This essay describes my thoughts after reading the Utah LGBT inclusive anti-discrimination bill and Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act that has since gone defunct. I kept looking for articles describing how these acts impact education. My research references, so heavily focussed on game design, the student experience, and increasing minority representation in the educator body, have not prepared me to understand how legislation impacts policy and the embodied experience in schools. If anyone wants to share resources I should look into I would appreciate it. What follows are my initial thoughts peppered with experiences that might better describe my concerns.
Following the passage of the Utah LGBT anti-discrimination bill I have a lot of questions about how this will play out in education: public, private, charter, higher education, and early childhood education. The bill makes it illegal to base employment, housing, or loans decisions on LGBT status. It makes an exemption for religious affiliated organizations like schools and hospitals. It also allows people to express religious beliefs in the workplace without retribution.
In education there are ethical and legal considerations around what a teacher says to their captive audience. Still would an educator see the provision for expression of belief as a loop hole? Probably not, after all that would interfere with the running of the school, right? The policies by the Utah State Board of Education as codified in this legislation protect the rights of parents with children in public schools to know about and consent or withhold consent on topics of “human sexuality”. I think any educator who wanted to share religious views relating to sexuality would need to consider this provision. By expressing religious beliefs about the nature of human sexuality they would require both informing parents about the nature of the discourse and obtain consent.
It does mean that openly LGBT educators who serve as valued community outreach agents and role models for LGBT students and families may have to put up with religiously-based homophobic discussions in the staff room. Even if no one is specifically targeted or even in the room I have observed the rumor sieve that the faculty lounge provides the entire school population.
In terms of bathrooms I am curious how the gender-specific restrooms and other facilities section with play out in schools. The wording for the rules and policies on this section was “reasonable” but sometimes what a school sees as reasonable can place an undo burden on students who identify outside the gender binary. Use of a private bathroom that also serves as administrative bathroom accommodation or a facility in the health room carries a stigma that may potentially be harmful or simply inconvenient in larger schools.
I remember one student who, on an average day, had no problem accessing the staff bathroom. However, when the secretary was out sick her replacement forbid the student from accessing the appropriate facility. The student, unable to use other facilities, spent several hours in discomfort as well as enduring verbal harassment from the substitute. Eventually, after the young student gained access to a faculty advocate, the situation reached resolution.
Is this reasonable?
This brings me to other legislation that includes religious exemptions. Oklahoma’s Religious Freedom Act would allow business owners to refuse service to people in the LGBT community. In a sly twist Rep. Emily Virgin added an amendment that would require business owners who refuse service to the gay community to post their refusal publicly on websites and their front door.
“If you want to discriminate under this law if it passes, then you’re legally allowed to do that, but you need to own it. You need to fess up to it,” Rep. Virgin said.
Of course I decided to imagine what this might look like if teachers were required to post their bias on their classroom doors. As a student I would never have stepped inside a couple classrooms that it took me months to see the extent of an educators racism, sexism, and a host of other prejudices. As an educator I am curious how millennials would react to this system. The ability to clearly see and avoid places refusing to serve diverse communities would definitely impact and drive home the economic repercussions of such discrimination.
Last I heard the bill had been pulled. If another bill arises, and other similar bills in other states go forward, I hope to see similar amendments. I like the juxtaposition of legislation providing acknowledgement of religious freedom but actually highlighting the hypocrisy and prejudice underlining the reason for its creation. Yes you are free to practice a religion that encourages prejudice – but no skulking around feigning tolerance.
I want to see what this would do in education. I expect something messy and scary. Almost a year ago I interviewed an administrator who spoke positively about a diverse educational communities. Later data collection revealed this same administrator consistently denied students access to programs or the ability to form students organizations that supported diversity. If they were required to post their bias before denying these programs the community would have them out of their position immediately. Instead, because they are allowed to operate obscurely, they continue to marginalize diverse members of the student body.
These are complicated issues and I am probably simplifying ideas and not quoting the theorists who could support or refute my statements. Instead this essay has allowed me, in a semi-critical way, to think through current scenarios in education. While the laws tend to focus on domestic and business interactions they impact the culture of school in more ways than I have expressed. I am curious how this will all play out.