Conspiracy theories, homophobia fuel backlash to academic standards update
Rights groups reject claims that LGBTQ representation in civics lessons is ‘age inappropriate’
Two people fly a rainbow LGBTQ pride flag and a transgender pride flag in front of the Colorado Capitol building during a celebration on Nov. 7, 2020. (Moe Clark/Colorado Newsline)
Late last year, after the Colorado State Board of Education rolled out its first draft of an update to K-12 academic standards aimed at being more inclusive of minority groups, one of the first comments the panel received in public feedback contained praise for the proposed changes — as well as a prediction.
“As a resident of Montezuma County I find this approach refreshing and overdue,” wrote Richard Fulton. “Unfortunately, I anticipate a strong counter voice across rural Colorado that will seek to erase diverse perspectives from these standards and will be extremely loud (in opposing) these changes.”
Indeed, shortly afterwards, the backlash began: Comments opposing the recommended revisions to the state’s social studies standards first trickled in, then became a deluge. After extending the deadline for public comment, the board had received hundreds of emails and letters denouncing the changes as of Feb. 25, along with thousands of pieces of negative feedback submitted through an online portal and petitions submitted by conservative education nonprofits.
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Objections to the revised standards, according to nearly 2,000 pages of public comments obtained by Newsline, include plenty of complaints about the supposed influence of “critical race theory,” or what opponents say is an unpatriotic, “flaw-focused” version of U.S. history. But some of the most forceful denunciations of the state’s proposed changes focused not on race but on the standards’ inclusion of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people among the minority groups whose experiences and contributions the new standards would require to be taught in schools.
Republican lawmakers and conservative groups have bashed the proposed standards’ inclusion of LGBTQ topics as “age inappropriate,” while opponents flooded the Board of Education’s feedback system with homophobic attacks, misinformation and allegations of indoctrination and “grooming.”
“I am positive that if it were not for the fact that we have a homosexual for a governor that this hateful and perverted social studies proposal would not have been written,” wrote Jeff Hall on Jan. 26.
“The LGTBQ+ topics are totally inappropriate for school children,” Ryan Robison told board members. “These topics were considered psychological issues just a few years ago and the science supports that. Doctors do not consider these to be healthy issues or lifestyles.”
“LGBTQ subjects should not be taught in any capacity or in any level in our public schools,” wrote Paul Carlson. “It is not the job of a teacher to explain various sexual perversions.”
Many of the proposed standards revisions have their roots in legislation passed by the Colorado General Assembly in 2019. House Bill 19-1192 required the state to update its academic standards to include the “history, culture, and social contributions of American Indians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asian Americans,” as well as the LGBTQ community and religious minorities.
To supporters, the slate of revisions recommended by a 35-member standards review committee in November — the culmination of two years of meetings to draft language consistent with HB-1192 — are necessary, or even innocuous, efforts to promote inclusivity.
Many of the changes are simple clarifications or additions to current standards. An existing expectation that first-grade civics students can “identify and explain the relevance of notable civic leaders from different community groups,” for example, is edited to specify that such groups should include “African American, Latino, Asian American, Indigenous Peoples, LGBTQ, and religious minorities.” Similar clauses are appended to many other standards, like a fourth-grade history requirement that students “identify and describe how major political and cultural groups have affected the development of the region.”
“The goal (of HB-1192) was to provide clarity and support for Colorado classrooms to have a more authentic conversation,” said Nadine Bridges, executive director of LGBTQ rights group One Colorado, which supported the legislation. “What we’re trying to do is to ensure that there’s representation of all identities that impacted the historical context of our country.”
Though the revised standards apply only to social studies curricula — and not health and physical education, the category under which the state maintains sex ed standards — the backlash is part of a nationwide wave of Republican crackdowns on discussion of LGBTQ issues in schools. In Florida, a so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill expected to be signed into law by Gov. Ron DeSantis would place an array of prohibitions and limits on discussion of “sexual orientation or gender identity” in schools, and similar legislation is pending in at least 15 other states, The Hill reported last month.
The State Board of Education, an elected body made up of members representing each of Colorado’s seven congressional districts, is required by law to adopt new social studies standards by July 1.
“Due to the extended timeline for public comment and the high volume of feedback received, the social studies committee requires additional time to review and respond to all feedback received and make its final recommendations,” Jeremy Meyer, communications director for the Colorado Department of Education, told Newsline in an email. “The board will now review public feedback at its April meeting before hearing final revision recommendations from the committee in May.”
‘Radical leftist takeover’
The standards revision process has united Colorado conservatives against what 18 House GOP lawmakers, in a Jan. 27 letter, called a “radical leftist takeover of our children’s educational institutions.”
In mounting an opposition campaign, establishment groups have worked hand in hand with fringe far-right groups like FEC United, founded by prominent Douglas County conspiracy theorist Joe Oltmann, who has repeatedly called for mass hangings of political opponents, including Colorado Gov. Jared Polis.
In a Dec. 16 meeting with FEC United members, Pam Benigno, education policy director for the Denver-based Independence Institute, discussed her objections to the standards and presented a tutorial on how to submit feedback. Video of the meeting has since been removed from FEC United’s social media pages.
“The Independence Institute is a libertarian think tank. We feel that adults can do whatever they want, and live whatever lifestyle that they have chosen,” Benigno said. “We do have concerns, though, when it’s being — I’m going to use the term — forced on children.”
“Pam sent me the new standards that were being proposed, and I went through and looked at some of the things that were being presented, and I’ve got to be honest — the LGBTQ thing in first grade was really, really surprising to me,” said Matt Rogers, an FEC United member and teacher.
“FEC United in no way discriminates against the LGBTQ community,” Rogers added. “Joe Oltmann has said multiple times that he is not about an organization that discriminates against the LGBTQ community.”
On his “Conservative Daily” podcast, however, Oltmann has repeatedly spread misinformation and homophobic conspiracy theories alleging that educators are “abusing children” so that “the gay population goes up.”
“They’re grooming them to be gay,” Oltmann said on a March 15 podcast. “This is a real thing — they are grooming your children so they can molest and abuse them.”
Echoing talking points that have been used by Republicans nationwide to justify legislation like Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, Oltmann blended complaints about sex ed curricula with elements of the QAnon and Pizzagate conspiracy theories, which claim that the government and other institutions are controlled by cabals of Satan-worshipping pedophiles.
“It is unconscionable that we are having these activists inside the schools that are teaching our kids about pedophilia — they’re turning them into pedophiles,” Oltmann said. “They’re normalizing pedophilia.”
Defenders of the Florida legislation have used similar justifications for its crackdown on discussing LGBTQ issues in school. “If you’re against the Anti-Grooming bill,” tweeted DeSantis press secretary Christina Pushaw earlier this month, “you are probably a groomer or at least you don’t denounce the grooming of 4-8 year old children.”
The LGBTQ rights group Equality Florida denounced Pushaw’s tweet as an example of “the same deeply bigoted language that has long been weaponized against LGBTQ people to justify discrimination and violence against us.” In an email to the Florida Phoenix, Pushaw said she was speaking in a personal capacity, but continued to claim that allowing LGBTQ topics to be discussed in school “creates an environment where grooming can happen.”
One Colorado’s Bridges dismissed complaints that the LGBTQ-related revisions to Colorado’s social studies standards are “age inappropriate.” Instead, she said, it’s opponents who are “hyper-sexualizing” the historical figures and groups that the standards aim to include in civics, history and geography lessons.
“There’s nothing age inappropriate about representing the contributions of all folks to the greatness that is the democracy of the United States,” she said.
Only a few years ago, in the wake of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court decision legalizing same-sex marriage, many LGBTQ people and supporters of LGBTQ rights thought a lasting victory had been won for acceptance and inclusivity in the U.S. But amid an ascendant conservative backlash in Colorado and beyond, advocates say they’re disheartened to once again have to face many of the same old bigotries.
“It’s certainly heartbreaking,” said Bridges. “I definitely was one of those folks who thought we were moving in the right direction.”
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