The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Conservative media oversell New Jersey’s guidelines for teaching gender

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) speaks with members of the press following a news conference Monday in Moorestown, N.J. (Joe Lamberti/Camden Courier-Post via AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

It’s a story that defenders of Florida’s so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law increasingly cite. Critics have attacked the law for overzealously restricting teachers from broaching gender identity and sexual orientation. But a blue state has adopted education guidelines that, according to defenders of the Florida measure, prove this isn’t a made-up issue.

Over the past week, conservative media have repeatedly pointed to guidelines in New Jersey that say children will be taught about gender as early as second grade. And they’ve focused particularly on sample lesson plans that go quite a bit further, including discussions of male and female genitalia.

Much of the coverage, though, has gone significantly beyond the facts — claiming or otherwise suggesting that these lesson plans are actual school curriculums, when those involved have emphasized they’re not.

At issue are sample lesson plans distributed at a Feb. 22 meeting of the Westfield, N.J., school district, drafted by a progressive group called Advocates for Youth. One sample lesson plan for first-graders, titled “Pink, Blue and Purple,” says students are to be taught, “You might feel like you are a boy, you might feel like you are a girl. You might feel like you’re a boy even if you have body parts that some people might tell you are ‘girl’ parts.” Another sample lesson plan for second-graders involves identifying the body parts and states “there are some body parts that mostly just girls have and some parts that mostly just boys have.”

Repeatedly, Fox News and others have framed this as something amounting to actual school curriculum. But the school district and the advocacy group both say that’s not the case — that these were sample materials that the district shared as it reviews the state guidelines.

“The sample plans you reference are not lesson plans in the Westfield Public School District,” superintendent Raymond González told The Washington Post. “Nor were they handed out to parents at the February 22 Board of Education meeting.”

González added: “The cited sample plans were part of a website that was included as a link to illustrate the type of possible resources for school districts shared by the N.J. Department of Education. We have said repeatedly that these are resources only and that they are not state-mandated.”

The sample lesson plans were shared last week by state Sen. Holly Schepisi (R) with the conservative Save Jersey blog. Fox News’s website soon picked up the story, sharing further details from the sample plans and saying that they “appear to be reflective of the Garden State’s new, broader sex education curriculum.” The story ultimately quotes González emphasizing these were not the district’s actual curriculum.

Since then, Fox has run two more stories on the lesson plans — one on Gov. Phil Murphy (D) not commenting on them, and another that details another sample lesson plan for fifth-graders. Each piece, though, acknowledges González saying these aren’t actual curriculums.

Others haven’t been nearly so careful.

Schepisi appeared on Fox News on Monday and claimed: “We’re teaching first-graders, kindergartners that if you have a penis it doesn’t mean that you’re a boy, if you have a vagina it doesn’t mean you’re a girl. We’re telling kids as young as fifth grade that if you don’t want to go through puberty, there are a few things called puberty blockers.”

A Fox News reporter in another segment stated, “Starting in September, children starting in first grade here in New Jersey will be learning about gender, gender identity and gender stereotypes as well. And this will include lessons about their genitalia and how it relates to their gender identity.”

“Fox & Friends” host Brian Kilmeade last week welcomed former New Jersey governor Chris Christie (R) to his radio show and discussed the subject.

“According to standards in New Jersey on education now, second-graders will have performance expectations naming four body parts relating to their gender so they can get through stereotypes,” Kilmeade claimed. “Here’s one objective: that children will be able to identify at least four body parts from female or male genitalia, and for students to describe why it is important for them to know the correct names for genitals. Are you happy that that’s going on from K through third in New Jersey?”

Christie assured the interview that he was not and blasted his successor, Murphy.

The founder of the Save Jersey blog claimed, “Contrary to what Leftists claim, @RonDeSantisFL’s parental rights bill was 100% warranted. Starting in fall 2022, N.J. has a very sexualized curriculum ready for school children; for example, they’ll get an intro to transgenderism before the 3rd grade.”

New Jersey’s guidelines state that, by the end of second grade, students should be taught “the range of ways people express their gender and how gender role stereotypes may limit behavior,” though they make no explicit mention of transgender identity. They further state that, by the end of fifth grade, students should be able to “differentiate between sexual orientation and gender identity.”

The Daily Mail went further than anybody, running a headline declaring, “first-graders to be given sex education lessons dubbed ‘Pink, Blue and Purple’ on gender identity while second-graders will learn you can ‘have boy parts but feel like a girl.'” Again, these are from the sample lesson plans that the district has said are not curriculum.

Advocates for Youth also confirmed that Westfield hasn’t adopted the “Pink, Blue and Purple” lesson plan.

“Attempts to create controversy in Westfield are just the most recent example of a concerted, nationwide effort by a few far-right organizations to confuse and frighten parents about the content of sex education without providing the medical research that backs a strong sex ed curriculum,” said a spokesperson, Emily Bridges.

Gonzalez added: “As with any revision to curriculum at any time, our focus remains on ensuring that the revisions are age-appropriate.”

Even some Democrats have suggested it’s important to emphasize what will and won’t be taught. State Senate Education Committee Chairman Vin Gopal (D) said Tuesday that Murphy and the state Department of Education need to provide “clarity.”

“Given the amount of misinformation out there and questions coming from parents ... I have formally called on the Department of Education and the Governor’s office to provide clarity on all of these items and issue it publicly before any further action is taken on implementation,” Gopal said on Tuesday.

Murphy said Monday he is “willing to entertain” revising the standards.