Advocates say the comments made at an event held by the Superintendent of Public Instruction have real impacts for students and distract from the issues facing Wyoming education.
CHEYENNE—The conference room at Little America had the air of an energetic church service.
Beyond the direct references to Jesus and good and evil by Reps. John Bear (R-Gillette) and Chip Neiman (R-Hulett), the audience listened intently, enraptured by speakers who roused them to take action. At one point, Sen. Cheri Steinmetz (R- Lingle) asked those in the audience to show their devotion.
“If you are in this battle and you’re in this fight with us, I would ask you to stand and show your support today,” she said.
The few people in purple “I read banned books” and “Moms for Literacy” shirts were swallowed by the rising crowd as Steinmetz finished. “You have now been recruited. You are a part of the army,” she said.
The event organized by Superintendent of Public Instruction Brian Schroeder was billed as a press conference to discuss the sexualization of children in Wyoming’s schools. Roughly a dozen speakers, including Schroeder, parents, national activists and state lawmakers, spoke Tuesday against the exposure of children to sexual imagery in books and teacher-led discussions. They argued for the rights of parents to shield their children and decide what they learn inside school walls.
But throughout the event the speakers also peppered their speeches with anti-LGTBQ rhetoric and misinformation. That rhetoric impacts LGBTQ students and distracts from the challenges facing Wyoming’s education system, according to advocates. It also represents a growing backlash against inclusivity, they claim. “Now that we have been promoting inclusive and gender-affirming spaces there is this huge amount of pushback that [gender identity] is being forced on [children], that there is this indoctrination. And that is just not the case,” Lindsay Simineo, a licensed professional counselor and legislative advocate for the Wyoming Counseling Association, told WyoFile. “It’s really a reaction to these inclusive spaces that we’ve been promoting these last few years not just within the LGBTQ community, but in the medical community [and] in mental health spaces as well.”
A mixed message
Schroeder began by drawing a connection between books with sexual imagery, sex addiction and a parent’s right to “protect the innocence of their children for as long as possible.”
Andy Wells, the Missouri chapter president of No Left Turn in Education, a national nonprofit that promotes parental rights, family values and school choice, argued that some books are inappropriate for minors. He brought a collection of examples he believes should be excluded from schools including “The Bluest Eye,” by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison which includes a rape scene, “The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margret Atwood, a novel in which women’s rights are severely curtailed following a Christian theocratic coup and “Speak,” a National Book Award Finalist novel by Laurie Hall Anderson about a teenage girl who is ostracized after being raped.
In his speech, Wells drew a distinction between efforts to pull books and anti-LGBTQ rhetoric.
“This is not about attacking people based on race, gender, gender ideology, religion, sexual orientation. It’s not about attacking the LGBTQIA+ community,” Wells said. “No, it’s about is the book age appropriate or not?”
While Wells made the distinction, many of the speakers did not, conflating issues like gender identity and LGBTQ representation with their messaging around explicit books and the sexualization of children. “We are here talking about ‘STD’ – school transmitted disease,” said Elana Fishbein, the president and CEO of No Left Turn in Education. “ … This is the school becoming the pipeline for the sex and transgender industries.”
Others spoke against “gender ideology,” a term that has its roots in the Catholic Church and that health professionals say is inaccurate. Neiman, who compared gender dysphoria to eating disorders, shared some of the strongest rhetoric, as did Bear, who took aim at gender affirming care and claimed that there would soon be an “epidemic” of those wanting to “de-transition.”
A number of the statements made about gender identity and LGBTQ issues by speakers during Tuesday’s press conference constitute misinformation.
For one, Bear’s claim that many patients who receive gender affirmation surgery, or sex reassignment, will later want to “de-transition” is untrue, Tess Kilwein, a board certified and licensed clinical psychologist in Wyoming and a member of the World Professional Association for Transgender Health told WyoFile in an email.
A 2021 analysis led by researchers from Harvard Medical School and the University of Pittsburgh found that less than 1% of those who undergo transmasculine procedures (those who were assigned female at birth but identify with masculinity) regret their surgeries. Only 1% of those who undergo transfeminine surgeries (who were assigned male at birth but identify with femininity) regret their decisions, the study found. Both figures are much lower than the 14.4% of patients who regret elective surgeries and the roughly 7% of U.S. parents who say they would not have kids if they could “do it over.”
Those who do regret their gender affirmation surgery are often motivated by societal issues such as a lack of acceptance in their new gender identity or difficulty adjusting to a new gender role, Kilwein said.
Assertions by Nieman that gender affirming care and gender pronouns can “create a problem” for young children also do not comport with the science.
Research has shown that gender identity becomes constant for children typically between the ages of 5 and 7. Most trans women and men begin experiencing gender dysphoria, which is when the gender someone experiences or expresses conflicts with their assigned gender, before the age of 7.
Gender affirming care is robust and only involves support from a therapist before children enter puberty, said Diane Bruessow, a certified physician assistant who practices transgender medicine in Wyoming. As children transition through puberty and into adulthood, they may consider puberty blockers and hormones with input and guidance from their guardian, medical providers and behavioral health providers. Hormones can be started by the age of 14 and some surgeries performed at the age of 15, according to guidelines from the World Professional Association for Transgender Health.
“All of this is done with assessments in mind and with the support of their family,” Bruessow said. “If someone’s a minor, they’re not just going to show up at the school and get hormones, their parents have to consent. There’s a lot of places along the way that we will ensure this individual’s safety and well-being.”
Even the use of the term “gender ideology” by many of the speakers at the event can be considered a kind of misinformation. Ideology refers to a way of thinking, and it implies a sense of belief, according to the Merriam-Webster and Cambridge dictionaries. Using “gender ideology” in place of gender identity spurns the scientific understanding of gender supported by the National Institutes of Health and the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine, Bruessow said.
Real-world implications and misdirection
Though the anti-LGBTQ rhetoric used by some of the speakers is not rooted in science or medicine, it has real-world impacts for LGBTQ students.
More than 75% of LGBTQ students endured verbal harassment and roughly one-third faced physical harassment based on their sexual orientation, gender expression or gender, according to the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network’s 2021 National School Climate Survey, which looked at the experiences of LGBTQ students in schools. LGBTQ students who experienced discrimination had lower GPAs, were disciplined more often and were almost three times as likely to miss school than those who did not.
The rhetoric compounds the many challenges LGBTQ students already face. Almost half of LGBTQ youth have seriously considered suicide within the last year, according to The Trevor Project’s 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, and substance use is 2.5 to 4 times higher for transgender youth than their peers.
“Every person on the planet has a gender identity or sexual orientation and if you acknowledge and affirm it then we know that suicidality goes down, we know that drug and alcohol abuse goes down, we know that students stay in school longer,” said Sara Burlingame, executive director of Wyoming Equality, an LGBTQ advocacy group.
None of the speakers declared that LGBTQ inclusivity in schools was driving their concern for the sexualization of children. For some of the speakers like Wells, the shielding of children from explicit material was the core of their argument. For others, it was the rights of parents to dictate what their children learn. But the inclusion of LGBTQ rhetoric by many of the speakers serves to distract, Burlingame said.
“We have underfunded our public education to the extent that the state is now being sued for not funding education. We have a crisis in our energy sector,” which impacts education funding, Burlingame said. “You look at those factors and you look at the urgency of them and the need for leadership on them, and you ask yourself, ‘Why in the hell are we talking about what a kid wants to be called?’ It makes no sense unless you recognize that they don’t have answers for those questions and they are not interested in building a better Wyoming for all of us.”
The pushback against inclusivity
A little more than 3% of Wyomingites identify as LGBTQ totaling some 15,000 people, according to data from the Williams Institute, a think tank at the UCLA School of Law that conducts research on sexual orientation and gender identity. Roughly 0.5% identify as transgender, though that figure grows from 0.29% of those 65 and older to 1.21% for 18- to 24-year-olds. Only approximately 200 children between the ages of 13 and 17 identify as transgender in Wyoming, a rate of 0.56%.
Over the last decade, the number of Americans identifying as LGBTQ has doubled, according to a 2022 Gallup poll. But the increase in LGBTQ identification has not been uniform. Roughly 1 in 5 of those in Generation Z identify as LGBTQ, as do more than 10% of millennials. Just 2.6% of baby boomers self-identify as LGBTQ.
As the number of young LGBTQ Americans has increased, so have inclusivity measures such as the use of pronouns and a focus on creating gender affirming spaces. And so has the backlash.
“There is a shift happening that is allowing people to exist in ways that they didn’t feel like they had permission to exist before. We look at that and see progress,” Simineo, the legislative advocate for the Wyoming Counseling Association, said. “Those that are worried about the over-sexualization of children, they see that as indoctrination.”
Tuesday’s rally represents a trend in Wyoming and across the U.S. Communities are increasingly being asked to debate what books and materials should be considered explicit and what should be accessible to children. But underlying those debates are hostilities toward gender identity, sexuality and the LGBTQ community driving the conversation, Simineo said.
“The banned books are the starter fuel for the bigger sexuality conversation,” Simineo said. “Where we start talking about sexually explicit material, then we’re starting to talk about different things that parents may or may not be uncomfortable with as far as sexuality and gender identities. And then we get into a bigger conversation of inclusive spaces and LGBTQ kiddos and if they should exist.
“Before you know it, you’re escalating from one issue to another,” she said.