued to lead the pack. In 2023, lawmakers expanded the state’s existing restrictions — which previously covered K-3 classrooms — to ban virtually any mention of LGBTQ+ people through the end of high school. Meanwhile, newly implemented regulations bar both trans students and teachers in Florida from using restrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender.
California has some of the most progressive pro-LGBTQ+ legislation in the country, including the nation’s first-ever law shielding queer and trans youth from the harmful practice of conversion therapy. But those protections haven’t stopped extremist groups from organizing in the state in an attempt to chip away at those safeguards: Members of the Proud Boys, which has been labeled a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), were reportedly present at the Glendale protests. They were allegedly joined by neo-Nazis and noted participants in the attempted U.S. Capitol coup on Jan. 6, 2021, including Tony Moon and Siaka Massaquoi.
This is a nationally coordinated, field-tested effort to target and motivate the extreme right-wing base … and if they succeed in California, they could succeed anywhere.Terra Russell-Slavin, Chief Impact Officer of the Los Angeles LGBT Center
Alice Portman, another Glendale mom present at the protests earlier this summer, believes the goal of right-wing activists is to create as much fear, chaos, and violence as possible. She said that many of the parents she knows have pulled their children out of the Glendale Unified School District (GUSD) in response to the sustained rise in anti-LGBTQ+ animus. A right-wing group helping to organize the protests, GUSD Parents Voices, counts over 19,000 followers on Instagram and 2,000 on Facebook. A post pinned to its Instagram page singles out LGBTQ+ inclusive books in GUSD school libraries, including Not All Princesses Dress in Pink, Julián Is a Mermaid, Sparkle Boy, and Who Are You? The Kid’s Guide to Gender Identity.
“This is a form of terrorism,” said Portman, who asked to use a pseudonym in fear of retaliation. “They’re trying to get people to be afraid to show up to board meetings, to defend kids, to defend freedom, and to defend civil rights.”
The Forced Outing of L.A.’s Trans Students
The campaign of anti-LGBTQ+ harassment targeting southern California schools isn’t likely to slow down anytime soon, especially with school board elections on the horizon in districts across greater L.A. But LGBTQ+ people and their allies are continuing to show up to counter the politically motivated hate they are seeing in local schools, to send a message that bigotry and division is not welcome. Before the board of the Chino Valley School District (CVSD) voted 4-1 to require parental notification if a student tells a teacher that they are trans, 17-year-old student Max Ibarra spoke at a packed July 20 school board meeting to warn its members they would have “blood on [their] hands” if they supported the measure. (On June 15, the board previously voted to ban Pride flags from being flown on district campuses, by the exact same margin.)
“This policy is dangerous,” Ibarra said in a fiery one-minute speech. “Fifty-two percent of trans kids feel accepted at school, but only 35 percent feel accepted at home. […] If a student isn’t out to their parents, this shoves them in the closet at school. That’s a miserable place to be. I am tired of the idea that all parents love and support their children unconditionally. That is not true. There are evil people in this world, and some of them have children.”
Two other L.A.-area school districts subsequently enacted similar policies: The Murrieta Valley Unified School District on August 10 and Temecula Valley Unified School District (TVUSD) on August 23. Supporters of these moves claim that parents have the right to have a say over the name and pronoun that children use at school and believe that teachers usurp their authority when they don’t deliver that information. But the controversy wasn’t solely about so-called “parents’ rights”: On May 16, members of the TVUSD school board voted 3-2 to block a social studies book geared toward elementary school students that mentioned former San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk. The rejection followed its board president, Joseph Komrosky, allegedly referring to the slain civil rights leader as a “pedophile.” (TVUSD ultimately reversed the decision after Gov. Gavin Newsom threatened the district with a $1.5 million fine.)
In an interview, Ibarra said these kinds of discriminatory actions have led to LGBTQ+ students feeling less safe at school, with many CVSD students feeling as if they have no choice but to go back to hiding their identities. “Now that this policy is passed, I know several students who were going to use their new name and pronouns at school this year that have told me they can’t anymore,” they said. “It takes away this environment that could offer some break in the day for them to thrive and exist as themselves 100%, before having to go back home and be in the closet.”
The attacks on LGBTQ+ students are also harmful for teachers as well, some of whom have faced doxxing, harassment, and threats of violence over supportive policies affirming trans youth. A trans teacher at Saticoy Elementary School in North Hollywood had to be removed from campus for her safety after a Pride flag was burned on May 22. The vandalism was reportedly caused by an anti-LGBTQ+ protester who opposed the school’s Pride month assembly.
Fighting Back Against Anti-LGBTQ+ Hate
In countering the far-right extremism sweeping southern California, the fight is being waged at both the statewide and grassroots level. On August 28, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced a lawsuit challenging CUSD’s forced outing policy, saying it “wrongfully endangers the physical, mental, and emotional well-being” of trans students. Locally, the advocacy organization GlendaleOut is partnering with GUSD Parents for Public Schools, a group of Glendale parents supportive of LGBTQ+ youth, to distribute Pride flags to businesses and shops in the area. GlendaleOut handed out flags at a September 2 vigil honoring Lauri Carleton, a shop owner killed for hanging a Pride flag outside her clothing store on August 18, and an Armenian trans woman murdered in her Yerevan apartment on August 20.
Meanwhile, LGBTQ+ activists and allies have been showing up in droves to demonstrate support for trans youth. The L.A. chapter of the national LGBTQ+ activist organization Queer Nation has been organizing their members to counterprotest at school board meetings “to outnumber the fascists trying to eradicate trans and queer lives from public education in the U.S. and beyond,” as the group said in a Facebook post. Although the scene outside the GUSD school board earlier this summer was hostile and threatening toward LGBTQ+ people, Glendale parents said that supporters of trans youth inside the meeting far outnumbered opponents.
They’re trying to get people to be afraid to show up to board meetings, to defend kids, to defend freedom, and to defend civil rights.Alice Portman, a Glendale parent
Russell-Slavin said it’s important right now for LGBTQ+ people to continue mobilizing and being visible, thereby ensuring that the messages of love drown out the hate. The Los Angeles LGBT Center is currently providing support to affirming educators through its OUT for Safe Schools program, which offers policy program recommendations and positive messaging to teachers and administrators in 38 districts.
“What we have to do is continue to support the people trying to make the right decisions and explain why these decisions are important and how they make a difference,” she said. “One thing about LGBTQ+ affirming curriculum is it doesn’t just benefit LGBTQ youth. The studies are clear: It benefits all youth. We have to be able to counter that opposing messaging: If you really care about kids, you care about the queer and trans kids in those schools.”