LGBTQ clubs were havens for students. Now they’re under attack.

Amelia Clark, Miya Anderson, Ruby Isaacson and Landon Nelson, teenage leaders of a high school GSA club in Minnesota, faced adult opposition when they tried to hang "Safe Space" signs at school. (Jenn Ackerman /for The Washington Post)

Last year, Cascade Elementary School got its first LGBTQ student club.

The middle and high schools in Marysville, Wash., a conservative slice of the state, had long offered Gay-Straight Alliance, or GSA, clubs. But fourth- and fifth-graders said they wanted one, too, so the school board approved a pilot program establishing “Safe Place” clubs at three elementary campuses. A flier, released in January, promised “a welcoming, judgment free space.”

“We are accepting of all identities and will encourage students to fully express their individuality,” it said.

“And so it begins,” warned a post just hours later on the neighborhood app Nextdoor. It included a picture of the flier and listed the name and email of Cascade’s principal. “Hang on folks, we are in for a ride you don’t want your kids on,” wrote the author of the message, who could not be reached for comment.

The post set off a wave of parent anger and rumors that Safe Place club advisers including Melissa Panico, a teacher who has LGBTQ children, would “indoctrinate” students, Panico said. Cascade’s principal said she began receiving angry calls at work, some from people who admitted, when she asked, that they had no children at the school. A few months later, the school board proposed an unprecedented policy: Parental consent would be required for all non-curriculum student groups. This immediately raised fears, Panico said, that LGBTQ kids in unsupportive homes would be “outed” to their families.

The controversy in Marysville is part of a burgeoning nationwide opposition to GSA club activities and, in some places, their existence. These groups have been common and accepted in schools for two decades, offering a place for LGBTQ students and allies to gather. But now, some conservative parents, pundits and politicians are alleging without presenting evidence that GSA clubs are sites of political indoctrination, where students are encouraged to assume LGBTQ identities without their parents’ knowledge.

Near Monterey, Calif., the Spreckels Union School District investigated and disbanded a middle-school LGBTQ club after conservative activists criticized its advisers for helping students explore their identities, sometimes without parental supervision. In at least two districts, one in Iowa and one in Pennsylvania, administrators launched investigations and in the latter case suspended GSA advisers when the clubs hosted after-school drag performances. In Tennessee, students dropped their request to form a GSA club in January after drawing fire from parents who alleged that the club would “indoctrinate” students and called the GSA club’s proposed sponsor a “predator.”

And elsewhere in Pennsylvania, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McSwain’s glimpse of a sign in March advertising the Fugett Middle School GSA led him to assert that the club promoted “leftist political indoctrination.” He added in a now-deleted Facebook post, “This ends when I’m governor.”

Experts and advocates say hostility to GSA clubs is the latest manifestation of surging, largely right-wing discontent with how schools teach about race, racism, history, gender identity and sexuality.

Spurred by these concerns, legislatures in at least 19 states have passed or are considering laws that bar discussion of sexual orientation and gender identity for younger children while limiting teaching on those topics for older students. One such law in Florida, set to take effect in July, has caused some LGBTQ teachers to leave the profession. Books by and about LGBTQ people also are coming under attack: Of the record 1,586 books that were challenged or removed from K-12 schools this academic year, one-third featured LGBTQ themes, protagonists or characters, according to the nonprofit organization PEN America.

Teachers who mention sexuality are ‘grooming’ kids, conservatives say

Kendrick Washington, the director of policy advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, said parents are trying to paint GSAs as “some kind of sex club,” when the groups are “actually all about kids finding community.” Washington said he has fought parent opposition to LGBTQ groups and identities in several school districts this year.

“Instead of it being, ‘LGBTQ-plus is a sin or a choice or a mistake,’ it’s all under the guise of, ‘Parents should know what their kids are doing. They should know they’re in this LGTBQ group.’ But it’s the same bigotry underneath the shiny new surface.”
— Kendrick Washington, director of policy advocacy at the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington

“But the language has shifted,” he said. “So, now, instead of it being, ‘LGBTQ-plus is a sin or a choice or a mistake,’ it’s all under the guise of, ‘Parents should know what their kids are doing. They should know they’re in this LGTBQ group.’ But it’s the same bigotry underneath the shiny new surface.”

Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, said it is unsurprising that some parents are raising the alarm when confronted with school-sanctioned programs or messages that go against their personal beliefs or their view of what is appropriate for a public school to promote.

“Everything that happens inside a school is by definition public, and it’s a manifestation of someone’s values,” said Pondiscio, a former teacher. “When school-presented values take on the patina of what we’re discussing as culture war — when they take an activist tinge — then you’re going to have fights.”

Safe places, angry parents

Fears of out-and-proud students are spreading rapidly.

In Whitehall, Mich., this April, parents grew enraged when the high school GSA club sent out a Pride week email that listed LGBTQ resources for students and staffers and included a 15-question sexual orientation test developed by psychologists. Soon, 300 parents formed a private Facebook group to oppose the email, and many showed up to vent their displeasure at a heated board meeting in June. One of the speakers, parent and pastor Tim Cross, labeled the email “pornographic,” called for consequences and asked why the school did not distribute scripture. Cross did not respond to requests for comment.

In Tennessee, another parent group worked systematically to defeat students’ request last fall to form Lakeland Preparatory School’s first GSA club. The parents spoke out on social media and showed up at Lakeland School System board meetings to denounce the idea. One parent promised he would pull his children from the school system if the GSA club took root. Others urged that if anti-discrimination laws prevented school officials from barring the club, the school board should simply ban all student clubs. Whitehall parent and former Lakeland mayor Wyatt Bunker — who did not respond to requests for comment — said the club was proof the school system “now clearly doesn’t align with our values.”

In January, the students dropped their request to form a GSA club, instead seeking permission for a broader “Allies of Diversity” group, which was approved for students in seventh grade and above.

Elsewhere, other students are grappling with other forms of parent pushback. Among those students is Landon Nelson, a gay 15-year-old who said he has been pushed and punched in the hallways of his Annandale, Minn., high school by students who dislike his sexuality. On the last day of school this year, a student shoved him into a wall, hissing, “Faggot.”

The one place Landon says he feels at home is his school’s GSA club, where he can talk to people who listen without making fun. This spring, hoping to make the rest of school more like GSA, Landon and other members decided to plaster the school with posters depicting a rainbow, a fierce-looking cardinal — the school mascot — and the words, “SAFE SPACE.”

The signs drew complaints from parents, residents, staff members and some students, according to Annandale Schools Superintendent Tim Prom. In late April, Prom informed staffers in a lengthy email that the “Safe Space” signs had to come down. The posters were “political in nature,” he wrote, and might cause “disruption to the learning environment.” The signs could run afoul of two legal considerations, he added: “One, will what is posted or worn be seen as indoctrinating our students to believe or think in a certain way. Two, would we allow anything that represents the opposite viewpoint”?

Landon and other GSA students sought meetings with administrators in the last weeks of school, begging the adults to reconsider. Landon said that they won face time with the superintendent but that Prom promised only vague support.

“It just feels like the people who were supposed to be standing up and fighting for you just punched you down,” Landon said. “It makes it so much harder to want to wake up and go to school.”

In reply to a list of questions, Prom wrote in an emailed statement that he has asked staff members, students and “outside consultants” to design new posters — to replace the “Safe Space” signs — that will showcase “messaging that supports our LGBTQ+ students and doesn’t open our forum to counter messages that might be hurtful.”

He wrote that administrators are collaborating closely with the GSA club. He said the school district has taken steps to improve the climate for LGBTQ students, including holding staff “cultural responsiveness/equity” training and adding “an educational component” to the disciplinary plans developed for students who harass others.

“The email that I sent to staff [about sign removal] was about our staff expressing their views on behalf of the school district and nothing about the GSA group itself,” Prom wrote. “We are trying our best to do right by all of our students and our staff.”

In Marysville, Wash., where Panico signed up to advise the Safe Place club, the school district’s proposed parental consent rule drew swift backlash, including in the form of two pro-LGBTQ rallies and criticism from the state ACLU. The board backed down, voting in early June to table the proposal. Later in the month, Marysville Schools Superintendent Zachary Robbins said in a statement that officials are developing a procedure to gather external input on school policies that “may need additional feedback from engaged parents, students, staff, and the community.” Robbins said the school board may return to the parental consent policy after that procedure has been finalized. A district spokeswoman declined to answer a list of questions, saying “we have moved forward” and pointing to the June 22 statement.

“A lot of my friends are very worried about their parents finding out about them doing safe place Safe Place or diversity clubs — they’re scared of their parents and having to tell them before they’re ready, then maybe getting kicked out.”
— Leif Guest, 12, Marysville, Wash.

But damage has been done, said Leif Guest, 12, who identifies as pansexual and nonbinary, using they/them pronouns. Leif used to go to school in Marysville and recently transferred to a neighboring district.

Leif said they still have friends in Marysville, some of whom are LGBTQ and hide their identities from their parents. These friends communicated with Leif about the consent policy, confiding their worst fears.

“A lot of my friends are very worried about their parents finding out about them doing Safe Place or diversity clubs — they’re scared of their parents and having to tell them before they’re ready, then maybe getting kicked out,” Leif said.

Leif doesn’t always know what to say: “I just try to talk to them about being able to come to my house.”

‘Students will be scared’

A particular focus of parent ire in recent months has been school drag shows.

Performing in drag has for decades held special importance to the LGBTQ community as a means of expressing and exploring identities that blur traditional gender norms. In the 2000s, with growing acceptance of LGBTQ people, the premiere of the popular TV show and reality competition “RuPaul’s Drag Race” brought drag into the mainstream. Performances entered a wider set of venues over the past decade, including in sites for children. In 2015, a San Francisco activist and author founded “Drag Queen Story Hour,” a program that invites drag queens into libraries to read books aloud to children — and which has since spread internationally.

Advocates say drag performances and story hours afford LGBTQ children greater representation at school and allow all students to learn about diverse lives. But some critics say that drag is sexual and inappropriate.

Others take issue with the fact that drag-related events seem to elevate or seek social change, said Pondiscio of the American Enterprise Institute. It’s important, he said, to consider the “why” behind drag queen story hours.

“What’s the instructional value of that? If it’s a [literacy] standard, the drag performer is irrelevant to that. And if it’s an aim other than literacy, it’s going directly into a social outcome, and then we’re right back into the question of, ‘Is this a legitimate function for a publicly financed public school?’ ”

This debate exploded in Lancaster County, Pa., this April after Hempfield High School’s GSA club hosted its third annual after-school drag performance.

The first two performances drew little attention. But shortly after the third one, a social media post about the event sparked parent displeasure and assertions the performance included stripping and nudity, which student attendees deny. The Hempfield School District opened an investigation and placed three employees on administrative leave, including one of the advisers of the GSA club, who is LGBTQ, according to students. Officials also issued a statement saying they were “appalled at what took place.”

District investigators found that no one did anything wrong; the GSA club had sought and received the necessary permissions. But, district investigators wrote, the event revealed “a lack of professional judgment.”

District employees did not respond to a request for comment or a question about the status of employees placed on leave.

Meanwhile, students in the GSA were reeling. School staffers canceled the group’s next meeting, and the club’s reputation at school, already iffy, tanked. One student member, who is gay and spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of harassment, said membership temporarily halved as intimidated students stayed away.

The student, who said others at school have threatened to push her down the stairs for being gay, said that after the drag show controversy, other students started a rumor that the GSA club hires prostitutes and nicknamed it “The Prostitute Club.”

“This will have a lasting impact,” she said. “I think students will be prevented by their parents from joining, and some students will be scared of joining.”

Sixteen-year-old Miguel Angel Rosado, who served as the GSA club’s vice president last year, said he found the whole thing irritating: “I’ve lost count of how many times I rolled my eyes.” Rosado, who is homosexual and identifies as male and nonbinary, wants to pursue a career in drag. He has 200,000 followers on Tik Tok, where he sometimes dresses in drag.

For Rosado, drag is an art form, a way to share his identity. He said that he feels euphoric when he performs — and that he has no patience with parent complaints. He says the show, which he attended, was appropriate. The performers wore clothing covering their genitals, buttocks and chests, Rosado said. And at no point did a performer remove any item of clothing beyond a jacket.

Rosado said he plans to ask administrators for permission to invite the drag performers again next year, when he will be a senior. He also plans to sing in drag at the school’s winter talent show. The district did not respond to a question asking whether another drag performance will be permitted.

“I hope there’s another drag show,” Rosado said. “I hope the club isn’t disbanded.”

Story editing by Adam B. Kushner. Copy editing by Gilbert Dunkley. Photo editing by Mark Miller and Maansi Srivastava. Design by J.C. Reed.