Prisoner 01135809 wins debate without showing up

By Peter Rosenstein - August 29, 2023 12:00 am

Queer people are under attack across the United States, whether it be through legislation which strips the LGBTQ+ community of hard fought protections and rights, attempts to censor queer literature and media, or outright violence against the community.

Many have rightly laid the blame for this spike in anti-LGBTQ+ sentiment on demagoguery spewed from leading conservative figures such as Governor Ron DeSantis. However, decidedly less attention has been paid to the role local school boards have played in facilitating grotesque bigotry within the public school system.

School boards and the school districts they oversee, like most municipal authorities, have generally been regarded as an afterthought by larger allied electoral organizations, which is reflected by the measly resources they have put into controlling them. This oversight has proven to be an immensely costly one, and to the detriment of queer and trans young people everywhere. 

Although some state governments are headed by rabid homophobes such as Texas Republican Governor Greg Abbott, South Dakota Republican Governor Kristi Noem, and Florida’s Republican governor, all indeed responsible for enacting pieces of highly-publicized anti-queer legislation- it lies largely in the purview of school boards to both interpret and implement them.

The former of which is a particularly important power, given that the most harmful of the laws in question, such as DeSantis’ signature “Don’t Say Gay” legislation, were intentionally written vaguely as to empower conservative school districts to impose the most extreme application of the law possible. 

Over the past few years, far-right forces have successfully captured school districts across the country. Perhaps the most notorious of these forces is Moms For Liberty, which has distinguished itself not only as a dangerous hate group according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, but also as the foremost vehicle for the propulsion of bigots into positions of power within educational institutions.

M4L channels large sums of unaccountable dark money to blanket cities with mailers and other advertisements rife with frantic misinformation, which is able to drown out any rebuttal from under-resourced opponents. After employing this dubious strategy during the 2023 election cycle, candidates backed by MFL or other like minded groups won a score of school board seats. Not only in places where you’d expect, but also in deep-blue communities in states as New Jersey, Maryland and even California.

In Florida, the hysterical culture war spun up by Republicans manifested into Moms For Liberty’s most decisive victory in the nation. Ron DeSantis himself joined MFL in bankrolling dozens of their handpicked goons. Out of sixty-seven endorsed candidates, forty-one were elected. As a result, DeSantis’ administration has worked in-tandem with nominally independent school districts to impose fervent anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry within the state’s public schools.

The battlefield for LGBTQ+ rights is closer to home than you may have thought

These victories represented a terrifying new reality in which systemic homophobia could perniciously expand to new extents. Many of the increasingly outrageous headlines surrounding new anti-LGBTQ+ regulations in schools can be attributed to far-right school board members that were swept into office upon a platform of explicitly anti-queer sentiment.

These rogue school boards, despite an outcry from the students they are charged with serving, have pushed onward with a radical agenda. Teachers who support LGBTQ+ students have found themselves doomed to non-renewal of their teaching contracts. Superintendents face pressure to throw marginalized students under the bus lest they too find themselves abruptly fired.

Furthermore, school boards have embraced transphobia by taking aim at transgender student athletes and their ability to use facilities which correspond to their gender. Perhaps most abhorrently, many school boards have considered mandating the Outing of vulnerable LGBTQ+ students to unaccepting parents, opening the door for abuse and abandonment. Beyond just LGBTQ+ issues, far right board members have pushed for arming teachers, disbanding student identity clubs, and other regressive measures that also pose an existential threat to public education in the United States.

Defeating the far right campaign to hijack our education is imperative, and it is possible. I should know, because I have done it. Flagler County, Florida where I grew up, is one of the epicenters of the culture war in the state.

For instance, our small town made headlines after a sitting school board member, supported by another, (both of which being M4L cheerleaders, natch) filed a police report against district library staff for offering literature which served queer students and students of color. In the Summer of 2022, some friends and I organized a campaign to replace these two members of our school board with true champions for issues students care about.

We spent our hot Summer days knocking on thousands of doors, registering our peers to vote, and sign-waving along busy intersections. We were outspent massively, by both Moms For Liberty and Ron DeSantis’ personal super PAC. We faced long political headwinds in a county which voted for DeSantis by over thirty-five points in the last general election. Despite all of those challenges, we successfully unseated both incumbents on election night, representing one of only a handful of school boards that did not shift to the right. 

Courtney Vandebunte, Alysa Vidal, Cameron Driggers and Jack Petocz gather on election night in Aug. 2022 after successfully unseating both anti-LGBTQ+ incumbents of the school board in Flagler County, Fla. (Photo Credit: ‘Recall Flagler County School Board’)

The kind of grassroots movement I experienced in my hometown is exactly what is needed across not only Florida, but the entire country. The likes of Moms for Liberty are well-funded by far-right dark money donors. But while they might have the money, young people have something far more important: energetic passion. That is to say, the fuel which empowers a scrappy band of high schoolers to spend their Summer changing hearts and minds to defy the odds.

With that said, providing resources to young people eager to take on far-right school boards in their own communities must be an urgent priority, because the battlefield for LGBTQ+ rights is closer to home than you may have thought.

Cameron Driggers is progressive student activist attending the University of Florida. As a highschooler, Cameron led state-wide campaigns to resist anti-queer measures, such as the Don’t Say Gay School Walkouts of 2022.

Presently, Cameron continues to advocate for empowerment of young people to make change as an Organizing Fellow for People Power For Florida.

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